Digital affair with movies

CHANGING TIMES

Larger than life: An audience watches the screening of R Alverson’s ‘The Builder’ in New York.  Photo by Uli Seit/The New York Times

“I do beg to differ on the statistical basis of your statement suggesting Americans don’t love movies as much as they used to because annual attendance has dropped,” Sigman wrote.

“Back in the ’40s,” he added, “if a movie lover enjoyed a film, she went multiple times, ratcheting up those box office figures. Now, all she has to do is stay home to find Legally Blonde or The Terminator and watch it time and again, just as those of us who love indies can watch Fargo, time and again.”

Well, yes and no, because much depends on how you see movies, which are both discrete works and a social experience. While many of us still go to movie theaters, the 24-hour movie now also comes to us, though sometimes there may be just one person sitting alone at a desk or on a train and staring at a glowing box. This new portable movie is convenient, and certainly wired-up companies like the new ways they can pump images to your devices. But it isn’t moviegoing as we have understood it for most of history.

New digital technologies have transformed not only how movies are shot, processed, edited, distributed and exhibited, but also how they are watched. And this has altered our moving-image world in ways that, because we’re in the midst of all this change, are difficult to comprehend. What we do know is that for much of the 20th century, when we talked about movies, we meant glorious if sometimes scratched bigger-than-life images flickering on theatre screens that we watched with other people and, when the next attraction rolled in, were gone, maybe forever. Now we watch digital content on various machines, armed with the new consumer confidence that everything is a click away.

It may be hard to remember in the on-demand era, but once upon a time you might not see a film again after it left theatres, which made movies a sometimes evanescent object of obsession, adding to their mystique and power. If a film accrued cultural or social significance, it might reappear in a museum, classroom or repertory theatre, and sometimes as a midnight movie. After the 1940s it might also materialise, badly chopped and cropped, on television. Often, though, once it left theatres, it would either sit on a shelf or was destroyed (or tossed into the Pacific Ocean), as many movies — including a staggering 80 per cent or so from the silent era — were.

The introduction of home video cassette recorders in 1975 made it possible to rent a copy of a Hitchcock thriller (at least those transferred from film) any time you wanted, if only during store hours. Today, you can stream movies — along with television shows, YouTube clips and videos of your cat — through your computer, phone and the quaintly old-fashioned television.

This emphasis on viewers as sovereign individuals is crucial. Many factors play into the transformation of people into audiences, including commercial imperatives, personal identities, storytelling trends, laws and social mores and of course, technological innovations. Historically, if you wanted to watch a movie, you went to a theatre, bought a ticket and sat with other spectators. You also waited: I stood in line for two hours in the cold to see Raging Bull when it opened in 1980. Now you watch whatever you want, whenever you want, at the click of a mouse. That’s cool, though it can also come to feel pretty ordinary, even banal.

The idea that movies are something you experience with other people is no longer the truism it once was. This isn’t only about bodies surrounding and sometimes harassing us in darkened theatres, and the communal laughter, tears, gasps and heckling that become part of our memories.

Television and home video shrank movies, turning them into more easily obtainable images that are perhaps no longer (as) sacred. Digital technologies have sharpened the image and clouded the question of what is cinema. These days, at the very least, I try to not call a movie (as in moving picture) shot on digital a film because, well, it isn’t one even if it looks like a close approximation. But as James Cameron’s Avatar and other digital productions prove, you don’t need film to create cinema — from the Greek word kinema, which suggests both motion and emotion.

In his live performances the avant-garde filmmaker Ken Jacobs, using a customised machine he calls a Nervous Magic Lantern — a box with a light and lenses — even shows that you don’t need film or a digital camera to make cinema either. You just need shadow and light. But you — as in we — still need the audience, right?

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