Constraint as Liberation in the Era of Digital Film Theory

A bold experiment in film theory for the digital era.


In an era of rapid transformation from analog to digital, how can we write about cinema in ways that are as fresh, surprising, and challenging as the best films are? In 10/40/70 Nicholas Rombes proposes one bold possibility: pause a film at the 10, 40, and 70-minute mark and write about the frames at hand, no matter what they are. This method of constraint—by eliminating choice and foreclosing on authorial intention—allows the film itself to dictate the terms of its analysis freed from the tyranny of pre-determined interpretation. Inspired by Roland Barthes’s notion of the “third meaning” and its focus on the film frame as an image that is neither a photograph nor a moving image, Rombes assumes the role of image detective, searching the frames for clues not only about the films themselves—drawn from a wide range of genres and time periods—but the very conditions of their existence in the digital age.


For Nicholas Rombes, every film is an oracle. In 10/40/70, he proposes a new method of divination: stop the film at arbitrary points, and give a careful account of what you see. The result may be an intense formal analysis, or a new appreciation of narrative subtleties, or a kind of emotional weather report, or a dense train of subjective memories and associations. But in every case, Rombes uncovers unsuspected depths, and shows us cinema in a strange new light. ~ Steven Shaviro, Author of Post Cinematic Affect and Doom Patrols

With his 10/40/70 essays, Nicholas Rombes breaks the habitual cycles of film criticism, forcing himself to approach familiar films from odd angles. He delegates to chance the task of selecting a film’s defining images, and the results are a series of revealing observations about movies caught unawares; often, he finds new points of entry to films we all think we know inside out. 10/40/70 can find a film’s vulnerable spots, those moments we rarely notice, whose significance we only gather in freeze-framed close readings. Sometimes the images are well known fragments of the iconic scenes that comprise our shared film culture, but more frequently, they are the unsung or incidental pieces that hold a film together, unassuming but always ripe for re-examination. By bringing into focus these triptychs of framegrabs, Rombes finds fresh perspectives on well-known movies, and demonstrates that there may be riches buried in their every frame if we compel ourselves to look. ~ Dan North, Author of Performing Illusions: Cinema, Special Effects and the Virtual Actor

Rombes dives into the self-imposed constraints of his critical project with both feet, and the result is an innovative splash. Arguing that "digital desire" predated digital cinema, this experiment in film writing pushes readers to re-frame our critical practices and to embrace new cinematic experiences and interpretive acts. We need more books like this. ~ Julia Leyda, Sophia University, Japan

Nicholas Rombes
Nicholas Rombes Nicholas Rombes is a writer and Professor of English at the University of Detroit Mercy in Detroit. He is author of Cinema in the Digital Ag...
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