Digital Cinephilia: Terminal Velocity
by Brian Wall — Binghamton University
December 10, 2012 – 00:00
I work at Binghamton University, and my peregrinations often bring me through the hallway where Ernie Gehr shot Serene Velocity (1970). My passage through that passage always prompts a shiver, and occasionally a question of whether I am even moving at all. But also a sadness.
Speaking of Gehr’s History (1970)—but equally applicable to Serene Velocity—Tom Gunning writes, “An almost ascetic paring down of means can yield a nearly infinite return in perceptual riches.” My students do not always appreciate what Gehr’s camera conjures out of a bleak corridor—but at least they have the opportunity, due my department’s possession of a worn but serviceable 16mm print. Each time I screen it I become more aware of its finitude and fragility, in contrast to its evocation of timelessness and placelessness; and I wonder when this singular film—and its perceptual riches—will be unavailable to me, to students, to the future.
Serene Velocity and Michael Snow’s Wavelength (1967) both have been recently restored, and so seem relatively secure. But amid the celebratory tone that accompanies much digital cinephilia—triumphal assertions of the democratization of cinematic culture, despite the stranglehold that Netflix, Apple and a few others maintain over distribution and selection in the digital domain—it needs to be said that Serene Velocity and Wavelength will never stream to your phone, for aesthetic and economic reasons. Although Serene Velocity is available on YouTube, it’s not even a poor substitute—it’s a parody, evacuating the sense in which this film is, finally, about film. Hilariously, Tony McCall’s Line Describing a Cone (1973) is also on YouTube, its monolithic sculptural volume squashed like a bug. These are emphatically medium-specific works, and Snow for one has rejected outright the transposition of his films to digital formats. And if these canonical films have merited restorations, there remain hundreds of equally vital films that have gone without—not even to speak of digitization, which might be welcomed in many cases—because the money and the potential for profit, however construed, are not there.
Digital cinephilia celebrates how film travels across immaterial networks, but Serene Velocity, Wavelength and so very many more are not going anywhere, left behind because of their intransigent and intrinsic status as films. Whatever the benefits of the digital, whatever pleasure accessibility brings, my own affect in response to digital distribution and access is a sadness for what will be lost.