Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Sabrina Negri reviews From Grain to Pixel

Giovanna Fossati, From Grain to Pixel: The Archival Life of Film in Transition. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2018. 423 pp.

Review by Sabrina Negri

16 October 2019

Is digital cinema still cinema? Does digital technology break the indexical bond between the photographic image and phenomenological reality? Does the entity that we have always called "cinema" even exist anymore, or has it been superseded by an endless web of different forms of production and reception of moving images where cinema's specificity is lost? When Giovanna Fossati's From Grain to Pixel was first published in 2009, the recent introduction of digital technology had given these questions a privileged place within film theory. In the wealth of research that was published on the transformation of cinema in the digital age, Fossati's perspective stood out as radically new: combining her theoretical subtlety as a scholar with her expertise as a film curator and preservationist, Fossati approached the new wave of studies on cinema's ontology as a means of creating a new theory of archival practice, thus bridging the long-lamented gap between Academia and film archives.

Fossati's main argument is that cinema has always been a medium in technological transition, and therefore that the transition to digital is less a point of rupture than a step in a continuous process that, in itself, constitutes the essence of cinema. She proves her point by looking at the everyday practices of various film archives and showing how, even before the advent of digital technology, their curatorial choices have always been guided by theoretical frameworks based on different ideas of what cinema is and how its objects should be approached. Fossati identifies five of these frameworks (six in the new edition) and shows how, while the adoption of digital tools for film restoration and preservation has certainly been influential, it did not foster radical changes as the frameworks have always been adapting to cinema's continuous technological transition. Fossati's perspective as a preservationist is key to her theoretical system, insofar as film archives are the institutions that most directly deal with technological transitions, both current and past, and therefore have a privileged bird-eye view on the process as it has developed in history.

Ten years after its first publication, the relevance of Fossati's From Grain to Pixel remains untouched and its third revised edition is a precious opportunity to revisit her theories and test them against the passing of time in an era of frantic technological changes. Rather than rewriting her book to bring it up to date with the latest developments in digital technology, Fossati leaves the previous version unmodified and adds several updates to each chapter––a choice in line with her background as a preservationist, showing the various layers of a work that exists in history and therefore reflects the state of technology at different times. Furthermore, the opportunity to read the previous version alongside the updates reaffirms the strength of Fossati's theories, which remain valid despite the explosion of digital tools for film archiving and restoration in the last decade. Particularly stimulating is Fossati's new conclusion, which opens up new research avenues integrating archival practices with film theory and historiography, thus proving that film archiving needs film theory as much as the other way around.