The Death of Film/The Decay of Cinema

Written by Godfrey Cheshire on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.


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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.



 


1.



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.



 


2.



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&#

..