Pandora’s Digital Box – David Bordwell on the Development of Digital Cinema

A great cultural upheaval like the digitisation of cinema may tempt academics to bury it under a heap of ontological theory. This makes it all the more refreshing that it is an academic of all people, who has now published one of the most grounded accounts of the topic.

The American film studies guru David Bordwell, wo renewed the popularity of formalist film analysis in the 80s, first approached the digital changeover in a series of blog entries, which he has now assembled and reworked in a compact eBook for Sale on his site. With a real reporter’s spirit, Bordwell set out to learn about the changes on the very scenes they happened – in arthouses and multiplexes, with organizers of film festivals and overseers of film archives.

Especially these last two chapters allow for surprising insights into the work of institutions that even cinephiles rarely get to see the other side of. Bordwell describes the almost insurmountable chaos of formats in the booth of a festival projectionist, as well as the enormous effort, the costs and problems with data compatibility that figure in the digital storage of movies. All this, the Wisconscin professor enriches with journalistic background knowledge; he describes the institutional and economic history of the changeover without any frills and sketches the moves and motivations in the big business of film, or in this case – as the subtitle of the book makes clear – files.

Bordwell avoids choosing a clear side in the ongoing debate – even if his affection clearly rests with celluloid, or rather: acetate. As he points out in the introduction, he feels mostly excited about the fact that as a film historian, he finally gets a chance to witness a historic paradigm shift first hand. Istead of just reconstructing the details and the feel of such a change after the fact through a series of educated academic guesses, he enjoys being right in the middle of it – as a sort of embedded student of cinema. And he succeeds outstandingly.

“Pandora’s Digital Box: Films, Files and the Future oF Movies” is available for $3.99 from

A different, German version of this review appeared in epd film 7/2012.

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