The Death of Film/The Decay of Cinema
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You are standing of a summer's day on a lovely beach, and you are doing what millions of others just out of eyeshot are doing. You are looking at the sand squiggling between your toes. You are perusing the broken shells just beyond your toes and the foamy wavelets curling against the shore nearby. You are sighing contentedly, enjoying the halo of warmth the sun has planted on your head. You are not looking up. This is curious, because if you were looking up you would notice something: there's a tidal wave the size of the Empire State Building curved directly overhead, about to crash down and change you and the world you live in irrevocably, forever.
It's funny that people don't look up. Maybe it has to do with the millennium. Maybe people are afraid that if they look up, or talk about what they think might be about to happen, then the next couple of years will turn out to be dauntingly weird and, well, millennial. I haven't read any articles concerning the enormous changes about to occur in our media environment, which is why I'm writing this one. Of course, there's one reason those articles may be so scarce: at the moment, most media companies are far less interested in publicizing the impending changes than they are in positioning themselves to take advantage of them. But then again, maybe it's simply that people are skittish about what I'm proposing to do here?look up, to consider the power and effects of that wave's impact.
For the space of this article, three terms that we normally use interchangeably are defined separately:
Film refers to the traditional technology of motion pictures: the cameras, projectors, celluloid, lights and other gear that have been responsible for every movie you've ever seen in a theater. Prognosis: Sudden death. In a very short amount of time, film in theaters will disappear, replaced by digital projection systems and, soon enough, by productions that don't involve celluloid even at the shooting stage. This transformation will effectively mean that a medium that has been ubiquitous in the 20th century basically won't exist beyond the first few years of the 21st.
Movies here refers to motion pictures as entertainment. You know?movies. Everyone loves movies. Prognosis: Forced mutation. For one thing, movies will no longer be the dominant attractions at movie theaters; they'll have lots of noisy competition. They'll also be heavily affected by the technologies that succeed film, namely television and computers. Movies are forever, basically, but movies after the 20th century will have neither the esthetic singularity nor the cultural centrality that they presently enjoy.
Cinema refers to movies understood (and practiced) as an art. The cream of the medium's expressive history has generally equated with the excellence of individual creators, from Chaplin and Keaton to Fassbinder and Kiarostami. Prognosis: Rapid decay. Cinema reached its point of maximal definition a couple of decades back, and has been slowly dissipating as a cultural force since. The end of film will help hasten cinema toward past-tense museum status?where it will "thrive" in the way Renaissance painting now does.
The most immediate of these changes?the replacement of film in movie theaters?is due to get a lot of media attention in the near future, and you can count on much of that to be of the gee-whiz, isn't-technology-amazing variety so beloved of entertainment writers, scoop-hungry editors and, presumably, gadget-loving Americans. I doubt that many negative notes or calls for resistance will be heard, or that the overthrow of film by television?which is what this amounts to?will be related to a dissolution of cinema esthetics and the enforced close of cinema's era in the history of technological arts. The latter, which has implications beyond the realm of arts and entertainment, is my ultimate subject here. But let's take one thing at a time.
Needless to say, no one asked if you wanted this to happen. There were no nationwide polls inquiring, "Would you prefer it if film disappeared from movie theaters and was replaced by video projection?" Consumers didn't complain and start to stay away from theaters because of those quaint old celluloid images. On the contrary, movie attendance is at an all-time high, and there are lots of indications that viewers want movies to retain the particular visual textures associated with film. The change is occurring for the usual reasons: the technology is there, and money.
In some ways, it's astonishing the transfer took this long. George Lucas, one of its prime proponents and sponsors, may be the prophet of consummate kiddie banality, but about this he is not wrong: film, like the telegraph and the Gatling gun, is 19th-century machinery. From the time photography got a foothold in the 1850s, inventors were hustling to find the means to allow images to move. The crucial device was hit upon by Thomas Edison's ingenious assistant, William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, in the early 1890s: a strip of perforated celluloid, coated with photographic emulsion and moved through the camera by means of sprockets. Once George Eastman was commissioned to provide Edison with film stock in bulk, motion pictures, as an industrial enterprise, were set to roll.
