Monday, October 06, 2008

The Virtues of Conservative Cinema

Roger Ebert explains why he's a film conservative (in the small-c sense of "cautious about change or innovation"):

For some time past I've realized I am profoundly conservative. No, not in my politics. In my thinking about the movies, and particularly about how best to experience them. This may be a character flaw, but I cherish it, and believe it helps my criticism. I adhere to the notion that the best way to see a movie is by light projected through celluloid onto a large screen in front of a sizable audience that gives it their full attention. The key words here are projected, celluloid, large screen and attention.
His best explanations are for the first two terms:
Projected. I somehow feel it is right for the movie to originate behind me. In a strange way, it seems to be originating inside my mind and expressing itself on the screen, rather than originating on the screen and approaching me.

Celluloid. Film carries more color and tone gradations than the eye can perceive. It has characteristics such as a nearly imperceptible jiggle that I suspect makes deep areas of my brain more active in interpreting it. Those characteristics somehow make the movie seem to be going on instead of simply existing.
I like how he also touches on a note of doubt:
Now we have the reality of HD in the home, and very high quality video projection in theaters. I held out against video projection for years, when it really was pretty shabby. Now I acknowledge it is pretty damned good. I prefer to see a movie in a theatrical setting but love my home setup. It kept me in business when I was getting up speed after my illness. Is my preference for celluloid only sentimental? Partly. I no longer instantly know if a movie is being projected digitally. My subconscious may be losing something, as I suggested, but consciously I'm not aware of missing much. That said, it is still true that no digital projection can match 70mm, and I continue to yearn for the dream of MaxiVision 48, which exists in an altogether higher realm.

Digital video vs. celluloid film finds its obvious analogue (as Ebert points out) between digital text vs. paper books. Still, I'm more interested in Ebert's pinpointing of projection, screen size, and attention as qualities essential to the cinematic experience. (This also helps show why the term "cinema" is often preferable to the admittedly sexy "film.") The physicality of a medium isn't just in how it's recorded and transferred, but in how it's viewed, touched, or heard.

What assumptions about presenting text, images, music, and video are shifting under our feet, helped along by the digital revolution, but in some sense independent from it? That's what I'd like to know.


Robin Sloan said...

I love the bit about the light coming from behind you. I'd never thought of that; it's great.

This question deeply affects most media, I think: Where is the light coming from?? Think of a book vs. a laptop. A painting vs. a screen.

Tim said...

Light is obviously important for visible media, but it's arguably increasingly important for all media. Think about trying to navigate an iPod, or a cellular phone.

This is something I spend a lot of time discussing with my students: writing is visible language.

Ezra Pound: Man reading should be man intensely alive. The book should be a ball of light in one's hand.

I'm also deeply attached to this quote from Franz Kafka: The lighted electric lamp, the quiet room, the darkness outside, the last moment of waking, they give me the right to write even if that is the most miserable. And this right I use hurriedly. That’s how I am.