Who Turned Out The Dark?: Visual Shrinkage in the Digital Age
George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, good buddies in their student days, are frequently cited as the first Computer Boys of the film industry. Both have claimed that film itself is a technology.
Maybe they’re still saying it, but times have changed. We live in a time where film is becoming data. Digitalization of movies has been discussed at length, especially the presumed effect on preservation, fidelity, and economics. But what about us? How does it change the moviegoing experience? For decades, shooting 24 frames across the screen in one second was a miracle. Should we be bothered by all the Ones and Zeros?
Regardless of whether you have a simple crush on Jude Law or an incurable obsession with film, it’s almost guaranteed that you have seen at least a clip of something online and done so illegally. According to the NPD Group, for every legally downloaded movie in the US there are twelve pictures obtained illegally. The MPAA claims that this trend costs the industry over 20 billion dollars annually. A Nielson study states that 73% of adults avoid movie theaters because they believe the cost to be too high. But can we really blame Hollywood? The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, and Lord of the Rings have accounted for a dominating share of 21st Century Hollywood income, not to mention the numerous superhero releases. Some blockbusters manage to maintain decent critical opinion, but the majority are met with disdain — even by the millions of people willing to shell out $8 to see them. Even those of us who need to constantly satiate our film addiction know that The Digital Age has changed the game. Cinephilia has always been a wild race, but now it’s a stationary sprint. Elaborate home theaters and tiny computers have replaced the Silver Screen. It used to be a global scavenger hunt for the newest restoration of Napoleon, now the adventure hardly takes us further than the laundry room. Instead of chasing down that elusive screening of Fig Leaves with our friends, we wait for a torrent or, in the worst case, Criterion to publish a $30 special edition Blu-Ray. The data and our own habits have taught us that convenience trumps quality. The Digital Age has brought history’s theater to our laps.
With this type of access, entertainment has become a right, not a product. And despite the connectivity achieved through technology, it has made a generation of stupid viewers, disconnected from creativity.
The advent of YouTube, Hulu, torrents, P2P networks, and countless other video hosts have trained viewers to accept the Small Screen. In the early days of television, some great filmmakers like Robert Altman and Alfred Hitchcock experimented with the new medium. Both were, to an extent, unable to cope with the reduction in size. Altman’s detailed spaces pushed him toward a successful career creating for a much larger screen. Similarly, Hitchcock was stumped by the mistranslation of his usual cinematic force. Downloading a copy of Psycho will reward the viewer with a 13” picture (if seen full-screen) of Janet Leigh’s mouth. Hitch had strict rules about Psycho’s viewing conditions and allowed no one to enter after the picture began. He also intended for her mouth to be about 40’ wide.
Think of all the iconic Hollywood imagery that has relied on the overwhelming effect of projection. “Here’s Johnny!”, the three primary Star Wars battles, Beyond the Infinite, Ethan Edwards walking out the doorway. Directors have understood the magic behind Clark Gable’s 40 foot face versus Clark Gable’s 13 inch face. Cinema has always worked to overwhelm and enchant us through exaggeration. Watching movies on a computer screen also diminishes our sensitivity to detail and fidelity. Jacques Tati directed and performed some of the most sublime and enjoyable comedies since Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. His command of large screen formats allowed him to produce a picture like Play Time where one single frame can contain numerous gags.
On a computer screen, these details may be lost because of their size. In a theater, they may be lost because Tati intentionally assaults the audience with overwhelming architectural and spatial design. This type of geographical control is not limited to European cinema. Nick Ray, creator of Rebel Without a Cause, In a Lonely Place, and Bigger Than Life, had an unequalled gift for showing how a character can be dwarfed by their surroundings. These spatial relationships are certainly evident on a computer screen, but they fail to communicate character empathy. I believe this to be a critical effect of Visual Shrinkage. Small screens and their general environment are not designed for focus or privacy and, as a result, we are at a greater remove from the action in which we were originally intended to be submerged.
As a work study, I put in hours at the Video Collection in our university library. Fellow students most often come to view an assigned film or two. Rarely is this accomplished with any amount of finesse. Food is banned in the viewing room, but computers and talking are not. Those who come in pairs generally resort to loud chatter after 30 minutes or so. Those who come alone are checking Facebook within 10.
King Vidor once claimed that sound cinema ended theater etiquette. According to him, there weren’t even concessions during the silent years, though most films were accompanied by some form of sound. He might be right. Sound marked the end of universal filmmaking and the beginning of cinematic multitasking. By their very nature, sound film requires us to both listen and watch. Most work is complex enough where we are also asked to think about historical, allegorical, and symbolic connections. Also, once we are old enough to possess critical faculties, our viewing is lined with consistent evaluation. Anyone who cries “Lazy!” at extended watching has clearly never experienced the overwhelming and engrossing power of cinema. Not only do computer screens eliminate much of that power through Shrinkage, they offer immediate distraction. With all the talk of shorter attention spans in my generation, I’m convinced that our focus levels are the same — it’s our options that have grown. At any given time of computer use, including now, I have 13 windows open, not counting the infinite web tabs that line the top of my browser, the books littering my bed, a busy phone, and Mr. Earl Scruggs picking his way out of my speakers. How can we consider that a reasonable environment for consuming art? This is not only a problem with our viewing, it is also part of the reason theater ticket prices are so miserably high. Hollywood can’t maintain the magic of the dark when our standards are low enough to expect magic in a dorm room bog.
By far the most devastating effect of technology on moviegoing is the disappearance of the dark. The dark is dangerous. We fall in love in it. We get scared in it. We are vulnerable in it. Going to the movies renders all of us powerless. We don’t have the power to pause, only pretend. At home, the magic in that widening flood of light is reduced to a dim glow on our faces. The privacy and mystery of the dark is disturbed and the secret relationships that bind us with the screen are interrupted by reality. Lang, Hitchcock, Hawks, Fuller, and many others understood the sexuality of cinema. The simple act of looking up at glittering idols, literally larger than life, is charged with desire and passion. My generation might laugh at the idealized love scenes of Golden Age Hollywood, but they are dynamite in the dark. How many people have learned about love through movies? Postmodern society dictates this as dangerous, but it is a certain truth. The Birds and the Bees will never replace Boogie Nights. No 8th grade romance will compete with Casablanca or The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. John Wayne can teach you everything you need to know about being a man. The dark has become a wild classroom of humanity. When technology turns the lights on, we don’t waltz back into reality, we fall deeper and deeper down into distraction.
All of us have experienced the violent disorientation of walking out of a cool, dark theater into the light of day. The magic is sucked out of our eyes and replaced by a vague world, infinitely small compared to our imagination. Movies aren’t technology. Movies are made with technology. Movies are make-believe.