The erroneous mythology of the medium, sent into history books by the tirelessly self-promoting French, has it that film became the movies one day in December of 1895 at the Grand Cafe in Paris, when the Lumiere brothers held their first public projections. In fact (as we discussed here at the time of the actual centenary), by that time movies had been displayed in several American cities. The very first projections for the paying public were held on May 20, 1895, at a storefront on lower Broadway in New York City, by a former Confederate officer, Woodville Latham, and his sons Gray and Otway. The Lathams benefited from the help of Dickson, who moonlighted from Edison because the Wizard of Menlo Park didn't see the commercial advantage of taking film out of single-payer peepshow devices and throwing the images onto a screen. He soon changed his mind.
Camera, projector, celluloid: the basic technology hasn't changed in over a century. Sure, as a form of expression, film underwent a radical alteration with the addition of sound, but that and other developments?color, widescreen, stereo, etc.?were simply embellishments to a technical paradigm that has held true since photographic likenesses began to move, and that everyone in the world has thought of as "the movies"?until this summer.
The new digital projection systems resemble the old method in that they project images onto the screen from a booth behind the audience. But the images aren't produced by light shining through an unfurling series of photographic transparencies on celluloid. There is no film, which alone saves distributors the costs of prints (a couple of thousand each), plus shipping, handling and storage. It also eliminates scratches, jumps and the other physical imperfections of film. When the digital approach finally takes over at theaters, the "films" being shown at a given 'plex will be beamed in by coded satellite signal, which will allow distributors to supply as many?or as few?theaters as they like, with minimal advance planning and maximal scheduling flexibility.
For the time being, most movies will still be shot on film, primarily because audiences are used to the look, but everything else about the process will be, in effect, television?from the transmission by satellite to the projection, which for all intents and purposes is simply a glorified version of a home video projection system. The original picture is converted to digital information, which reconverts as three colors that are beamed through the projector's lenses and recombined on the screen. In late June, 1999?a date to set beside May, 1895, among little-heralded sea changes in the technologies of popular culture?the new system went on display in Los Angeles, New Jersey and New York, in theaters showing Star Wars: Episode I-The Phantom Menace and An Ideal Husband. (Disney's digital Tarzan debuted last Friday, July 23.)
What does the brave new world look like? Well, as a self-confessed videophobe, I must say I was surprised. I went to see An Ideal Husband and thought the projection looked great?certainly it did compared to my worst fears, which were along the lines of a hazy big-screen tv in a sports bar, blown up to unbearable size. In fact, I'd bet that most ordinary moviegoers wouldn't know the difference if you didn't tell them there was one. I actually preferred it to the same movie on celluloid, which I thought was overlit and had oversaturated colors. (Was Husband shot with digital projection in mind, making the film version intentionally a bit inferior? I'm sure Miramax will never tell.) The digital image feels slightly softer and gassier than the more defined textures of film. The colors I saw were a mite cool, with gentle blues predominating. But the overall effect was pleasant, and far less noticeable than I had anticipated.
In short, I'm now sure this thing will fly. There'll be no uprising, no mass shrieks of outrage at the change. Digital will sneak into theaters largely unnoticed, perhaps even welcomed. But should it?
So far, celluloid's only Horatio-at-the-bridge is Roger Ebert, who at this year's Cannes Film Festival started sounding the alarm. Ebert is concerned that the technological revolution is being rushed into place without the industry having done (or made public) any studies about its likely effects, especially on the psychological level. He mentioned data (cited in Jerry Mander's famous polemic Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television) indicating that film creates a beta state of alert reverie in the brain, where tv provokes an alpha state of passive suggestibility. Is it possible, Ebert wonders, that the subliminal catnip that people value in movies is being thrown out with the celluloid, and that audiences will soon abandon digital movies because they're too much like tv?
