[25 April 2012]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Age doesn’t necessarily define a person. Attitude does. In equal measure, complaints don’t teach us about our world. They teach us about ourselves. When you combine the two, you end up with a myriad of misleading indicators. Curmudgeon. Coot. Angry old man. These are just a few of the terms used to describe the 51 year old, ten years in the business writer typing these words. Coming from a decidedly old school, five decades plus in the making, one is often regarded as out of touch and far too crotchety. Part of the problem is the tired “cultural contradiction” cliche - you know…the one that usually starts out “Music was better in my day” or “Movies were better in my day.“Add in the appropriate medium and the standard miserable message and you’ve got someone who feels lost in a world that, at a previous point, they helped make and maintain.
After reading how James Cameron and George Lucas are pushing theater owners to covert to digital (and with it, 3D), I am reminded of my first big battle with technology. As an early adopter of VHS, I was shocked to see my friends going Beta. As they crowed about their superior image and relative cost, I bit my lip and bought copies of current movies for up to $90 a pop (I still have the original Easy Money, starring Rodney Dangerfield, that I paid $80 to own). My future father in law even came back from New York City with the just released VHS of Star Wars. At $120, it seemed like a bargain. As my VCR continued its late ‘70s/early ‘80s dominance of the market, the slaves to Sony finally succumbed. In this battle between prototypes, I was on the winning side. It’s been that way ever since…up until now, that is.
I jumped on the Walkman bandwagon before anyone could imagine a need for portable music. My Apple IIe got me through the hellish last two years of law school. I hit on CDs the minute they made it to the marketplace, struggling against limited selection (and, again, inflated prices) to experience sound without the various inferred flaws of analog. While I never went so far as to by a reel-to-reel tape deck, or that weird little recordable digital disc thing, I felt I was consistently on the cutting edge. Heck, I still have my laserdisc player and a selection of coveted, OOP discs. Yes, even as DVD argued for a rebooting of my entire film collection (hundreds of oversized cassettes and counting), I was quick to embrace the next scientific breakthrough coming down the commercial pipeline. Again, until now.
For what it’s worth, I hate the new, disposable nature of art. I can’t stand books on tablets or films on handheld smartphones. Have I indulged in each of these advances, even falling for new fetishes like Angry Birds, Plants vs. Zombies, and immediate access to email? Absolutely. Am I happy about where all this portability is taking us? Hell no. The question, of course, is why? Why am I so bothered by the current trends in miniaturization? Well, I could quote a personal hero, filmmaker David Lynch, and expand on his expletive filled denouncement of experiencing cinema on a five inch screen. I could even go so far as to call the viewing of movies on a tiny device antithetical to the artform. After all, in the earliest days of celluloid, the Penny Arcade provided stand-up machines where a magnifying glass would ‘enhance’ a small several second flip book.
Ever since then, movies have tried to grow bigger, not smaller. No one was sitting around the great studios during the industry’s Golden Age and thought, “You know what would be a good idea? A pocket sized presentation.” Instead, concepts like Cinemascope and Todd-O-Vision were carted out, the better to battle against those who were starting to succumb to late show reruns on tiny TVs. Oddly enough, as the decades flew by, the boob tube became massive. Today, no household is without a formidable flat screen at least three times bigger than the standard cathode ray tube tuner they used to own. Yet within the multiplexing and micromanaging of the current business model, theaters have shrunk and aspect ratio has retrograded.
I blame Jerry Lewis. No, really. The genius funnyman invented video playback, that once supplemental and now mandatory directing tool which allowed filmmakers, for the first time, to view their dailies without having to wait for the development of the day’s work. Instantly, on a small screen next to the camera, the auteur could see what they were shooting and adjust accordingly. On the plus side, production costs and time on set were drastically reduced. On the negative, the artist’s eye shrunk. Indeed, by the time the multimillion dollar blockbusters rolled around, craftsmen were creating movies that mimicked what they saw in the monitor, not how it would translate onto a 70 foot scrim.
Filmmakers like Michael Bay and Paul Greengrass are often accused of being slaves to the video assist. They make films that require so much distance away from the screen to truly get the gist of their ‘vision’ that watching them on TV (or something smaller) makes perfect sense. Even better, framing and compositional issues are often filtered through the basic dimensions of the television. Back when DVD first came out, the square 1.33:1 aspect ratio was championed as “family friendly.” Today, only the most lame of lingering hold-outs debate the need to go against the intended 16x9 design.
It’s also a lack of commitment and passion on the part of the younger generation that irks me. Having grown up with easy access to their favorite entertainment (unlike the teens of the ‘60s and ‘70s, who had to hope for a revival or a rerelease of their favorite film to experience it again), they’ve started to take it for granted. A movie is no longer an experience, it’s something to sit through while you text, take phone calls, and update your social media status. Even better, it’s become a tired tag-along, something to keep the kids quiet in the back on the car or to wile away a few minutes while you wait in line for a latte. For today’s consumer, access is more important than aesthetics. They would gladly trade the perfectly projected image of a legitimate theatrical screening for a pocket filled with possibilities.
Three decades ago, music was measured out in 20 minute-plus sides. Then it went to tapes that could handle up to 120 minutes of material. CDs reduced the time a bit, but offered up superior (?) sound quality. Now, an IPad holds hundreds of songs, dozens of TV shows, and a similar amount of movies. It’s like walking into a former retail heavyweight like Tower Records and saying “Please.” It doesn’t come without a downside, however. Without choice, there is no consideration. Without limits, options become meaningless. As a direct result, the delivery system suffers. Why do you think places like Borders and Blockbuster shuttered? Crappy corporate operations aside, no one today wants to be told what to watch or listen to. Instead, they’ve become the Veruca Salt’s of substance. They want it all, and they want it now - preferably, in a personal ‘cloud.’
I could console myself that it’s there loss. I could argue that I too suffer similarly, having amassed a titanic DVD/Blu-ray and MP3 collection over my years as a critic. But in watching the market bend over backwards to cater to those who couldn’t care less, they are robbing those of us who do. Perhaps that’s why someone like Tim League and his Alamo Drafthouse are so beloved by true film fans. They revere the old ways while acknowledging the need to keep up with at least some of the technological changes.
For me, the entire argument can be wrapped up in a single significant memory. It happened recently. Huddled in like veal, row after row of invited guests and ticketed patrons glued to the biggest screen in the chain, we watched as the last few minutes of Christopher Nolan’s epic Inception played out. The audience was with the movie all the way and you could feel the tension in the air. As the ending played out, spinning top signifying the movie’s final mystery, the screen went dark. From 400 plus mouths, a single sharp ‘gasp’ rose up. Nolan had hooked us and the beauty of such immersive group speak indicated his success. It was magic. It was part of the presentation. It is now being nullified. After all, you’ll never get that watching his work on a IPhone. Sadly, it’s apparently the state and shape of things to come.