Brave new image world

The Digital Era
Last Updated 16 January 2010, 12:45 IST

How much our world of moving-image entertainment has changed in the past decade! We now live in a world of the 24-Hour Movie, one that plays anytime and anywhere you want. It’s a movie we can access at home by pressing a few buttons on the remote  or with a few clicks of the mouse.

And yet how little our world of moving-image entertainment has changed! On April 14, 1896, The New York Times ran an article with the exciting if cryptic headline ‘Edison’s Latest Triumph’. The triumph was the Vitascope, a machine that “projects upon a large area of canvas groups that appear to stand forth from the canvas, and move with great facility and agility, as though actuated by separate impulses.” A proprietor of the music hall where the Vitascope was shown off said this machine would reproduce “scenes from various successful plays and operas of the season, and well-known statesmen and celebrities,” adding, “No other manager in this city will have the right to exhibit the Vitascope.”

Today, even when digital, our movies are still filled with celebrities and scenes from successful plays (and books and comics), and the owners of image technologies continue to hold on to their exclusive rights ferociously. Edison didn’t invent the Vitascope, but that’s another story.

The story I want to tell here does involve him. But first I want to fast-forward to a recent night when, at a movie theater rigged for 3-D projection, I saw James Cameron’s Avatar with an audience that watched the screen with the kind of fixed attention that has become rare at the movies. True, everyone was wearing 3-D glasses, which makes it difficult to check your cellphone obsessively, but they also seemed captivated.

When it was over, people broke into enthusiastic applause and, unusually, many stayed to watch the credits, as if to linger in the movie. Although much has been made of the technologies used in Avatar, its beauty and nominal politics, it is the social experience of the movie — as an event that needs to be enjoyed with other people for maximum impact — which is more interesting.

That’s particularly true after a decade when watching movies became an increasingly solitary affair, something between you and your laptop. Avatar affirms the deep pleasures of the communal, and it does so by exploiting a technology (3-D), which appears to invite you into the movie even as it also forces you to remain attentively in your seat.

Avatar serves as a nice jumping-off point to revisit how movies and our experience of them have changed. For starters, when a critic calls a new release “a film” these days, there’s a chance that what she (and you) are looking at wasn’t made with film processes but was created, from pre-visualisation to final credits, with digital technologies. Yet, unless a director or distributor calls attention to the technologies used — as do techno-fetishists like Michael Mann and David Fincher, who used bleeding-edge digital cameras to make Collateral (2004) and Zodiac (2007) — it’s also probable that most reviewers won’t mention if a movie was even shot in digital, because they haven’t noticed or don’t care.

This seems like a strange state of affairs. Film is profoundly changing — or, if you believe some theorists and historians, is already dead — something that most moviegoers don’t know. Yet, because the visible evidence of this changeover has become literally hard to see, and because the implications are difficult to grasp, it is also understandable why the shift to digital has not attracted more intense analysis outside film and media studies. Bluntly put, something is happening before our eyes. We might see an occasional digital artifact (usually, a bit of unintentional data) when a director shoots digital in bright light — look for a pattern of squares or a yellowish tint — but we’re usually too busy with the story to pay much mind.

The disappearing act

Should you care? I honestly don’t know, because I’m not sure what to think about this brave new image world we have entered. I love the luxurious look and warmth of film, and I fervently hope it never disappears. And yet many of us who grew up watching movies in the predigital era have rarely experienced the ones in, and shown on, film in all their visual glory: battered prints and bad projection have helped thwart the ideal experience.

It is because the movies and our experience of them has changed so radically in recent years — we can pull a movie out of our pocket now, much as earlier generations pulled out a paperback — that makes it difficult to grasp what is happening. In 1996, Susan Sontag set off a storm in cine-circles with an essay, ‘The Decay of Cinema’. Sontag’s essay inspired a spate of similarly themed if often less vigorous examinations: Google the words “death of cinema,” and you get more than 2.5 million hits. 

Film captures moments in time, preserving them spatially in images we can root around in, get lost in. Digital delivers data, zeroes and ones that are transformed into images, and this is a difference to contemplate.

The truth is that the film object has already changed, from preproduction to projection. And the traditional theatrical experience that shaped how viewers looked at film and, by extension, the world, has been mutating for some time. The new types of image consumption and digital technologies have complicated our understanding of cinema.
And yet we still watch movies. These days instead of falling in love with the movies at home in front of the television, new generations fall in love with movies they watch on hand-held devices that, however small, play images that are larger than those Edison showed to customers before the invention of the Vitascope. A teenager watching a movie on her iPhone might not be looking at an actual film. But she is enjoying something like it, something that because of its narrative strategies and visual style carries the deep imprint of cinema.

It’s also a good bet that this teenager also watches movies in theaters. If she goes to Avatar, she will see a movie that, despite its exotic beauty, seems familiar, even in 3-D. Narrative cinema employs devices, from camera placement to editing, that direct your attention and, if the movie is successful and you fall under its sway, lock you into the story. Cameron might be a visionary of a type, but he’s an old-fashioned storyteller and he locks you in tightly.  You can get lost in a movie, or so it seems, and melt into its world.

Perched between film and digital, Avatar shows us a future in which movies will invite us further into them and perhaps even allow us to choose not just the hero’s journey through the story, but also our own.

(Published 16 January 2010, 12:44 IST)

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