I admire Ebert for shouting "stop! look!" when nobody else is doing it, and when the gigantic corporate interests behind digital are, as always, so careless of mere mortals and petty matters like human consciousness. Additionally, I share Ebert's visceral emotional reaction against film?this magical thing that has been with us our entire lives?being suddenly swept off the cultural table. But I also think his campaign and the impetuses behind it are mostly emotional, and I don't think they stand a shred of a chance of stemming the digital tide. That does not, however, mean that I'm basically sanguine about the impending conversion. Not at all.
How long will it take? The estimates I've read range from two to 10 years, but I would bet that it's on the lower side and that it will happen very suddenly. The main factors likely to slow it somewhat are financial. Exhibitors are presently undertaking huge expenditures to convert from multiplexes to megaplexes (those "stadium seating" behemoths beloved of mid-America), and it may be a while before they can assemble the scratch for a new set of mammoth outlays. Then will come their pitched battle with distributors over how to share the expenses of converting to digital, which will be a huge economic boon to the studios. The ultimate outcome of this struggle, though, is easy to foresee: the costs will be passed along to the consumer. Get ready for $20 movie tickets and $10 bags of popcorn.
Once digital projection comes to stay, certain temporary confusions will be inevitable. Consider the nomenclature, for one. There'll be film festivals, film schools, film partnerships and so on and so forth?none of which will have even the remotest thing to do with any actual film. Film reviews? Film critics? Don't get me started.
And, for a while, people will go on thinking they're looking at films because, for a while, there's a sense in which they will be. Movies will be shot on celluloid, for that great old filmic look that even dramatic shows on television still prize. But I'll bet the preference for that look will begin to fade fairly quickly. A few films will come along that, as Thomas Vinterberg's The Celebration did last year, make low-budget digital video shooting look really cool, and thereafter it will become standard for most features. Shooting on film will be reserved for certain arty, historical or deliberately archaic productions, and even those will gradually dwindle until digital's domain finally encompasses all.
How will the shift affect movies? That's the crucial question, after all. The little I've seen written on the subject so far tends to avoid everything but vague assurances that movies will be much the same, only better-looking, and that the radical economies of digital shooting will allow amazingly low-budget productions to jump from someone's backyard to the world's screens in a flash. My own prognostications are much different, and they explain why I'm not jumping with joy at the digital revolution's approach.
What will people see at the local megaplex after the revolution? My guess is that the choices will include attractions such as...Monday Night Football, The Home Shopping Network Super Sale, the NBA playoffs, Seinfeld's last episode, Britney Spears with the Rolling Stones (still touring, thanks to cryogenics) at the Hollywood Bowl, Jerry Springer's National Town Meeting, The Western Hemisphere Championship Wrestling Finals, Prince William's wedding, The Three Tenors Do MTV's Spring Break, etc...and, oh yeah, the movie of the week.
Those things are all television, of course, but that shouldn't surprise you. The general attributes of traditional movies (fictional stories, shot at distant locations using scripts and directors and actors) had everything to do with the peculiarities and limitations of film as a technology. Digital will change all that in radical ways. In fact, it strikes me that, after the revolution, the two most important factors for movie programmers will be 1) that digital theaters will have all the capacities of television, including live transmission and 2) the need to give people something sufficiently different from the home tv experience to justify the admission charge. If those things suggest a new definition of "cross purposes," I'll wager that their reconciliation will alter what's offered in movie theaters in ways that moviegoers today can scarcely imagine.
Pondering digital's effects, most people base their expectations on the outgoing technology. They have a hard time grasping that, after film, the "moviegoing" experience will be completely reshaped by?and in the image of?television. To illustrate why, ponder this: if you were the executive in charge of exploiting Seinfeld's last episode and you had the chance to beam it into thousands of theaters and charge, say, 25 dollars a seat, why in the hell would you not do that? Prior to digital theaters, you wouldn't do it because the technology wouldn't permit it. After digital, such transpositions will be inevitable because they'll be enormously lucrative.
