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.


Samantha said...

"Thank you for the enlightening post. Appreciate it a lot.
Subliminal messaging can indeed be very powerful. Interesting enough, a website (non-aff link) sells a bunch of subliminal programs. Might be interesting to check them out. "

Anonymous said...

Sorry, but 35MM film looks like total shit these days too...automated high speed processing leaves ALOT to be desired...and I count, on average, at least 2 mid-frame splices per feature. Nothing beats a communal film experience - but the industry is shooting themselves in the foot on every corner....multiplexes are PG-13 babysitters and nothing more...quality is out the window and prices are through the roof. The system is gamed too fail anything besides tweener, while I still go see the occasional major release - and champion indie theater and vintage film with all my lifeblood (and finances!) is here to stay....and shit looks damn good with uncompressed (in terms of delivery format) 1080P on my 46" television....the real question is when the industry as a whole decides to embrace modern avenues fully instead of trying to make them fail while cheapening all the traditional avenues as well......leaving true consumers with little choice besides downloading illegal copies with questionable quality......

Roger L. said...

"Educated" consumers will seek out quality. Indeed the exhibition industry has fallen most (not all) instances towards sub-par presentation, but the end-all answer is not digital, for financial, aesthetic, and archival reasons.

You sound like you've experienced the dying gasps of a aged business model that is on life-support. There are other options. Not all theatres are the same.

The point of the post is that the communal experience is leaving us for good. The audiences should care.

Thanks for your thoughts.


Kenn Fong said...


This whole discussion sounds a lot like the ones we had when you were my manager and we worked together at one of the grand dinosaurs known as a movie theatre. (Hell, the place even looked like a fossil from the inside, with its carvernous architecture revealed for all to see, trapped in time and revered by "preservationists" who insisted it was their favorite venue while informing us they only bought tickets because the other, more modern, dinosaur was sold out.)

I concede that at one time there was merit to the idea of sharing the experience with a crowd of strangers. However, the inconvenience of having to travel to a venue other than my own home, enduring conditions which I cannot control such as starting time, ambient comfort, rude fellow customers, a feature which continues playing despite my need to exit the auditorium for calls of nature, etcetera... etcetera. (I say, echoing Yul Brenner, a reference I shall not bother to explain because those who would care would already know it and those who do not know it would not care.)

I do not need a massive physical screen to sate my motion picture appetite. My 20-inch iMac liquid crystal display does very well, with its built-in stereo speakers. Set just 18 inches from my eyeballs, I get a crisp and clean image which occupies the same expanse of my field of vision as I'd get sitting 16 rows back in the old movie theatre where we used to work.

But I get a lot more. I get a movie I can start and stop when I choose, volume I can raise or lower to suit my taste, the healthy and tasty snack and beverage of my choosing, and -- this I can't equal in any movie theatre -- my adorable 12-year-old American shorthair cat, Jewel, purring contentedly in my lap.

I don't have to sit near someone whose questionable hygiene or worse yet, cologne bath will upset me, and force me to give up the seat I carefully chose when I arrived a half-hour earlier than my late arriving neighbor, who fancied his time too valuable to sit through his misnomered (is that a word?) "commercials," which in reality are only policy statements and trailers. ("Trailers," now there's a misnomer!)

Inevitably, my late-arriving neighbor has smuggled in pizza or a something from a Chinese, Mexican, Indian take-away, and not only the aroma, but the sound of the crinkling, but the pervasive aromatic blanket which accompanies the rule-breaking meal is enough to make me nauseous and take me out of the movie.

He has so thoughtfully shared the odor of his meal, which forces ME to interrupt the movie experience for others, as I try to cause them little disturbance while escaping to an unoccupied area on the wings of the theatre, which now affords me both an angular view of the screen AND a seat far-removed from the aural center of the theatre.

So now I've settled into my seat and gotten back into the movie experience as well as possible when I note I'm sitting below a heating vent. I consider leaving the auditorium to ask if the heat might be shut off only to recall that the center of the auditorium was considerably cooler and decide to endure the discomfort in favor of the customers in center, who might need the warmth.

Somewhere around the third reel, I have to get up to answer a call of nature, and decide this is also the time for a delicious beverage. Ignoring my experience as a coworker to the unfortunates employed at the snack bar (also known as another misnomer, "the concessions" which are wholly owned by the grand proprietor of the theatre as a whole). I said "ignoring my experience," because I remember watching them load the ice wells at the soda fountain with a bucket which is regularly placed on the filthy floor or worse, on the grimy lid to the large cart used to shlep the ice from the ice maker, a lid which is used as a bench by these poorly educated wretches who either have no knowledge of hygiene or if they do, fail to care enough for the well-being of their customers to take even the most rudimentary measures to ensure safe food handling.

So I trundle back to my seat with my bladder freshly emptied, hoping to replace that void with a huge, over-priced container of artificially flavored and articificially-sweetened carbonated water and salmonella tainted-ice. Meanwhile, about ten minutes of movie has passed and I have to patch up the plot holes in my head as I watch the balance.

I get comfortable and slowly infect myself with various intestinal fauna and flora only to notice some additional dialogue! One of my fellow customers is thoughtfully explaining the plot to a friend who couldn't make the movie. Not wanting to miss the experience, he called his buddy in the theatre, and his ill-mannered friend decided to answer, after only 15 seconds of loud rap music serving as a ring-tone.

[By the way, I also had to listen to people talk all around me when I was a guest at screening in a private, industry-only, movie theatre.]

All of a sudden, the sound goes out and we're treated to minutes of what Erich von Stroheim called "MOS," or "mit out sound!" What a treat! With 2/3rds of the movie in my head, I decide I've had enough. Your replacement stands there in the lobby with a worried face and a handful of "re-admits," or "Re-Admission Tickets""as he explains that the projectionist has been called, and is working on the problem.

I politely refuse the re-admit, and insist on a refund. I swear an oath to my Netflix as I add my truncated movie to my queue: I'm never cheating on you again, even though it means I have to wait 5 or 6 months to see some new movies.

Kenn, stuck in a Blue State

Roger L. said...

Fantastic story, Kenn and it deserves a posting all its own. The point of my post, I guess, is that there are values inherent in the old style of "film" that will not be recoverable in the future. Regardless of what's/who's sitting in front of it.

And the future audiences may not ever miss it. And if that's a reason to be nostalgic or glum is a topic for another post.

Best, Roger

Kenn Fong said...


Of course, my account was an amalgam of various experiences. The last one, which made me swear I would never go to a movie theatre again (unless someone else required my company) was sitting in a private screening room full of industry professionals. I could not believe it. There was talking all through the auditorium!

I had made the mistake of sitting in front of my hosts. I should have sat behind them, so I could get up and walk out and enjoy some fresh air.

I think there will come a time when everything is released for streaming on day and date with theatrical.

By the way, I do know the experience you speak of, seeing a movie with a respectful crowd of strangers in a dark room. You recommended "Pepe Le Moko" to me, and I saw it at the Castro. I also saw some other French noirs at the Castro ("Bob Le Flambeur") and it was a joy to be with a like-minded crowd, and my pleasure was enhanced by exchanging some small talk about the picture afterwards we walked out.


Roger L. said...

A large part of the experience of going to films nowadays is picking the theatre (and therefore the demographic surrounding you?) as carefully as the film.

I saw a screening of Cool Hand Luke on the Warners lot recently - industry people (of all stripes and levels) who sat in reverence of the film...and of Mr. Newman.

You could have heard a pin drop.

Thanks again for reading.