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Depth of Field: Home Video's True Legacy

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Sunday, Sep 17, 2006


Going back to the days when Beta battled VHS for market dominance, film fans have had a veritable love/hate relationship with the concept of home video. At first, machines were sold on their ability to record. In an era of limited broadcast options and inadequate cable coverage, the notion of being able to ‘tape’ and then playback a favorite program or sporting event held an overpowering mystique. Audiences accustomed to suffering through the summer subjected to untold reruns and failed replacement series could now rummage through their own collection and create their own entertainment experience. In fact, most of the original video retailers used the “why let others tell you what to watch when you can choose your own viewing” ideal to interest buyers. It was hailed as a revolution. Thirty years later, it’s had a far more regressive, radical effect.


Now, before you get the wrong idea, this is not going to be yet another rant about how watching films in the comfort of your home has ruined the in theater experience. You won’t find links being made to the leisurely, living room approach to entertainment and the frequent social slip-ups that fill up the local Cineplex. Granted, home video has forged a lax sense of acceptable behavior, especially from children who are used to the television playing the role of chief babysitter, friend, sidekick, etiquette instructor and background noise. So naturally they transfer their jittery juvenile energy to the stadium seat experience. We shouldn’t be surprised when kids clamor for attention, run up and down the aisles and treat the cinema as their home. For most, there is no difference – except for the lowered lights and gathering of unidentifiable strangers. It’s the reason restaurants once “discouraged” family dining and pointed to protocol as their explanation. Children are still learning the proper decorum.


Does this excuse the adults who talk during the significant plot points, field cell phone calls during the drama and basically conduct all manner of interpersonal and professional business as the rest of the audience adjusts, or simply joins in? Is that really home theater’s fault? In truth, the answer is no. Blame other technology - in fact, we should be afraid of such scientific shunts in our necessary social interaction. For eons, the main reason people went to the movies was to mingle with their fellow film fans and experience something communal; to connect with the outside by sharing something with like minded individuals. Now, while it’s true that the VCR put a dent in such a design (more on this in a moment), it’s the computer age that really flummoxed such a mutual mission.


For ages, only doctors and important business types demanded unqualified access to communication. They needed to be and required being in touch with their employment or office not out of convenience, but out of necessity. A missed call and a patient could be hospitalized or deceased, a deal dying or dead. So limited access to entertainment events became part of the job. You suffered through a concert knowing that your oversized beeper would go off at any moment, and purposefully avoided situations – like sold out showings of the recent hit film – out of courtesy for others, and consideration for your career. But not today. People are married to their personal contact devices, divorcing themselves from reality as they text-message a random thought during the second act denouement, complete with an attached camera-phone image to prove they really are “at the movies”. In the realm of viscous cycling, the wireless industry has the world brainwashed. You didn’t need a pocket organizer with Internet access until they said you did, and now you’ve become so reliant on it’s level of novel interactivity, you can’t be without it.


No, if you want to point an appropriate finger at the home video craze and lionize it for some adverse effect on the art of cinema, the accusation is painfully simple: the VCR created a nation of amateur film scholars and critics. In fact, it’s so hard to remember what it was like even at the outset of the video revolution that many would laugh at such a sentiment. Yet the truth is evident from the current culture of the web. As recently as the 1970’s film was considered an artform, right up there with the novel, music and the rest of the humanities. In order to study it though, to really get to know it, you had to do what most people do to gain such knowledge – you had to go to school. Most people prior to VHS didn’t have revival houses in their neighborhood, and almost all were exposed to classic films during the Late Late Movie, weekend afternoons and the occasional network television premiere. No one saw original edits of their favorites – they witnessed censored prints cut for time and subject matter.


Cable was the first alternative to change the viewing dynamic of the public. Via a pay channel, you could see Hollywood films the way they were presented in the theater. You could consider the violence, explore the erotica and hear all the expletives that the FCC and MPAA tried to protect you from. But better yet, you got a chance to revisit a favorite title without the burden of waiting for the actual moviemaking business to reintroduce it to you. Through the wonder of a coaxial wire – and then a plastic cassette loaded with magnetic tape – you could start your own curriculum in film appreciation. While it was slow going at first (many titles were not released for purchase, but for rental), the windfall derived from the sell-through model of home video marketing meant that, a scant few months after you saw something on the big screen, you could purchase a quasi-permanent version of it for yourself.


Better yet, once the first run film market was saturated, studios went back into their vaults and released all manner of material. Some was classic. Some was crap. But it represented the kind of exposure to cinema that many before the ‘80s seldom received, even in college. In essence, decades of research and study could be repeated in a matter of months, as long as you had a TV, a VCR, and a decent video rental/retailer in your area. Thus, the amateur training began. Masterworks only read about were optioned and absorbed. Cult films were finally found, and confirmed as true kitsch or misguided camp. Genres were fleshed out and reformed, while previously uncelebrated talent was placed into the pantheon of cinematic history. In essence, the entire legacy of film was opened up to the public – and with that, naturally, came the public opinion.


Harlan Ellison once wrote that people aren’t entitled to their opinion, just their own learned one, and the same is true about film. It is literally impossible to absorb the whole of cinema via a steady diet of videocassettes (and today, DVDs). Even the most dedicated student can’t digest the whole of motion picture making – a concept that runs from silents to moderns, familiar to foreign and all places in between. Yet the exposure to the technology of home video over the last three decades has made experts out of mere fans, and archivists out of the most casual of viewer. One surf of the Internet confirms this concept. YouTube is loaded with would be Eberts, pontificating in poorly scripted and presented clips about the recent releases. MySpace is packed with ‘best of’ lists and pages devoted exclusively to some of the most obscure filmic efforts ever created. Even worse, such resources are viewed as authoritative by fans looking for instant feedback, empowering an entire generation to avoid conventional thinking and determine their own Wikipedia fed aesthetic fate.


Now, this seems like a good idea, until you realize its substantial downside. Without consensus, nothing can be truly considered archetypal. By its very definition, something is representative because it holds the majority of the meaningful opinions. But in this focus group/test screening/Ain’t It Cool News-ing of cinema, everyone believes their belief actually matters – not counts, MATTERS. It’s the message they’ve been fed, and have self proscribed, since the VCR showed them how good/bad Ed Wood’s Plan 9 really was, or how brave/boring Kubrick’s 2001 could be. Over the decades, audiences have been brainwashed into believing that experience is the same as expertise. They know about film because they’ve seen so many. But without accompanying context, without thinking and analyzing and revising, perception is perverted. Response is not the same as consideration. Entertainment – or the lack thereof – is only part of a film’s facets, or flaws.


Yet that’s the mob mentality monster we’ve created. Aided by the sudden surge in box office performance, especially over the initial weekend (something also contributable to home video’s volatility as an indicator) and the studio’s persistent desire to endlessly fine tune a project via public opinion, the movies have moved in the direction the technology first dictated. Except, in this case, instead of telling the audience what to watch – as cinema did from it’s infancy through the ‘80s – it’s the public pushing the buttons. So before you blame Hollywood for the latest hack job, or curse a director for dropping the ball on a long beloved project, just remember this: you asked for it. Maybe not directly, but vicariously through home video. Your superficial study of film has led an entire industry to cater to your self-supported whims. It may be worse now that the Internet has upped the profile, but don’t ever forget its simple seeds. A while back, someone thought a private video taping system was a good idea. Unfortunately, the post-millennial cinematic stasis was the outcome. 

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