And tv isn't the only technology that will affect the new theatrical paradigm. Here's another possibility, based on a fairly rudimentary expansion of what's already available technically. It shouldn't be difficult to install automated cameras and mics in most movie theaters. So let's say you go to see one of the new, theatrical specials like, say, Oprah's America. Thanks to the new technology, you can punch a button in the console on your armrest, and if the host chooses you, you'll be able to talk to Oprah or Dave from your seat, live, as people in theaters around the country watch you and hope for their own moment in the limelight.
That's right?it's that newfangled interactivity you've heard so much about. All the kids are grooving on it, thanks to computers and the Internet. Think those same kids won't dig?or for that matter, demand?interactive experience at the movies? Of course they will, and two-way national talk shows will be the least of it. The door will be open to feature-length interactive video games, simulated thrill rides, You-Solve-It Mysteries, Meet Your Favorite Supermodel, You in the Pilot's Seat: Gulf War Reenactments, etc. At telethon time, Jerry Lewis will be the happiest man in showbiz.
In the early days, of course, the movie experience was much like this. Not only were films slotted into vaudeville bills between braying comics, dancing mules and third-rate acrobats?and you could talk back to everything on the program: call it pre-electronic interactivity?but also the people who supplied the movies tried everything they could think of, from scenes of distant countries to fake train trips to in-camera magic tricks to historical re-creations. In the 50s, when the movie business was treating tv much as America treated the Soviet Menace, a similar anarchy again reigned briefly, producing 3-D glasses, Cinerama, Smell-O-Vision and William Castle-style stunts. Immediately after digital's arrival, expect another spell of wide-open experimentation until the new medium's modalities and audience tastes are sussed and locked in.
When the dust settles, I'll bet one thing about our media experience of the last half-century comes close to reversing itself. Typically, people now watch tv as if in a group, even when alone, and view movies as individuals, even when accompanied by others. That is, they'll talk, hoot, flip the bird at the tube, but sink into mesmerized solitude before the movie screen. Digital may well turn that around. People wanting to watch serious movies that require concentration will do so at home, or perhaps in small, specialty theaters. People who want to hoot and holler, flip the bird and otherwise have a fun communal experience?courtesy of Oprah or Scream: Interactive, say?will head down to the local enormoplex.
Other technological changes will figure into that reversal, too. In the time it takes for digital to transform theaters, home viewing will also be transformed. HDTV and wall-sized screens will finally become realities, and all manner of movies will arrive in pristine condition over the phone wires at your beck and call. The other side of this coin, meanwhile, is indicated by the sad story of my friend Ricky. Back in the early 80s when I was living down south, Ricky was the most avid teenage cinephile I knew; he saw and had sharp opinions on everything from the grottiest shlock to the latest Fassbinder. When I ran into him recently?he now lives in Miami?and asked about his latest favorites, I was shocked to hear him sigh, "I quit going. All the pagers and beepers and cell phones constantly going off?it breaks the spell, you know? I didn't enjoy it anymore."
The cynical answer to this dilemma is, I'm afraid, also the most realistic. Ban cell phones from theaters? Of course not. Instead, create a theatrical environment in which talking on a cell phone is as natural and accepted as munching popcorn. Indeed, digital theaters and all manner of other electronica are not only related but practically compatible. Conceivably, cell phones could be integrated into various sorts of interactive shows. (Your party can't hear you because the audience is laughing too loud? Well, yell louder.)
Though reduced to minority status, movies too will be a part of the digital theater experience, and they will be increasingly tailored to the tastes of the theaters' prime audience: an older audience that, thanks to the pervasive influence of tv and its increasing preoccupation with puerile smuttiness, now has a lot in common with potty-minded infants. In recent decades, the people who go to movies mainly to "go out" have been those who are itching to escape their parents' home but haven't yet settled into their own: 15-to-25-year-olds. As "serious" movies are increasingly consumed at home, this group's worldview will have more influence on theatrical production and programming than it already has. For one glimpse of the movie future, imagine a world that regards Adam Sandler as a combination of Cary Grant, Orson Welles and Bertrand Russell.
