for 27 June 1996. Updated every THURSDAY.



Final Cut

Nowadays, when most young media
connoisseurs hear "Super 8," they
think of a cheap motel. Allude to
moving pictures, and the maven will
probably recognize the "8" to mean
eight millimeters - but then wrongly
imagine you're talking about video.
The format that brought filmic power
to the people is fading from the
popular consciousness, just as
stores of narrow cellulose strips
are slowly fading to white in attics
across America. So, although film
students may weep and gnash their
teeth, it comes as little surprise
that Eastman Kodak is axing more
than half of their few remaining
Super 8 formats, striking all the
sound-capable film from the rolls,
and leaving only a silent minority
of one color and two black-and-white
film cartridges.
When the Super 8 format was
introduced in May 1965, its
ease-of-use was revolutionary. The
all-in-one cartridge plugged easily
into cameras with built-in filters
for daylight or indoor shooting and
automatic light adjustment. The
technology was so simple, even a
bonehead could record recognizable
scenes - and many did.
Suddenly, you didn't have to be a
high-powered film industry exec to
make your own movie - you didn't
even have to have any idea what it
was you wanted to shoot. Unsure of
how to use this new-found power,
people through the next decade made
movies of anything that moved, and
some things that didn't: their kids,
their dogs, what was in their
pockets on a particular day. Some
might recognize a similarity to a
certain revolutionary medium of the
Lenny Lipton, in his 1975 The Super 8
Book, even extolled Super 8
filmmaking as a means of personal
communication and a fundamental
human right. Previously
mild-mannered individuals could bare
their souls and unleash their inner
artistes upon unsuspecting subjects.
Later, after processing, their work
could be displayed to neighbors or
anyone else who could be made to
watch. Although the inept could
still manage to mangle the delicate
film in ferocious auto-loading
projectors, setting up the show was
fairly easy, with only one required
plug-in. The whole process was
relatively painless - except for
those forced to watch. Given the
availability and ease of video
recording today, why shed a tear for
Super 8? That most people now see
film and video as essentially just
different paths up the same mountain
would strike Marshall McLuhan as
particularly odd. (This is fitting,
since McLuhan struck most people as
particularly odd.) He declared, "the
mode of the TV image has nothing in
common with film." The "hot" movie,
he claimed, is always pushing out a
linear thread of high-fidelity
information, and is understandable
only to the literate audience. The
video image, on the other hand,
invites us all to approach it with
cool interactivity.
McLuhan didn't have the chance to
witness the channel-surfing that
made this interactivity explicit and
bolstered his distinction in an
especially literal way. He did,
however, point out the natural
proximity of children to the
television. Taken to the absurd,
these children grow up to move even
closer to the set and address it as
a sensual object, as seen in
Videodrome. (The fact that this
movie - and millions of others - is
itself available on video has
provided an ideal control group of
content for figuring out whether the
medium is indeed the message. The
jury seems to still be out.)
There are some aspects of film and
video that don't require any probing
to distinguish. Light shines though
film to create an image on a screen,
whereas the TV image is composed of
electron-illuminated phosphors that
coat the inner surface of the glass.
A small cadre of people will always
care about this with the same fervor
that drives another cult to defend
"warmer" vacuum tube amplifiers over
the emotionally-bereft transistor -
and pay a hundred times as much for
their warm equipment as they would
for a hot stereo.
Striking closer to home for most -
right in that part of the monthly
budget that's allocated for the
inner artiste - is the fact that
video doesn't require processing
after the shoot. Yet the Camcorder
itself is still costly. The digital
age's answer to this high initial
start-up cost, the camera that
sought to be the Super 8 of video,
was rolled out in 1987 but never got
rolling. The Fisher-Price
Pixelvision PXL 2000, while quite
low-res, was cheap, recorded on
ordinary cassette tapes, and was so
simple a child could use it. But
children didn't, and since it was
marketed in toy stores it completely
flopped. Now, the camera is coveted
by underground filmmakers and sells
for more than twice what Toys 'R Us
hawked it for seven years ago.
While Super 8 is winding down, many
of the old cameras are still around.
A working one can be had for about
$5. A trickle of cartridges is still
dribbling out of Kodak's factories,
and other companies can always make
Super 8 film by splitting 16
millimeter film stock down the
middle. The format will likely
restlessly wander the earth for some
time. After a long while, the image
made by lucent frames flickering
past a lens will seem as quaint as
Edward Muybridge's grainy, staggered
photos of a running horse. Then, the
Super 8 cameras that are now
trundled out at flea markets will
exceed the PXL 2000, and perhaps
even vacuum-tube sound equipment, in
price. Super-specialized labs will
once again fabricate the ancient
film format, and offer processing at
astronomical rates. Which will just
go to show, although you might be
able to beat a dead horse, you sure
can't beat a dead medium.

Words and images courtesy of the