Sunday, November 23, 2008

Art Vs. Artifice

Looking without seeing. This academic-sounding exploration of genre is not necessarily backed up by deep insight; it's inspired by the fact that half the time I'm not sure if what I just saw was intended....
_ _ _

We respond to films (and most art in general) by what we're familiar with. Genres allow us to categorize certain works easily, to expect what is likely to happen, and to be pleased and comforted by what comes to pass in the plot.

For example, westerns use as their standard thematic landscape moral tales of forces of right and wrong, of tension between progress, morality, and historical tradition (or more pointedly, nostalgia). Science fiction films place their plots in an alternate world, either in the future or past, or in some other realm in which a different use and/or sense of scientific inquiry is at work, in order to investigate man's place in a hyper-facilitated environment (often at the expense of the human spirit; otherwise why set them in a science-itized (not a word) future?).

These thematic artifices serve to allow the genres - and their inherent strengths - to address effectively (and serves also to let us anticipate and appreciate) the rhetorical arguments the films intend to be engaged in. The plot machinations delight us as they unfold, and may even surprise us. But only to a degree.

We don't like to be too surprised. We want a musical to have singing. If it's a Superman movie, we want to see him fly. Pornography has naked people, and violent movies have the color red.

Yet we should resist being fooled into thinking a work of art is meaningful merely because an expected depiction of an element is appropriate. In an age of increasingly self-reflexive art, it's increasingly easy to identify - and "cooly" accept of the Haskell Wexler sort - something that is little more than artifice. Window dressing. Visual name-dropping. Is putting a red plastic nose on the man in a nightclub identify him as the entertainer?

The whiz-bang surfaces of films today stun and narcotize (a word), and in the process may bypass deeper thematic meaning - if there is one. The thrill comes at the expense of permitting or expecting us to mediate upon the artifices. The props by which we categorize and codify a work of art aren't enough to simply be represented.

They must represent.

They must be exploited, through story, through use as texture (background or characteristic iconography) or as symbol or thematic talisman. Sometimes the tools fail the filmmakers when they're so overwhelmed by a virtuoso ability to create craven images available to them nowadays.

The power of film is that generic tropes, tricks, and devices that make up a detective film or a musical represent specific subtextural outlooks. They're not arbitrary. They're constructs which are (must be) planned. There are schedules, lights and microphone wires that have to be hidden. Actors that must recite scripts, while a camera records. Film must be developed, transferred and edited in an appropriate way. Music is added. The images are manipulated with effects to create narrative and pacing.

All this is artifice, in service (we presume) of the artistic statement to be made.

The post-modern surface of films, and of "film" in general, now more foregrounded than ever with behind-the-scenes, cable-channel exposes, and outtakes over the credits, may prevent us from reflecting back to ourselves what the artistic thrust of any work of art may be trying to show us.

Are we merely responding to the cultural cues, rather than a deeper resonant meaning?

The how of the thing is getting in the way of the why.

The shiny surface of something - the pretty glamour gimcracks and fuzzy dice - may disguise the fact that some of these entertaining articulated robots have no souls.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

30 Frames A Second

Digital cinema uses as its source a computer-based file that is comprised of bits, a(n often) rather massive file for all the information that photographic films carry in each frame. It's been estimated that each frame of 35mm film, frames that are "this" (see how close together my fingers are) small, have the equivalent of 40 mg of information - multiply that by 24 frames a second, then 60 seconds per minute, 120+ minutes per film, and you the the idea of the burden of projecting such a file smoothly without hiccups.

Of course the beauty (and curse) of computer files is that they are compressed where detailed information doesn't need to (or can't) be captured. Digital cinema projects at a higher rate as well, 30 frames or even 60 frames a second (the new 3-d processes double this, with the smart glasses to address each eye).

Digital images can capture an amazing amount of the information from a photo-chemical original, but something happens when it's transferred to a higher-rate of presentation. Everything, including scratches, shutter movement, grain and the "slow" flicker can be scanned out. Color tones notwithstanding, the sheer "perfect" evenness of it is uncannily unlike film.

Cinema has unique qualities - it's a physical carrier with pigments, light-absorbing (and light-enhancing) molecules by which a bright light (carbon arc or xenon-based bulb) shines through onto a large reflective screen. It jerks through the projector 24 times a second, and the unique qualities of each frame, often visible by the grain in skies or even unmoving fields are distinguishable by the eye, even if just below the conscious level, as well as the discrete details of the action, captured by the original camera, which also ran at 24 frames a second, grabbing only a fraction of the activity in front of it, serially but incomplete. The actors kept moving as the shutter closed for a split second and reopened, to take another photograph, a moment later, millimeters shifted, and even blurred as the shutter opened again, closed, opened.

The mechanical reproduction of action, tied to the methodical re-presentation of it in a theatrical environment, creates the magic of a transcendental conveyance of the original experience. The art of good editing is famously about what to leave out, and those gaps between frames are like discreet and elliptical question marks. The frames are montage, images juxtaposed in Eisenstein-ian collision, 24 visible frames per second.

We respond to film, projected as such, in a different way than the 30-frames-per-second even-stream (I'm coining a word) of digital projection. I've seen digital restorations of old films (originally film) projected digitally - for example the recent high-end restoration of "Cool Hand Luke" and was surprised to discover it had a haunting lack of "filminess." This isn't a question of image quality - the actual look was clean and clear (I'm still not sure about the blacks) - but of the lack of fluttering juxtaposition of images in a determined perceptible and mechanical rhythm.

The quality of actual film projected creates some sense of urgency. Our gaze is excited and drawn forward in an active way - the gaps are in a way as important as the images in sequence themselves.

It is not a passive medium, like television and its visual drone of perfect even-stream, as first documented in the '60s.

Some of this may have to do as well with being in a large dark room, looking up at the flickering screen, being presented with pieces of a story we put together on a literal as well as symbolic level. The experience is akin to the tribal shaman in ancient times telling the myths of the people in front of the fire at night. There's the flicker, the dark, and your imagination filling in the gaps.

I began thinking about this issue when I saw Pixar's "Wall-E" this year, both digitally and "photo-chemically" projected 2 different times days apart. The source is originally digital of course, and has no "grain" or visual imperfections (intentional lens flares notwithstanding) but was manipulated to recreate movement as film would capture it. (95% of all theatres worldwide do still project film.)

The digital presentation was brighter, more even, and the color palette was declarative to the point of arrogance. The film presentation was darker, demonstrated grain... but seemed somehow "warmer" and more engaging.

Was it just because of the flicker? A story about a robot surrounded by failing technology seemed to benefit from an analog aesthetic that engaged a cognitive sense of perception, not just in its creation, but in its subsequent presentation. My impression of the analog "Wall-E" proves my impression of the digital "Cool Hand Luke." Digital is too concerned with the shiny and perfectly rendered surface.

Not with what the audience may make of it. It's a failure to communicate.