More sophisticated auteurs will have a difficult time of it unless they're willing to work on the low-budget margins or, alternately, they acquire the power of a Spielberg. The control of studios over individual creators will only increase thanks to the new technology, no matter what the advertisements say. Here's one reason why: Let's say Studio X opens their latest idiotic post-Sandler comedy on a Friday, and people don't go batshit over it that night. There can be a newly edited version ready for Saturday's matinees. And if that doesn't work, another version for Sunday. (This technological capacity on many levels will contribute to the rapid destabilization of the film "text." There can be hundreds of versions of a given film. It will be hell on historians and archivists, of course?assuming anyone wants to keep this stuff.) Will no serious films exist? Sure they will, but if you're curious as to what they'll look like, you'll do better to turn on the tv than to visit current art houses.
The conceptual and practical walls separating television and movies have been eroding ever since the appearance of the newer medium. Early on, tv was called "movies over the air" (as well as "radio with pictures"). For years, the movie industry regarded tv as the enemy, but in 1975, when Jaws became the first movie to be given a wide release in tandem with network tv advertising, and went through the roof, something crucial changed. Of course, marketing strategy wasn't all there was to it. In a sense, Jaws?like Star Wars, which stole its box office crown two years later?was molded to and by the juvenile sensibilities fostered by tv. In any case, Jaws and its progeny set the template for "event movies" from Batman to Twister to Armageddon?movies that aim for huge opening-weekend grosses, and that succeed not on the basis of their quality (who cares about that anymore?) but thanks to a climate of anticipation mainly created by tv.
In the digital age, that synergy will increase a hundredfold, but the central interaction will remain the same: tv will hype movies, movies will hype tv. Granted, lots of what goes on in theaters will be tv pure and simple (concerts, sports, live events, etc.), but the portion still devoted to movies will maintain certain distinctions and practices that have proved commercially advantageous: the biggest movies will premiere in theaters (although paid transmissions to home screens will become increasingly common); scale, spectacle and stars will continue to be very important; the stories of most blockbusters will be simple to a fault, as satellite transmission means that films open not just on thousands of screens in the U.S. but on tens or hundreds of thousands around the world. I'd also wager that the main commercial genres we have today?action-adventure, sci-fi fantasy, romance, crime drama, horror, comedy, animated, etc.?will remain with us, since the future evolution of movies is likely to occur mainly on the technical level.
Speaking of which, won't the revolution caused by low-cost digital production mean that we'll see grassroots Fellinis springing up all over the place, conjuring amazing and original visions at next-to-nothing prices? Pardon my skepticism, but this is never the way it seems to work. The whole experience of the Sundance generation suggests this: If you have 100 people making movies, you'll get maybe three or four great ones. If you have a thousand people making movies, you'll still get three or four great ones. A rising tide of democratized "access" mainly seems to result in a bilious upswell of mediocrity. In fact, it's far more reasonable to assume that digital technology's greatest impact on the movies will happen not at the least expensive levels of production but at the most expensive.
Think Jurassic Park, and then imagine the computer-generated dinosaurs crowding out the flesh-and-blood humans. Such a transition will comprise the next epochal change in movies (it's been underway for some time already), one that essentially has nothing to do with digital projection but will be greatly facilitated by its arrival. Put simply, more and more movies will be composed of computer-generated imagery (CGI). In some, that imagery takes the form of artificial backdrops or effects surrounding the human actors; in others, everything about the film will come from the computer. Audiences have already indicated that they love to be wowed by such stuff, and since the most awesome technology is controlled by a few technocrats like George Lucas, the main effects of CGI blockbusterdom will hardly be classifiable as "democratizing." And then there's the minor consideration that increasingly what we'll be seeing at the movies won't be reflections of the real world but artificially conjured fantasy worlds.
What will we really lose when film is abruptly swept from the world? Such questions tend to induce a kind of situational amnesia at the moment of transition. Bedazzled and excited by the new technology, people don't want to ponder the loss of the old, so they minimize its importance, brush it aside, pooh-pooh the idea that the whole thing could amount to more than the exchange of one delivery system for another that's basically the same, just better.
