Monday, September 22, 2008
The Wave Of The Future is a Stream
It's been about 100 years since going out to the movies had become a - arguably the - significant cultural ritual among Americans.
This was a predominantly bottom-up migration of art, unlike most developing artforms. Classical music began in the parlors of the kings, and in well-heeled concert halls. Slowly with the democratization and spread of instruments and delivery systems (records, for example) did "high" music finally arrive down to the untrained and unwashed masses.
Likewise, literature was originally the sole provence of the well-educated. Film, in large part because it didn't have the barrier of a specific language in the early age, and also because the visual is a powerful seducer, connected first with the "common" crowds of immigrants - those willing and needing to bundle together in unsafe public places to share in a larger-than-life, undiscriminating communal experience at the turn of the century.
These common shows in fact kept the uptown folks away... for awhile. The movie industry grew and thrived on the multitudes in large public theatres. Most of the inventors of the Hollywood studio systems - Mayer, Loew, Laemmle - actually began in the theatre/nickelodeon business, and moved to production in order to have product for their movie houses.
Dozens of industries, in addition to the ways in which we judge ourselves, individually and as a country, were formed by the movies. Our inner dream lives are haunted by what we've watched in the dark. Strangers, both in the same auditorium and by those across the country, saw the same film, under similar circumstances.
Movies built communities of shared experience; their influence flowed across borders.
But the age of theatres has been under stresses for 40 years. There are powerful financial forces at work moving to make film-going and enjoyment a personal rather than communal experience. Delivering content individually to consumers allows it to be more measurable, addressable, discreet, and billable.
Technological advances, along with industry attitudes (including fear of being left behind) has made this possible, acceptable and unavoidable. The audience has contributed to this creeping deterioration of quality and value, because, in fact, we demand it.
IPhones (do you capitalize that?), iPods, (I'm only suggesting that Apple is merely the messenger, not the harbinger of the apocalypse) and other personal devices have finally convinced enough consumers that portable and personal is better than inconvenient and public. The problem with that binary equation is that the question of quality is not addressed. No one's asking what's "better," only "easier."
Easier for whom?
The format wars over Beta vs. VHS tapes in the '80s were initially and fatally about the convenience of the extended recording time on VHS, regardless of the higher quality of Beta. (This war was fought and lost in the age when the only possible application was to record 3-hour football games (who'd want to own or tape a t.v. show or movie?).) By the time Beta had caught up with the 4-hour limit, there was too much of an installed user base to turn the tide. Beta was better, and it died.
70mm film was phased out in the '80s. An expensive film format, it was twice as large as regular 35mm film prints, with double the grain (and its resultant increased sharpness when projected). It also had 6-track magnetic soundtracks, which were expensive to duplicate and attach to the films, being a separate process and having to be copied closer to "real time" than the newer digital DTTS, DTS, and Dolby's digital formats, which could be duplicated at high-speed, along with the film image.
Much hay was made of these new and improved digital soundtracks ... while completely ignoring the fact that the image part of the equation - 70mm - was being dropped and we'd no longer have the benefit of 100% more clarity, detail and nuance on screen.
Of course, the screens are smaller now.
I was able to see 70mm next door to 35mm of "Titanic" in a theatre I worked at that had two prints. "Titanic"'s original negative was 35mm, and the difference was still shocking and striking.
We don't seem to be insisting on quality anymore. Satellite cable looks like hell, with pixelation and drop-outs, and gray blacks and gray whites. The mp3s on your device have been compressed by 40%, and sound worse than a stereo at the local Goodwill playing the radio. The in-your-ear compensates for the full-breadth needed in a room, with other humans around you.
We've been making fun of aging hippies who insist on playing vinyl, and repairing their tube amps instead of moving to transistor-based electronic instruments.
So it is the same with films, which as an analog chemical-and-light based delivery system with a lot of moving parts is being squeezed out and replaced by the digital perfection of a bit-and-chip-based system.
One day they may get digital to exactly duplicate the look of film in a theatre. But the 24-frames-a-second flickering image, with the subliminal mechanical reproductive projection aspect, will be lost. Digital projects in a stream, sometimes as much as 60 frames per second, in order to look more "real."
Film does not look "real." It is not perfect. The bright light that flashes on and off in quick succession is like the fire at night in front of which the shamen of old would tell the stories of the tribe to the listening peoples, hearing the historic myths and grand fables that made up and formed their culture.
The flicker is an important part of how we receive and cognate the story and its thematic and subtextural meanings.
The future of film delivery will not flicker. It will stream, probably on an electronic device that you control yourself.
The access to the images of the past will change and become easier in many ways, but the very nature of the images will be different. We will consume them differently. Alone. Not in the dark. On the go, and in pieces, not captive.
The age of film is ending. (I've already outlined the declining use in the industry of actual film, in the post "Fin de Cine," here).
The new age is a stream. It's the new wave, and it's a torrent. It can't be stopped.