Floating in the Digital Experience (The New York Times)
By Manohla Dargis
HOW much our world of moving-image entertainment has changed in the past decade! We now live in a world of the 24-Hour Movie, one that plays anytime and anywhere you want (and sometimes whether you want it to or not). It’s a movie we can access at home by pressing a few buttons on the remote (and agreeing to pay more for it than you might at the local video store) or with a few clicks of the mouse. The 24-Hour Movie now streams instead of unspools, filling our screens with images that, more and more, have been created algorithmically rather than photographically.
And yet how little our world of moving-image entertainment has changed! On April 14, 1896, The New York Times ran an article with the exciting if cryptic headline “Edison’s Latest Triumph.” The triumph was the Vitascope, a machine that “projects upon a large area of canvas groups that appear to stand forth from the canvas, and move with great facility and agility, as though actuated by separate impulses.” A proprietor of the music hall where the Vitascope was shown off said this machine would reproduce “scenes from various successful plays and operas of the season, and well-known statesmen and celebrities,” adding, “No other manager in this city will have the right to exhibit the Vitascope.”
Today, even when digital, our movies are still filled with celebrities and scenes from successful plays (and books and comics), and the owners of image technologies continue to hold on to their exclusive rights ferociously. Edison didn’t invent the Vitascope, but that’s another story. The story I want to tell here does involve him. But first I want to fast-forward to a recent night when, at a movie theater rigged for 3-D projection, I saw James Cameron’s “Avatar” with an audience that watched the screen with the kind of fixed attention that has become rare at the movies. True, everyone was wearing 3-D glasses, which makes it difficult to check your cellphone obsessively, but they also seemed captivated.
When it was over, people broke into enthusiastic applause and, unusually, many stayed to watch the credits, as if to linger in the movie. Although much has been made of the technologies used in “Avatar,” its beauty and nominal politics, it is the social experience of the movie — as an event that needs to be enjoyed with other people for maximum impact — which is more interesting. That’s particularly true after a decade when watching movies became an increasingly solitary affair, something between you and your laptop. “Avatar” affirms the deep pleasures of the communal, and it does so by exploiting a technology (3-D), which appears to invite you into the movie even as it also forces you to remain attentively in your seat.
“Avatar” serves as a nice jumping-off point to revisit how movies and our experience of them have changed. For starters, when a critic calls a new release “a film” these days, there’s a chance that what she (and you) are looking at wasn’t made with film processes but was created, from pre-visualization to final credits, with digital technologies. Yet, unless a director or distributor calls attention to the technologies used — as do techno-fetishists like Michael Mann and David Fincher, who used bleeding-edge digital cameras to make “Collateral” (2004) and “Zodiac” (2007) — it’s also probable that most reviewers won’t mention if a movie was even shot in digital, because they haven’t noticed or don’t care.
This seems like a strange state of affairs. Film is profoundly changing — or, if you believe some theorists and historians, is already dead — something that most moviegoers don’t know. Yet, because the visible evidence of this changeover has become literally hard to see, and because the implications are difficult to grasp, it is also understandable why the shift to digital has not attracted more intense analysis outside film and media studies. Bluntly put, something is happening before our eyes. We might see an occasional digital artifact (usually, a bit of unintentional data) when a director shoots digital in bright light — look for a pattern of squares or a yellowish tint — but we’re usually too busy with the story to pay much mind.
Should you care? I honestly don’t know, because I’m not sure what to think about this brave new image world we have entered. I love the luxurious look and warmth of film, and I fervently hope it never disappears. And yet many of us who grew up watching movies in the predigital era have rarely experienced the ones in, and shown on, film in all their visual glory: battered prints and bad projection have helped thwart the ideal experience. Theater 80 St. Marks, a downtown Manhattan repertory house where I spent a lot of time in the 1970s, showed threadbare prints of classic and not-so-classic movies in rear projection, which meant they often looked worse on screen than they did on my television back home.
It is because the movies and our experience of them has changed so radically in recent years — we can pull a movie out of our pocket now, much as earlier generations pulled out a paperback — that makes it difficult to grasp what is happening. In 1996, Susan Sontag set off a storm in cine-circles with an essay, “The Decay of Cinema,” which could have been titled the death of specialized cinephilia, one centered on art-house film (“quintessentially modern”), from Dziga Vertov to Jean-Luc Godard, and experienced inside a movie theater, “ideally the third-row center.” Sontag’s essay inspired a spate of similarly themed if often less vigorous examinations: Google the words “death of cinema,” and you get more than 2.5 million hits.
In one sense the beginning of the end of cinema as we tend to understand it can be traced to 1933, the year that a feature-length film — a 1932 detective tale called “The Crooked Circle” — was first shown on television. Few Americans owned sets in the 1930s, but the genie was already out of the bottle, or, rather, the movies were out of the theater. As televisions began to fill postwar American homes — from an estimated 20,000 in 1946 to 30.5 million in 1955 — so did the movies, which, despite Hollywood’s initial anxiety, became a crucial television staple. (The studios soon learned that television was a revenue source.) Generations of cinephiles fell in love with the object of their obsession while flopped on the floor, basking in the glow of the family television.
In “The Virtual Life of Film,” an elegant 2007 inquiry into the past, present and future of film, the theorist D. N. Rodowick writes, “All that was chemical and photographic is disappearing into the electronic and digital.” Film captures moments in time, preserving them spatially in images we can root around in, get lost in. Digital delivers data, zeroes and ones that are transformed into images, and this is a difference to contemplate. The truth is that the film object has already changed, from preproduction to projection. And the traditional theatrical experience that shaped how viewers looked at film and, by extension, the world, has been mutating for some time. The new types of image consumption and digital technologies have complicated our understanding of cinema.
And yet we still watch movies. And if it looks like a duck (in widescreen) and quacks like a duck (in stereo), nothing has changed, right? It has and it hasn’t, as we will only understand as film continues to disappear. These days instead of falling in love with the movies at home in front of the television, new generations fall in love with movies they watch on hand-held devices that, however small, play images that are larger than those Edison showed to customers before the invention of the Vitascope. A teenager watching a movie on her iPhone might not be looking at an actual film. But she is enjoying something like it, something that because of its narrative strategies and visual style carries the deep imprint of cinema.
It’s also a good bet that this teenager also watches movies in theaters. If she goes to “Avatar,” she will see a movie that, despite its exotic beauty, seems familiar, even in 3-D. Narrative cinema employs devices, from camera placement to editing, that direct your attention and, if the movie is successful and you fall under its sway, lock you into the story. Mr. Cameron might be a visionary of a type, but he’s an old-fashioned (and canny) storyteller and he locks you in tightly. The 3-D images are often spectacular, and his characters, like the figures in that 1896 Edison film, “appear to stand forth from the canvas, and move with great facility and agility, as though actuated by separate impulses.”
You can get lost in a movie, or so it seems, and melt into its world. But even when seated third row center and occupying two mental spaces, you understand that you and the movie inhabit separate realms. When I watched “The Dark Knight” in Imax, I felt that I was at the very edge of the screen. “Avatar,” in 3-D, by contrast, blurs that edge, closing the space between you and the screen even more. Like a video game designer, Mr. Cameron seems to want to invite you into the digital world he has created even if, like a film director, he wants to determine your route. Perched between film and digital, “Avatar” shows us a future in which movies will invite us further into them and perhaps even allow us to choose not just the hero’s journey through the story, but also our own.