But let's resist that assumption for a moment and consider that this change could have profound implications, ones that the corporations pushing the new technology perhaps prefer you not to scrutinize. The critic Andre Bazin believed that photography and its stepchild film brought people into a fundamentally new relationship with reality and the natural world. That's because photographs, unlike every previous means of visual representation, are not subjective interpretations of visible reality but objective impressions of it. Directly caused by light leaving the things they record, they have an essential equivalence and connection to the objects they portray. At its deepest levels, Bazin thought this equivalence had religious ramifications; he likened the photographic image to the Shroud of Turin and the veil of Veronica (the title of Fassbinder's Veronica Voss gives the latter an added dimension, if you read it as invoking cinema as the "true image (and) voice").
More obviously, photography introduces an ethical dimension to our view of the world, insisting on the irreducible integrity of people and things beyond ourselves, and reminding us constantly of our relationship to them. By any reckoning, photographic images of war, suffering and injustice in this century?like the Neorealist films Bazin championed?have changed minds and opened hearts in ways that make the powers of painting seem faint and rhetorical by comparison. Thanks to their own physicality as well their relation to the things they represent, photographs, including those in motion, are not just idle records. They are objects of contemplation whose fascination comes from the way they connect us to the world.
Video images look very similar, surely, but I think most people have an accurate hunch that they are not exactly the same. They are, in fact, something lesser at least in the sense that, lacking the photograph's solidity and existence in space, they don't readily entice the mind toward contemplation. Flux-filled and immediate, they stress momentary sensation and pure information over perspective and discrimination. And computer-generated imagery is something else entirely. If video images sacrifice the photograph's contemplative stance toward reality, CGI dispenses with reality altogether. The thing about those dinosaurs in Jurassic Park is not just that they look so real, but that they are so wholly imaginary, fantastical, referring to "things" that are purely notional.
Where is CGI leading us? Let's just say that it's hardly surprising that recent CGI sci-fi movies like Dark City and The Matrix hinge on the same concept: reality itself is computer-generated. Nor does this represent any sort of utopian fulfillment. The mood of these movies is full of paranoia, dread and disorientation. The story is invariably the same: the hero is trying to escape. But he is like Theseus without a thread, trapped in an imaginary labyrinth. Inevitably, every CGI movie returns us to one basic conundrum: if the world is unreal, where does that leave the viewer? Is he not just as empty and spectral?a mirror held up to a flickering void?
The speculative visions of science fiction are indeed suddenly more apropos than ever. Up until a few years ago, a child's understanding of the world came from direct physical contact with it and from interaction with other humans. At age five or so, he would augment those sources of knowledge by learning to read and beginning formal education. Currently, however, from earliest infancy children are barraged with electronic images and information that comprise an amazingly comprehensive and irresistible system of brainwashing, if you'll pardon the term. Here, "knowledge" is based not on experience but on inculcation, and not on the real world but on images that reduce that world to an endless streaming of emotionally charged and ideologically weighted abstractions.
And now?just last week, to be precise?comes the news that scientists have succeeded in constructing a computer circuit the size of a molecule. These developments supposedly will again increase the power of computers exponentially, and lead us (as one news report had it) toward a world where you'll be able to turn to a wall, say "Grandmother," and the wall will turn into a video monitor cum telephone that will instantly connect you with your grandmother. In other words, the amazingly intricate cocoon of electronic reality that we have woven around ourselves, an artificial reality that steadily displaces nature and natural processes, is about to become that much more complete and inescapable.
Funny thing about nature, though: it isn't as easily subdued as a movie monster from outer space. (It might even resent being thought of as a "social construct.") In future, you may be able to call up your dear Granny in a trice (if she's dead, dial the image bank), but you probably won't be able to look at the skies and command global warming to reverse itself; or to order a remedy for the destruction of the world's rain forests. Nor is being cocooned by a culture that offers wall-to-wall, cradle-to-grave electronic infotainment likely to dispel these problems even as it profoundly distracts you from them. On the contrary, it's possible that such distraction will compound the problems by seducing us away from direct engagement with the world outside the enormoplex's magic bubble.
