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Home viewing part 3: What we’ve gained and what we’ve lost

2012/04/04

So the good news is that I remembered where I was going with this series. In fact, maybe I should have just written this instead of everything from the past couple days. I was trying to write about how the way we experience movies has changed over the years and how this has affected us as an audience. I believe we can roughly split up film history into the following periods. Keep in mind that dates are approximate. Most technologies were expensive when introduced and took a few years to catch on.

  1. Early experimental era ~1888-1900: Films in this era were very short, generally a minute or so, and consisted of a single shot documenting an event. They were used as novelties at fairs and sometime between acts in vaudeville.
  2. Silent era ~1900-1929: Narrative films composed of multiple shots. They had no synchronized sound and were typically accompanied by a live pianist or organist. There was quite a bit of development within this period as cinematic grammar developed. We went from one shot per scene to modern concepts of editing, for instance and films got longer. Almost all classic silent films are from the 1920s because of this with a handful in the teens.
  3. Hollywood Golden Age ~1929-1954. Narrative films with synchronized sound seen in specialized exhibition houses owned by the studios or making block-booking deals with them. This meant studios had fairly tight control over what theaters showed and would use their popular movies to make theaters carry their other stuff. Double features with a popular movie followed by a B-movie were common, as were shorts before the feature attraction.
  4. Television Era ~1954-1978: Narrative films with synchronized sound watched in specialized exhibition houses which were independent of the movie industry. Theaters lost control of the studios thanks to the government breaking up their vertical monopoly. In the late fifties, McCarthyism and the Hayes code fell apart. This combination allowed films to tackle new subject matter without the industry stopping them. Color and widescreen became almost universal around this time as well in order to differentiate movies from television, which really took off in the early 1950s. Films were usually exhibited by making a relatively small number of prints by modern standards and showing them in one town for a while, then shipping them to the next. Promotion was a largely local deal. Films that were a few years old and had made the money they were going to make in the theater could be licensed for showing on television. Starting in 1962, budding filmmakers and people who just wanted to document vacations and stuff could shoot on super 8. It was affordable, but low quality and could only be watched with a projector, not on your TV without professional equipment.
  5. Home video/blockbuster era ~1978-1997: You could watch films in the specialized theaters still, or at home. Thanks to the runaway success of Jaws and Star Wars in the mid-seventies, business models for movies shifted toward nationwide promotions with simultaneous opening across the country, which meant making a lot more prints. Home video was available , though didn’t catch on until the mid eighties thanks to a format war and high prices. Stereo sound caught on during this period. Almost all movies had it by the early nineties. It was available at home and laserdisc tech kept up with theaters, but thanks to it being technically complicated and expensive, most people had TV speakers that were a foot or so apart at best. You could rent movies at specialized movie rental places that sprung up and many groceries stores and such started a movie rental side business. Laserdisc was equal to broadcast quality, but it couldn’t record and most people had VHS, which looked pretty bad, even by TV standards. Cable became available, with many specialized channels, so a lot more movies were shown on TV. Camcorders were available, but pretty much aimed at people just documenting events as video editing equipment was expensive and complicated. Also, quality was lower than super 8, which remained the format of choice for amateur filmmakers who couldn’t afford 16 mm.
  6. Early digital era ~1997-2007: Theaters stayed about the same, but DVDs hit. This meant laserdisc quality was affordable for everyone. Also, rentals no longer wore out. Most rental outfits switched to DVDs which were cheaper, lasted longer and took up about a third the space compared to VHS. This made it easier to carry a deeper selection. Late in this period, rentals by mail and kiosk started taking over the traditional rental outlet business especially since the Internet took most of the porn market, which had been big money for video rental places.DVDs almost all had high-quality stereo sound and the equipment to take advantage of this at home got a lot simpler and cheaper. Consumer digital cameras became available and practical, which were cheaper and easier to work with than super 8, which quickly disappeared from the consumer market. The line between TV, computers and film blurred since anyone could make a movie or their computer, then put it in a format anyone could watch on their computer.
  7. High-definition era ~2007-present: Televisions as we knew them since the fifties died out and were replaced by high-definition televisions, which were essentially large computer monitors with a TV tuner. They use a widescreen format and display a level of detail comparable to a theatrical exhibition. Blu-ray caught on after a brief format war and lets you experience movies in your home with no real drawbacks compared to the theater if you have good equipment. This isn’t cheap, but is within the grasp of most Americans. A smart shopper can get an acceptable forty-seven-inch receiver and decent set of speakers for about fifteen hundred dollars. TV Digital broadcasts took over and analog broadcasts, which had scarcely changed since the forties, ceased. Specialized video stores have almost disappeared. Rentals have been replaced by services to watch movies over the Internet and the aforementioned kiosks and by-mail system. Purchases can be made at department stores and mail order.

My point was that each transition (except maybe the development of cinematic grammar) leads to someone saying that movies are now ruined forever. If you’ve never heard anyone complaining that talkies ruined movies, it’s only because you aren’t old enough. It supposedly transformed cinema from a unique art form into merely a recorded stage play. Specific complaints included turning into a language-bound medium, having lots of scenes of talking where not much happens and of course the massive job losses for theater organists and actors who had heavy accents or annoying voices.

