As Louis Ferdinand Céline once said, “Those who talk about the future are scoundrels.” Perhaps he was too hard on our inveterate prognosticators. Yet there has been a lot of questionable talk about the rise of digital media and the future of cinema, predicting the death of indexicality, the loss of the referent, and the “post-photographic era,” for example. Well, digital cinema has arrived, and as far as I can tell, spectators are still taking digital images as photographic evidence, as is true in the case of the Academy Award-winning documentary film The Cove (2009), for example.
The Cove documents the herding and killing of dolphins for meat in a small cove in Taijii, Japan. The filmmakers traveled to Japan, where they used digital cameras, including surveillance cameras, to record confrontations between the documentary crew and local fishermen and to clandestinely record the killing of the dolphins. When the documentary was recently screened in Japan, local demonstrators claimed that the film was anti-Japanese and that it unfairly criticized a traditional way of life. The screening of The Cove caused a nationwide discussion of free speech in Japan. Yet the film’s critics did not question the film’s images as evidence, but rather objected to the way that the images were used in the making of a broader argument with which they do not agree. No audiences or reviewers that I am aware of have questioned the evidentiary status of the images in The Cove based on their genesis in digital technologies. I don’t read Japanese (and am not privy to all of the discussion), but so far as I can tell, the fact that the images were produced digitally is simply not an issue.
Where can we look for some guidance about the implications of digital cinema? The philosopher Berys Gaut, in his new book A Philosophy of Cinematic Art, provides a useful guide to those implications. This book covers many issues in the philosophy of cinema, and you can read my review here in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. In his book Gaut clearly details the salient issues that philosophers and film theorists have so far grappled with. What sets this book apart is Gaut’s careful attention to how the old debates about traditional cinema relate to new forms of cinema, and especially digital cinema and video games (which he calls, in a move sure to raise the eyebrows of video game scholars, “interactive cinema”). He discusses digital cinema in relation to film as an art, language, realism, authorship, narration, and medium-specificity.
Yet despite the book’s overall good sense, on the issue of digital images as evidence, Gaut sides with the prognosticators when he claims that digital images lack credibility as evidence. Gaut follows Flint Schier in his claim that photographs are “naturally generative,” that is, they are not purely conventional. And of course, many others have taken similar positions on the indexical nature of the photograph. Digital images, Gaut says, can have natural generativity, but the digital image is a “mélange image” which can be made by hand, by photographic capture, or by computer synthesis (70). He writes, “the handmade elements and computer synthesis introduce elements into the digital photograph that are capable of undetectable manipulation” (70). How much of this can be allowed into a picture before it ceases to be a photograph? Gaut says that we can’t tell. His conclusion is that the rise of the digital photograph threatens photographic credibility.
This leads us back to The Cove. Has anyone questioned the evidential status of the digital images of The Cove? And if not, does this show that Gaut is wrong about the credibility of digital images, or that audiences for the film are simply naïve? In my opinion, the images in the film are good evidence. Thus I’d be inclined to say that Gaut’s claims about digital images and credibility must be wrong somehow. Perhaps these predictions of the death of indexicality will come true at some time in the future. But for now, it hasn’t happened yet.
Among other things, audiences believe what they see in a documentary based on more than the images themselves. They also consider the source and the credibility of the argument. Thus digital photographs from a credible source may have significant worth as evidence, whereas digital images presented by a known scoundrel or a politician will have less credibility. After all, many communications that we believe have no indexical images at all, but are purely the verbal reports of journalists, scholars, and observers. If we believe them, we do so because we trust the source, or believe that relevant institutional controls are in place to check on reliability. Thus even if, at some point in the future, digital images bear no more evidentiary force than words, we will still be able to take some documentary films as reliable sources of information. But clearly that time has not yet come. I believe The Cove; I hope I haven’t been deceived.
Flint Schier, Deeper Into Pictures: An Essay on Pictorial Representation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).
Berys Gaut, A Philosophy of Cinematic Art (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).