The myriad possibilities here ultimately reduce to two, don't they? Either humankind completely conquers and transcends nature, or makes accommodation with it. If the former, then immersing ourselves in artificial environments and surrendering without question to every new technological development will handily advance us toward our grand species destiny of dominion over the material universe. (This sounds like the opening of a Greek myth with a scorchingly tragic finale, but hey?you never know.) The other possibility, meanwhile, concedes that the final purpose of technology might be not to obliterate human limits but to help us understand them; some technologies, like the atomic bomb, are there to be stepped away from. In the latter scenario, humanity looks to nature finally not for conquest but for reconciliation, a task that Andre Bazin thought photographic images were uniquely suited to.
Whatever else happens, one thing now is certain. Film is about to disappear over the historical horizon. It will always be a 20th century phenomenon. But guess what? So will you. Everyone old enough to be reading these words is a product of a world whose understandings and self-images were forged in large part by film. When the millennial clock ticks over, we will all be strangers in a strange land, one that belongs to others. It may take a while to realize this, but one day you'll be standing in line at the enormoplex, say, and some kid born in the next century will look at you, and that look will tell you who you are: a 20-century person. A film person. In a world that has left that time and that technology behind.
Sometime within the next few years?it may take a decade or more, though a nearer date is more likely?the last commercial movie theater in the U.S. to adopt digital projection will make the switch, and the medium of film will reach its effective end. Thereafter, to see actual films displayed, as opposed to things that for a while may call themselves "films" but in fact are not, you will need to go to places like the Museum of Modern Art and the American Museum of the Moving Image, where projections of celluloid classics will probably remain very popular even while gaining an increasingly archaic air. If you have a child who is a toddler now, the chances are excellent that you will one day have to explain what film was, and how different theaters were before digital projection brought live tv, interactivity and a dazzling array of other novelties into them, drastically altering what people thought of (and patronized) as moving-image entertainment.
The change has been bruited for years, but now the writing is on the wall, quite literally: the commercial runs of digitally projected movies (The Phantom Menace, An Ideal Husband and, more recently, Tarzan) have ushered the new medium into theaters in Los Angeles, New Jersey and New York, quietly making the summer of 1999 a pivotal moment in the history of entertainment technology. The next phase, when digital totally replaces film projection, will probably happen, when it happens, in such a short amount of time as to leave people astonished in retrospect. For that, at least, there is precedent. Do you suppose that audiences in the fall of 1927, when The Jazz Singer opened, had any idea that the form of expression they knew as movies would be overthrown in a mere matter of months, replaced by a very different form called "talkies"? What we call movies haven't seen that kind of drastic change in the half-century since; now, suddenly, they are about to.
Of course, the arrival of sound was meant to be dramatic and revolutionary (Warner Bros., its sponsor, might have gone down the drain if audiences had shrugged), while the shift in projection technologies is intended to be smooth and little noticed. But the latter change is sure to have consequences as profound and sweeping as the former's, and there will be other similarities as well. For example, the movie business today seems as incognizant as audiences (and most critics) of the impending effects of this technological leap. In late 1927, studio bosses saw sound as an audience-pleasing gimmick; they didn't realize it would scuttle their existing star system and overturn virtually every aspect of film production. Likewise, digital's studio backers regard it as a money-saving, technically superior means of delivering their wares; they seem barely aware of how extensively it will reshape those wares and the culture and business surrounding them.
What's essential to understand is that digital replaces film with television technology. However innocuous that may sound, it's a fundamental change that will open the way for movie theaters to greatly expand and diversify their programming. Given the capacities of live tv, you don't expect theaters to limit themselves to old-fashioned, feature-length, fictional movies, do you? Of course they won't. They'll leap at the chance to offer big-screen, technically wondrous versions of concerts, sports events, special events like the Oscars and all manner of other live, interactive and tv-originated attractions. (Once the industry really grasps what all this portends, expect a mad scramble by different movie- and tv-related businesses trying to claim parts of the bonanza.)
