Sunday, July 16, 2006

The Past as Despised and Obsolete

I have spent this afternoon perusing the pages of old journal notebooks, some dating back to 1998. As if unearthing and opening some long-lost time capsule, I find a mysterious interest in exploring these dated personal musings.

But first, I must recall that these notebooks themselves possess their own story, aside from the mere words contained within the mechanical pencil scratchings. The first notebook I examine is a composition book, with a cover of plastic, laminated to a cardboard inner liner. I had begun to notice, after having used this comp book for awhile, that the cover would dramatically warp, when left in the heat of an enclosed car in the hot, summer sun. So I composed a complaining email to the maker of the notebook, explaining my displeasure in the manner in which the plastic cover, laminated to a paper liner, showed a differential temperature expansion of such an extreme nature. I was impressed by my argument, but supposed nothing would come of my complaint.

Imagine my surprise when, a few weeks later, a package arrived in the mail, containing a stack of college-ruled comp books with the traditional, non-warping heavy cardboard cover.

I began at once to use these books as an ongoing journal of my inner thought-life on the subjects of the visual arts, photography, and low-resolution, despised video formats.

Through a background as a professional consumer electronics technician I had gained an interest in exploring the low end of the technology spectrum as a potential intersection point with the historic roots of cinema.

Thinking about the technical requirements for creating a black and white silent film, for instance, one becomes immediately impressed that all the equipment required to produce a movie equivalent to a mid-1920's silent film are contained within the plastic enclosure of the consumer-grade camcorder: mere jump cuts, no need for lip-syncing of audio, no special effects necessary and lack of color temperature problems. It would appear that sub-format consumer grade video is firmly grounded as a creative tool for cinematic expression.

And that is just what I wrote about in those journals. Along with the prosumer grade Super-VHS editing VCR as a tool for creating the final assembly of in-camera footage onto a finished S-VHS master tape, I also advocated the use of a micro-cassette audio tape recorder for the collection of various location sounds and narration, to be later included into the finished video production.

My interest in "U-cass" tape recorders dates back to the mid-1970s, when I purchased my first tape player at a military base exchange overseas. Much derided for its apparent lack of fidelity, the U-cass format has survived to this day, and all of the tapes that I made in the 70s are still playable today, with virtually no loss of fidelity. In the era when these old journals were written - the late 1990s, a seeming technological lifetime ago - mainstream consumer video editing had already transitioned to the computer-based formats, so even then it seems that I was already exploring the role of the technological pariah.

I had the opportunity to make a talk to a local university film class on creative video production using low-end, despised formats, and also conducted a seminar on low-budget video production sponsored by Basement Films, a local micro-cinema organization. I had developed, throughout the pages of those composition books, the basis for a solid philosophical foundation to support my belief in lo-fi A/V, and felt motivated to evangelize the nascent film community to my new-found approach, which was so out of place in the cutting-edge culture of the media studies crowd.

So what has become of those numerous ideas for creative videos in the domain of lo-fi A/V? Many of them did become finished productions, with an equal number having never been realized, or merely residing in various dormant states of incompletion. The biggest challenge in the future is ensuring that the hardware itself remains in a state of repair such that these tools can be once again powered up and modulated with the harmonious waveforms of the low-resolution, despised audio/visual electronic formats of the past.

And perhaps therein lies the key to my fascination with this obsolete technology: recording sounds and images using the equipment of an earlier era provides a tangible yet ethereal connecting thread with the ever-present past, that resides in those memories so near and yet so very far away.

I am reminded of the android character in the movie "Blade Runner", whose desperation with the lack of a truly human past caused him to collect an assortment of oddly-familiar snapshots, an almost holy personal photographic shrine to a legacy that never was.~

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~Joe

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