Monday, April 28, 2008

The Digital Revolution

The world's going to hell in a hand basket. No, the world's going digital.

And no, it's not just me. Everyone and everything around me is complaining over the inability of the new technological revolution to serve them the way old analog models used to. My computer's freezing up or losing data more and more often. Is it the pop-ups, or just all the gremlins I'm inadvertently downloading in the background?

I was just about to buy into the whole HD-DVD movie wave when I read somewhere that the next way films were going to be delivered to customers was by download, over the internet.

You mean I won't be able to hold it in my hand? I guess that saves money for the people who don't have to manufacture DVDs anymore (and how much do those cost - 90 cents a piece or something?). I don't have much luck downloading stuff - the file freezes or gets cut off. At least with a DVD I know if I treat it right - keep my fingers off it after eating Kentucky Fried Chicken or don't use it as a coaster - it seems to play through to the end.

And with a VHS tape, when I insert it again, it starts right where I left off last week. Every time I rent out a DVD, it's a crapshoot as to whether or not it's going to play properly - they're so susceptible to scratches, and they don't just skip...or stutter. They freeze, the movie and the machine as well. This is progress?

Ma Bell's phones were the most indestructible things built by man, and there must be thousands of them still in garages and landfills around the world able to be plugged in and get a dial tone. Yet I put a magnet too close to my cell phone and it'll be rendered useless.

People used to put old pictures of their relatives into a shoebox and store it under the bed. You could pull it out years later and see that dress great aunt Eunid wore to the inaguration, or the Studebaker parked on the lawn of the old house on Crescent St. Only the Polaroids showed signs of fading.

But personally, I haven't held a picture in my hand in 8 years.

I look at them online now. A lot of my old pics are on my old computer - which is down in the basement, which crashed 3 years ago. I guess I really have to figure out how to get them off that drive that won't spin up anymore. No negatives, either; I uploaded them directly from my digital camera and I have no backup.

I have more pictures on this stack of zip discs here in the drawer. Too bad my zip drive fried when I spilled coffee on it last summer.

I used to know a guy who would recover data from old computers and give you a print-out. He used to do a great amount of business, but I haven't been in touch lately. I had his number in my Palm, but the software hasn't been updated and I can't access the number. Which would be handy, because all my old high school friends are also stuck in my Palm. I beamed them in at the last reunion.

If he calls me, I'll have to save his number into my cell.


jtsjimjames said...

I too, like you, have been involved in the film world in some way, shape or form since the late 1960's. It was a time when the likes of Arthur Penn, Kubrick, Altman, his protégé, Alan Rudolph, Mike Nichols, John Schlesinger--to name a few directors from a handful of films that stand out on my shelf of DVD's in front of me--got noticed and went on to make a name for themselves. Even though Oliver did win the Oscar for Best Picture over 2001 in 1968, Kubrick continued to keep his personal, almost paranoid, vision or maybe he kept that vision because of it...? Writer's then like Robert Towne, Robert Benton, William and James Goldman combined forces with these forenamed directors who in turn rounded up some new and upcoming actors, Hoffman, Voight, Beatty, Dunaway, Nicholson and they all put on a show for us. And you know what, we loved it. I believe we loved it because it was intimate. It was an ensemble, a combination of talent and spirit that produced films that spoke to us in a special way, a way we could understand. That rapport that we the audience had then with what was portrayed made the difference. A relationship developed. We became lovers, film lovers.
I believe the relationship started to flounder with the advent of what came to be termed, the ‘blockbuster’, and the film that had the most to do with that was Jaws in 1975, opening in an unprecedented 465 screens nationwide (for a concise description of that phenomena, see
Maybe we should in part blame the likes of Spielberg and Lucas? Maybe these young and upcoming film school wunderkinds, though well intentioned, paved the way to the hell we perceive in the modern day film industry, from the emergence of the concept film and the ‘just like…only better’ story pitch, to the pallid condition of the movie theatre industry itself at the end of the chain.
And isn’t it really a question of supply and demand turning into a story of greed and apathy? Giving people what they want, or what you think they want may not always be a good thing. The movie going audience, the general public is insatiable and gluttonous and if they keep forking over the cash, you, the film industry exec, feel kind of obligated in a greedy way to keep them full or die trying.
But it’s just entertainment, isn’t it? All in good fun, no?
I often think of the film North Dallas Forty, a film about one far off unfulfilled dream feeding off another. The trouble is, the dream providing the impetus is based on a corrupt system outside of the dreamer’s control, thus the unfulfilled dream is threatened by extinction. In the story Nick Nolte is a has-been football player who still has a place on the bench, but is quickly reaching the end of his career having yet to fulfil his dream, who has yet to make that fabulous catch and end-run play. He is not a completely admirable character, possessing vices and flaws that, though he reaches for his goal, make it unattainable. He is the real antihero. And because of his weaknesses, he is easily victimised by the powers that be, the decision makers, the owners and coaches of the team who dangle the carrot, making promises to him, while keeping a firm foot on his neck and then accuse him of not trying. It is at that point that Nick Nolte utters his famous line in the film…when I call it a game, you call it a business, and when I call it a business, you call it a game. It’s his epiphany, the moment he realises that to ‘win’ he has to play their game and he knows too, that in playing their game, they hold all the cards and he may just lose his dream, the far off one.
The film industry—is it a business or is it a game?
Tell the people what they want, sounds like a Goldwynism.
Will the people decide? Is it their fault? Are they the antiheroes, well intentioned yet flawed?
Or is it like Norma Desmond said, “…it’s the pictures that got small.”

