Once Upon a Time in Mexico

An account on the difference between celluloid and the nowaday omnipresent digital film experience by Mats Carlsson.

I would argue that the fear of the digital (felt by some) and the claim of a different feel attributable to the digitalized watching experience, grounds itself on a level other than that of actual perception. What we have here is a problem of symbolism. This might sound theoretical and vague, however our language and understanding of ourselves and reality are mediated at the level of the sign.

Russian Ark

Where the photographic image in one frame of film stock is born out of the inscription of light, via a chemical reaction, the digital camera records light electronically. The intermediary, in the form of a computer, organizes this information into digital data. Herein lies the obvious, fundamental difference between the two mediums, not in the perception of the finished image. What do I try to claim here? Well, along the line of Baudrillardian thought and good old-fashioned semiotics, the photographic film image is to be seen as the signifier, that which refers to the event that unfolded in front of the camera. Following this logic the event itself would be the signified; the filmic image and the event together forming a complete sign as it were. However, this process is halted when the inscription of light is interrupted by the interpretation of the computer (the interpretation of light by the intermediary). Between the event and image something is added or subtracted, depending on one’s outlook.


This is the subversion of the digital revolution, not the subversion of images, but of reality itself. This may sound very scary – as if a dystopia of falseness has fallen upon us – all in the guise of the flowering of technology. However, this isn’t necessarily the case. We must remember that reality as such is our’s for the making. The semiological system of signifier, signified and sign, our way of communicating and interpreting the real, is changing.

Is this the transcendence or ruining of reality? One thing is certain, the installment of digital representations of reality reads the implosion of the sign as we know it. What is experienced today is an implosion: the signifier and the signified, one and the same.

Mats Carlsson is an undergraduate at the Department of Media Studies at Stockholm University, his special interests include psychoanalysis, phenomenology and critical theory applied within the framework of cinema in particular and the broader media landscape in general.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *