Review: ‘Digital Babylon, Hollywood, Indiewood and Dogme 95’

If you're keen to shoot a digital video feature and make contacts, check out this book for hot tips, horror stories and useful phone numbers. If you're looking for a smooth-as-silk read, prepare to be ruffled.

If you’re keen to shoot a digital video feature and make contacts, check out this book for hot tips, horror stories and useful phone numbers. If you’re looking for a smooth-as-silk read, prepare to be ruffled.

Throughout “Digital Babylon: Hollywood, Indiewood and Dogme 95,” author Shari Roman, film editor for Flaunt magazine, swings open production company doors to investigate the past, present and future of digital video cinema and looks at the vague possibility of film’s decline. Reading something like a thoughtful film professor’s stapled-together classroom packet, the book compiles essays by and interviews with an impressive list of producers, directors, cinematographers and critics — among them Variety senior film critic Todd McCarthy.

As these insiders wage bets on the so-called digital revolution, it’s fun to watch the opinions fly. In an introduction, French New Wave legend Jean-Luc Godard, who began working with video in the ’70s, gets grouchy. “Video can be used for its uniqueness,” he writes, “but in my opinion, rarely is.” Later, Wim Wenders contributes an optimistic essay in which he happily observes that the digital revolution “is reconstructing cinema from scratch.”

Roman’s writing style is admirably enthusiastic, and she asks questions in rapid-fire rhythm — “Did you shoot a lot of tape?” “Why were you drawn to DV?” “What’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten?” — arraying a postmodern patchwork of conflicting ideas and endless creative possibilities. When she breezily asks Jim Jarmusch, “Off the top of your head, what do you find most frightening?” she is flirting with irrelevance, but it’s a nice impromptu moment. “Earthquakes,” he replies. “They really scare me.”

Interviews with the Dogme 95 collective make up the book’s most readable segment. In these pages, Lars von Trier tells Roman he takes comfort in the idea of a strict rulebook, in part because his parents were anti-religious, rule-breaking hippies.

Dogme 95, the part-serious, part- publicity-stunt manifesto drawn up by high-profile Danish directors von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, binds filmmakers to a list of rules — no unnatural lighting, no post-production sound, etc. — aimed to force directors to discover fresh approaches. The critical success of these projects has changed the way we judge all movies shot on video, according to the majority of Roman’s interviewees, making DV features a hot property at festivals as well as major studios.

Jason Kliot, co-founder of Blow Up Pictures (“Chuck and Buck,” “Series 7”), tells Roman, “We realized that in a way it was ‘The Celebration’ that kindled it all … that is was possible to go out and shoot a digital feature that could look great and be well received.”

This collage of opinions is a pioneering survey of the inchoate digital landscape. A small battle rages — film vs. DV — but video, according to Roman, is holding strong. Some people may be turned off by the medium’s flat, grainy quality: Steven Spielberg says he’ll work on film until the last lab shuts down. Others, including George Lucas, swear video can convey the warm specificity of celluloid.

Roman herself promises film is far from finished, but she schools wannabes that DV is cheaper, holds up longer on movie screens and is getting better all the time. You can almost hear her implore readers, “Got two thousand bucks? Just digitize!”

Digital Babylon, Hollywood, Indiewood and Dogme 95

IFilm; 228 pgs.; $19.95


By Shari Roman
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