Kenn Fong said...

The problem with technology isn't always with the technology itself. Movies shot on and projected from real film are beautiful with subtle rich tones - if the operator/projectionist handles the print with respect and cleaned the equipment.

However, if these measures aren't taken, a print gets scratched, dirty, the audio track skips and pops, all of which were not intended by the directer and DP when they created the movie.

How much of a compromise is digital? Sure, it doesn't have the lush beauty of real film. But what good is that lush beauty if you have to "enjoy" it with scratches or other flaws. The nice thing about digital projection is the presentation will be free of those distractions. (If only digital could also fire lasers to stun people who talk and open up their cell phones during a movie.)

(I watch DVD movies on my 20-inch iMac LCD display positioned about two feet from my eyes. I enjoy the experience infinitely more than any big screen occasion in recent memory.)

The same is true of all technology mentioned in this post. A trove of family images is frozen in an obsolete computer that won't boot stuck in the basement. But that dependable shoe box or album of photographs is just as vulnerable to a fire or the attempts to extinguish it. Without proper care, that box of photographs might just as easily be ruined by a curious child with peanut butter and jelly-coated fingers.

So nothing is perfect. Yes, those old-fashioned dial telephones most likely still work but have been consigned to landfills. But they didn't include a little screen to display the caller's name so I can decide if I want to speak with that person right now and the handset was tethered to the base unit. If someone wasn't home, the call would go unanswered.

My last three combination cordless telephone/answering machines died for unknown reasons, and weren't worth repairing so they joined their previously mentioned predecessors. Each replacement cost the same or less than the previous, and had more features, which I had a choice to use or ignore.

Yes, it's easy to look back nostalgically and think things were better in the old days, even if our old days were not the days of open sewage, hand-pumped water, cholera, and other hazards. And in the "good ole days" people in California didn't know their president had been assassinated until days after he first laid cold in a pine box.

Even the Amish find a way to get their neighbors to call for an ambulance when one of their flock has a heart attack.

As much as we gaze over our shoulders longing for a simpler time, I for one, am glad that I live today. If I get curious about the pedigree of a Kentucky Derby filly who placed second and then broke down just yards from her triumph, I can tap a few keys and summon up her bloodline going back 12 generations to find out that she had the great stallion Native Dancer and three of his grandsons (one appearing twice) on both sides of his family tree. Along with the speed and musculature, Native Dancer passed down a peculiar gait ill-suited for his descendants with even greater layers of musculature built atop slender ankles.

I'm glad I was born when I was, thank you very much.

Alameda, California
Selfindulgent Rants

Roger Leatherwood said...

KF is right - "nothing is perfect."

The lie to digital is that it is also susceptible to deterioration, and while it's not visible scratches, it is vulnerable to downright 100% failure. And it will be obsolete a lot quicker than that shoebox. (See subsequent post.)