Film as Matter (or, Against Indexicality)
by Matthew Stoddard — University of Minnesota
August 31, 2012 – 00:00
A large part of media nostalgia today is comprised of nostalgia for cinema. Particularly prevalent in the last decade is nostalgia for the materiality of film. One popular example is the digitally produced “damaged” prints of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s Grindhouse (2007). In experimental cinema, there is Bill Morrison’s Decasia (2002)—see clip to left—built from decaying nitrate prints. This form of nostalgia is also prevalent in aspects of the increasingly popular fields of film restoration and film preservation. The most immediate context of this nostalgia is, of course, the proliferation of new imaging technologies.
At the same time as the often-reactionary discourse of the immateriality of the digital image, and the so-called digital age more generally, pushes invocations of materiality towards the past, the growing interest in what is broadly called new materialism looks to the present and to the future. New materialism, which refers to an array of interlocking discourses, including complexity theory, posthumanism, object-oriented ontology, and biopolitics, offers a different route into materiality. Placing celluloid in dialogue with these strains of thought, and hence within the open systems that compose the vibrant plane of matter, the (latest) turn to the materiality of film might be partially disengaged from its backward-looking connotations and offer something new. To do so also requires sidestepping the index. Indeed, in film studies the recent interest in the materiality of cinema, and much of its nostalgia, has been repeatedly folded into a renewed interest in indexicality. While the index invokes contiguity between film and the surrounding world, this contiguity is constrained by the basic causality of imprinting—nostalgia for a Newtonian universe, perhaps. Furthermore, the ontological claims attached to the index can weaken the notion of such contiguity by constructing too rigid of an identity for cinema—nostalgia for a discipline, perhaps.
Beyond the index and beyond nostalgia, what might constitute a new materialism of cinema? What if celluloid were to be approached as von Uexküll approaches the tick? An ethology of celluloid? Or, to use Ian Bogost’s phrase: an “alien phenomenology” of celluloid? How might a film like Decasia appear in this light?
 This nostalgia is certainly nothing new. In its historical breadth nostalgia for the cinema might very well be the matrix for all other current forms of media nostalgia.