[12 August 2013]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
You’ve seen them and if you haven’t you’re damned lucky. If, in fact, you really have never experienced it, head on over to YouTube and type in the name of your favorite band. Then add the word “live” to the search bar and see what comes up. There they are, dozens upon dozens of clips featuring your beloved pop/rock/country combo, image jittering and jumpy while the distorted noise pouring from your speakers reminds you that, even with the convenience factor and ease of use, a cellphone still has a long way to go to be a really reliable portable video camera. It is, however, the new go-to accessory for anyone who believes in the democratization of art, who doesn’t know the word “bootleg” or the decades of artistic angst over the illegal capturing of a concert or song.
Indeed, technology has changed everything, and not necessarily for the good. While this might sound like yet another “back in my day” rant, there’s some validity in the old school approach. Today, music festivals, along with movie theaters, stage shows, and other avenues of entertainment are being overrun by individuals who believe, rightfully or wrongfully, that the shape of things to come entitles them to instant access to their memories. As a result, no venue is sacred, since the concept of capturing video and still photography imagery has become part and parcel of the new social media dynamic. We live our lives in the open, festooning our Facebook page with all manner of personal, professional, and problematic content (yours truly included).
It’s all become a combination of Britain’s Speaker’s Corner as filtered through a multimedia complement to same. There are no experts, only exaggerations, and everyone’s facile opinion is as valuable as the one generated by an elitist Ivory Tower thinker (sorry Uncle Harlan). Three decades ago, security used to accost anyone who was wily enough to sneak a camera into a concert, and if they didn’t catch them, a legion of fans lost in the music would offer their own brand of vigilante justice. Way back when, such an experience was insular, singular, shared but not symbiotic. We weren’t part of some big tribe, our love of a specific musical subject or style excluded. We were individuals coming to a show for our own reasons and no one was going to rob that from us.
Yet this is the very thing that is happening all throughout the entertainment mediums. The minute you tell someone “I saw U2 last night and they were amazing!” there is usually a follow-up asking for footage, song lists, and other inexact minutia, and if you can’t provide it, someone on the web can. One of the most amazing shows I ever saw was a pre-Stop Making Sense Talking Heads trying out their new nine piece combo configuration at the Fox Theater in Atlanta. From the moment David Byrne and the band took the stage, I was adrift in my own reactions to the sounds washing over me. It was the same with The Ramones at the Tampa Theater (promoting Pleasant Dreams), Prince and his amazing 1999 tour, and, even recently, a 70 year old Brian Wilson wowing fans with an incredible career overview.
In recent days, a debate has been raging between a tech guru named Anil Dash and various members of the media (yours truly included) over the use of smartphones and other technology-based devices in movies. For those in favor of texting, talking, taking on level 147 of Candy Crush Saga, and any other non-immersive movie experience, those of us who want to sit and watch a film without said interference are being referred to as “Shushers,” and later on in Mr. Dash’s defiant op-ed piece, bullies. We’re pegged as prehistoric Luddites, unable to change with the changing times and linked, allegorically, to those opposed to ending slavery or preventing same sex marriage.
As any argument theorist will tell you, yelling “Hitler!” at your opponent in a clash is the cheap and sensationalized way of trying to make an otherwise complicated point. Yet in Mr. Dash’s case, he truly believes he is being oppressed by a bunch of old codgers who can’t program their out of fashion VCRs, let alone understand the difference between 3G and 4G. For him, it’s a matter of personal choice (and professional survival since he is heavily invested in the new technological frontier) and anyone who countermands his ability to do whatever he wants is commiserate to a Klansman burning a cross on a black family’s lawn.
Don’t think so? Well, I would give you the link to his startlingly clueless piece but it would provide him with the kind of provocateur’s publicity he is obviously gunning for. Suffice it to say, many in my trade, including the recently named editor of Roger Ebert’s website, Matt Zoeler Seitz, have taken him to task (Mr. Dash even put up a rebuttal on his site, referring to the writer as an “asshole”. Nice), but many marginalize their approach by arguing the wrong point. If the studios didn’t care about piracy and the continuing torrent-based bootlegging of their product, they’d allow instant access and Wi-Fi in theaters tomorrow. Anything to put butts in seats. All those pre-trailer PSA’s about texting and talking may sound like rules of etiquette, but they’re actually gentle reminders that your pocket device is now capable of simultaneous capturing and streaming content over several platforms at once.
Warner Bros. could care less if some chatty teen next to you is breaking down the latest homeroom gossip with her BFF during Man of Steel. What they are really afraid of is some equally clueless kid walking in, latest iPhone or Android in hand, and making a copy of said film for his friends (read: the entirety of the WWW). Of course, theaters could stop this by placing actual ushers into each auditorium, their primary focus to keep distractions to a minimum and, by direct interaction, piracy levels down. In their minds, it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump from tweeting your reaction to the latest piece of popcorn fluff to filming it for future reference. Again, no one cares how loud you are. It’s all a matter of commerce.
Besides, it’s all home videos fault, really. When movies went from being a night out (or before, an air conditioned escape from the sweltering Summer heat) to a readily available living room resource, an entire generation learned that cinema could be experienced sans reverence. It was something to have on in the background, a slouching in your underwear kind of deal. Some have even suggested that a show like Mystery Science Theater 3000 and its current offshoots, Rifftrax and Cinematic Titanic, raised an equally excitable group of closet comedians who can’t help but share their supposed joke with an entire audience of onlookers. When we started down a path toward disrespecting others based on our own need to be pacified and placated at will, when we stopped seeing ourselves as “in public” and, instead, based our actions on how we’d choose to respond in private, we were destined to be divided into the privileged and the pissy.
In the rule of law (and philosophy), there is a concept known as the limitation of rights. In general, it’s the notion that your rights end where another’s begins. Put another way, your ability to do what you want ceases when it interferes with someone else’s desire to do the same. I cannot sit next to you on a subway and scream in your ear, no matter how many times I cite the First Amendment. I have Freedom of Speech, not Freedom to Annoy. Similarly, if someone wants to sit, quietly, in a theater and experience a story within a running commentary, a bland business discussion, or that annoying Candy Crush music, they have an equal and similarly solid right to do so. Just because EVERYONE has a phone doesn’t mean that we resort to mob rule. Sometimes, we sacrifice our own needs for the greater good.
At some point, some theater will acquiesce and open up an “all access” venue where you can do anything you want short of sexual liaisons with your partner and we will then see how much of a demand there is for such an outlet. One imagines huge initial interest slacking off once the random texter or tweeter learns that there may be actual movies they want to see without interference - or better yet, when the entire place is packed with people making so much noise that the film itself becomes pointless in the process. For me, I think back to the time when I sat, breathless, as the Pretenders took the stage on their first American tour, and because they had such a limited songbook at the time, they played “Brass in Pocket” and “Kid,” twice. Today, some moron would bust out their iPad and comment on how “lame” said setlist was. How sad.