March/April 2011
Thomas Beard


A Condensed Survey of the Digest Film

VHS, 30, dies of loneliness. The headline was for an obituary run by Variety in November 2006, one of many nods to the format as it entered its twilight. Critics waxed nostalgic, weighed in on the aesthetics of analog video, debunked the myth that “everything is available on DVD.” But never mentioned in these considerations—indeed, barely remembered at all—was the previous chapter in the history of home viewing: the digest film. Among cinema’s most compellingly illegitimate objects, and once widely available in department stores, camera shops, and mail-order catalogs, digests were heavily edited versions of feature films. Bumped down from 35 mm to 8 mm, they were often cut to around seven to ten minutes so as to fit on a single reel, even stripped of color and sound. The first such reductions were repurposed westerns released by Castle Films in 1947, and the practice continued through the early 1980s (titles like Marketing Film International’s seventeen-minute Raiders of the Lost Ark would be the last of their kind). Unwieldy visions of their parent material, digest films were always ridiculous, and sometimes sublime. Below, a sampling.

The Godfather from Hong Kong
(Shu Mei Chin, 1974)

Original: unknown length
Digest: 7 minutes, 18 seconds

In her essay on Walter Benjamin, discussing his love for things diminutive, Susan Sontag wrote, “To miniaturize means to make useless. For what is so grotesquely reduced is, in a sense, liberated from its meaning—its tininess being the outstanding thing about it. It is both a whole (that is, complete) and a fragment (so tiny, the wrong scale). It becomes an object of disinterested contemplation or reverie.” Likewise, digest films are set free, for with narrative all but evacuated, a different sort of looking becomes not only possible but inevitable. Yet these films are not like other trinkets. They are doubly wrong, doubly fragments, deforming scale—images are quartered and cleaved from 35 mm, the gauge of Hollywood, to 8 mm, the gauge of the home—as well as content and form. To miniaturize in this instance is not to make precious but rather to vulgarize thoroughly. Genres such as Japanese monster movies (kaiju) and kung-fu pictures (like The Godfather from Hong Kong) were among the most completely deranged, often undergoing repeated acts of translation and retranslation, first dubbed and recut for theatrical release in stateside grindhouses, then further abstracted by their shift to the digest. Martial-arts films become hysterical ballets, studies in the radical dilation and contraction of film time; a flying kick is luxuriated upon in slow motion while the montage, unrelenting, blisters forth.

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Thomas Beard is a founder and director of Light Industry, a venue for film and electronic art in Brooklyn.

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