At the same time, movies themselves will undergo a technical sea change. Video technology will displace film in the shooting as well as the showing of movies. After an initial phase of trying to maintain the old look of film (as many tv dramas still do), movies will start to look a lot more like tv?very high-quality tv. Digital will greatly facilitate low-budget production, but that won't mean you'll be seeing more low-budget movies, because the change will also facilitate the means by which super-expensive movies get to be superspectacular. Computer generated imagery (CGI), like that used to create the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park and planets and cities in movies like The Phantom Menace and The Matrix, is the key. It will make many things about movies more fantastical and awesome than ever before, but also less real. You may love what you see, but you literally won't be able to believe your eyes. And with that sudden, decisive break from the old esthetic and ethical moorings of photography, moving-image technology will enter a new era.
Yes, the new age will contain movies. But what about cinema? In this article (including last week's installment), I'm using terms that are normally interchangeable in distinct ways: film refers to the old, celluloid-based technology; movies refers to motion pictures as entertainment; and cinema refers to motion pictures as art. You will notice that the latter term is inherently more slippery and subjective than the previous two. We could argue its definition all night. But before we do, let me skip right to my conclusion so you'll know what we ultimately are arguing about.
I think that 50 years from now people will regard what we call cinema as belonging to the past, i.e., the current century. In fact, the consensus on this may take only 10 years to coalesce, but in any case, it will reflect agreement on a crucial perception: that cinema and film were?are?fundamentally linked. If you take away film, what you have left may look much the same for a while, but soon enough you'll realize that it doesn't function the same. And one function that will accompany film into the museums, I think, is cinema, a peculiar kind of storytelling technological art that has reigned widely and gloriously through most of the 20th century.
The other point to be stressed is that cinema's displacement isn't just beginning with the appearance this summer of digital projection in theaters. It has been going on for close to a half-century. It has been going seriously for a quarter-century. And that long goodbye points to a great irony: that cinema may owe both its extinction and its zenith to its archnemesis, television.
Anyone who describes or believes in motion pictures as an art will have their own particular definition of art vis-a-vis film, one that will necessarily disagree with many other actual and possible definitions. So it is here.
To give a few examples, my own definition of cinema does not automatically include the following: movies adapted from Shakespeare, Jane Austen or other highfalutin' literary sources; movies in which people speak with British accents or, alternately, speak in foreign tongues translated by subtitles; movies featuring beautiful photography; movies disliked by my fellow critics; movies liked by my fellow critics; movies by famous directors whose past work I have admired; movies featuring comely performers that I personally find very attractive and, thus, talented; movies that win Oscars and other accolades; movies that offer showcases for great acting or state-of-the-art special effects; movies from Iran, Hollywood or, for that matter, anywhere else.
What's left? Well, definitions are important, so here goes: cinema is filmed entertainment taken to its most refined, sophisticated and characteristic form of expression. In practice, said form of expression is usually the product of a single shaping intelligence, and does not neglect either of the poles (reality and dream) that together make movies such a unique form of communication. But this, I hastily admit, is still too vague and could easily be subscribed to by people whose examples of cinema I would find preposterous or abhorrent. So let me offer a brief retrospective sketch that, I hope, will lead us to a clearer and more concrete definition.
When people first saw film, they didn't see movies. This is pretty remarkable if you think of it. Imagine you're at one of the first projections of motion pictures, in 1895 or so. The projector whirs on, images flicker on the wall, and for a few seconds, maybe longer, you struggle to figure out just what the hell you're seeing. Is it one of those fairground illusions? Some new kind of illuminated painting? A camera obscura reflection from outside? Then you realize: No, it's a moving photographic image, showing people and objects caught by a camera. You identify the nature of the picture, and yourself in relation to it. Quite amazing?downright astounding actually
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