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Digital Video Aesthetics and The Celebration

by Ryne Hodkowski

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What is so remarkable about Festen, is that after seeing the film, it is hard to imagine it shot on anything but digital video.  Even more remarkable, the film is the first Dogme95 film, and it immediately breaks one of the rules that Vinterberg and Von Trier created; that all films be shot on 35 mm.   


The handheld digital camera adds to the overall aesthetic of the film.  The film is about a family reunion, and what better way to present the material, than to make it look like a home movie?  We can see in the shots in this trailer and select scene that the camera, in addition to being digital, is nearly never placed on a tripod or even held remotely stable.


Willis mentions that “the film’s formal style mirrors the story, discerning moments of roughhewn beauty within a new palette of cinematic colour and creating a surprising degree of intimacy via Dod Mantle’s cinematography, which achieves imagery that hovers in style between the voyeurism of documentary and the seemingly innocent curiosity of home video,” (Willis, 26).   I think we see all of these factors in play here in the bellhop scene.


The frantic camera movements and herky-jerky motions help create a sense of chaos and disarray that is mirroring the disarray the family is and will be in when the big secret is revealed.  Notice in the bellhop scene, the camera is positioned behind the bellhop, focusing on the black haired gentlemen, Michael, and is constantly moving as if held by an amateur.  In any classic Hollywood film, this scene would use tripods to create a stable camera.  Instead, this unstable camera is important, as it reflects the anger and fury in Michael, and foreshadows the unstable relationships between he and the rest of the family. 


So why is this important?  The decision to shoot the film on a handheld digital camera, and present it in this way, is just as important as The Blair Witch Project’s decision to do the same, or the role of the handheld camera in Cloverfield’s narrative.    If shot on 35 mm, with stable and set-up cameras, The Blair Witch Project would not look the same, would not be as scary, and certainly would lose its marketing edge.  If you haven’t seen Festen, it is good, but despite what the film’s trailer might lead you to believe, it is not a thriller or overburdened with drama.  It is the decision to shoot with a miniDV camera that makes the film so interesting and different.


The debate with digital has always seemed to be the sacrifice in quality for the speed and ease at which you can view materials and edit.  What many have failed to realize is that by shooting on digital, and using a handheld camera the way Vinterberg does, you can create a whole new aesthetic and feel to the movie, one that is impossible to duplicate on 35 mm film (combined with other elements of the Dogme95 unit, such as no artificial lighting).  It is refreshing to see at 2:12 in the bellhop scene, when we see the sister lighting a cigarette, that due to the lighting in the car, we cannot see her face at all.  Anyone who has shot before would certainly consider this a disaster, but in the rules of the Dogme95 unit, and with the aesthetics of digital, handheld cameras, this is acceptable, and important.  Shooting this way creates a new aesthetic, and also creates potential for new narratives and ideas to emerge from the filmmaker, whether it is a Hollywood film meant to look cheap, or an independent Do-It-Yourself Filmmaker shooting on a $30,000 budget.

The Celebration Trailer

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The Celebration Trailer

from The Celebration (1998)
Creator: Thomas Vinterberg
Distributor: Youtube
Posted by Survey of Interactive Media