Color also had a lot of detractors. Legendary French director François Truffaut said:

I think that colour has done as much damage to cinema as television… It is necessary to fight against too much realism in the cinema, otherwise it’s not an art… From the moment that a film is in colour, that is shot in the street today, with the sun and the shade and the dialogue covered by the sound of motorbikes, it’s not cinema any more… When all films were in black and white, very few were ugly even when they were lacking in artistic ambition. Now ugliness dominates.

Plenty of people hate television still today. I remember seeing a guy at the International Thespian Festival when I was in high school who had a shirt that said, “Theatre is Life. Film is Art. Television is furniture.” You all know the common complaints: Television turned cinema from a shared cultural experience into something you do at home and turned watching from a significant event to something you do in the background while eating dinner. Content is drek because the format demands quantity over quality.

Blockbusters also ruined movies. They went from personal, artistic projects to being aimed at the lowest common denominator for a quick cash in. (My textbook for my US film history seemed to take this view.) Home video ruined movies for the same reason as television, only worse. They went from being a special event you had to wait for for something you could watch over and over with no additional cost, which made people appreciate them less. (Plus the business reasons that studios hated it.) DVDs looked digital and artificial and people were tricked into think they were as good as the warm, natural look of projected film. Plus, they made home viewing even more convenient, and that’s bad because it takes collecting from dedicated hobbyists who properly appreciate film and gives to the hoi polloi. (See Kevin’s Smith’s Chasing Amy commentary.) Blu-rays look too good. Art is supposed to be imperfect. In fact, a lot of these complaints amount to movies being too much like real life when they are supposed to be surreal. Meanwhile, other people are complaining that surrealism in movies wrecks the realism of real life.

There are several factors at work here. One is Sturgeon’s Law, combined with the selective filter of nostalgia. Shitty movies have always greatly outnumbered good ones. However, bad old movies are mostly forgotten. If you think of movies from 1939, you’ll likely come up with Gone with the Wind, Stagecoach and The Wizard of Oz. If you think of movies from last year, you’ll likely come up with The Artist, but you may also think of Jack and Jill. Bad movies from 1939 like The Devil’s Daughter are basically forgotten. Add in in some confirmation bias and post-hoc reasoning and it looks like old movies are better and anything you notice different about the modern industry seems like a good explanation.

Another factor is first impressions. When new technology is introduced, it takes a while to get the hang of it. Early attempts tend to be awkward and not really make the best use of their options. As I said before, it took about twenty years for people to figure out proper film-making techniques like establishing, medium and close shots, intercutting and associative editing. In fact, development of cinematic vocabulary continued until the mid-sixties or today, depending who you ask. Early silent films like Le Voyage dans la lune had clumsy storytelling by modern standards. Early talkies like Dracula are just natural sound recorded on set and lack what we expect in modern mixing. Early color, as in The Black Pirate looks garish and unnatural, especially in low-light scenes. Early stereo mixes, like How Green Was My Valley, are gimmicky to modern ears as they move voices around the auditory space. Early uses of digital effects like Alien3 look pretty bad because the technology and proper use of it weren’t ready yet. Early movies shot on digital video, like Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones lack resolution. For some people, this impression sticks in their mind. I think that’s what’s going on with a lot of the complaints about Blu-ray, for instance. While it’s true that a few releases get subjected to electronic sharpening, digital noise reduction and contrast boosting in an ill-advised attempt to make them look better, this is not inherent in the format. Somebody could see a bad transfer like Patton and write off the whole thing. Meanwhile, the flaws in DVD, laserdiscs and VHS were hardly the same as those in theatrical prints. Movies were generally made with the theater in mind and Blu-ray can accurately represent heavy grain and whatever other technical limitations were present there.

People can’t agree on which limitations are good. I think people ideas of what movies are supposed to be tend to get shaped in their teens and twenties and they resist any change from that and see it as a gimmick. While one filmmaker born in 1932 may long for the days of black and white and think color films look too real, someone born in 1966 may long for the days of the warm, oversaturated color of cheap super 8 stock and think digital video is too coldly realistic.

What a lot of these complaints ignore is that innovations increase the options available to filmmakers, not limit them. It’s not like the invention of sound-on-film made silent films stop working. Black and white film stock was still sold after color came out. In fact, it got cheaper thanks to the competition. The real complaint is that the market demand shifted to the new technology. It’s actually a complaint that the common filmgoer’s taste isn’t as good as theirs. I think this is actually closely related to the hipster mindset. To use a current example, to hear the people today that complain about blockbusters, sequels and remakes, you would think Michael Bay was the only director working in Hollywood. Independent films are actually easier than ever to make thanks to good, affordable digital cameras and editing software you can run on any off-the-shelf computer. The Internet also makes them far easier to distribute, especially since companies like Amazon and Netflix are looking for low-cost movies to pad out their streaming library. Sure, it’s hard to find good ones, but that’s always been true.

In that vein, there were complaints about both the rise and fall of video stores. On their way up, they made commoditized movies and made them impersonal, since you watched them alone in your living room instead of in an auditorium with a hundred or two other people. On their way down, you lost the personal touch of a clerk who you could discuss movies with and get recommendations from and people were watching movies on their cell phones with a headset isolating them from the world, instead of socially on their couch with a few close friends. This represents an idealized version of the past. A few people frequented the video stores where Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino worked before they made it big, but the guy at the Mr. Movies down the street from my house had terrible taste and tried to convince my parents that they’d love Tank Girl. Said video store also had a section called “foreign” with fewer than forty movies, all of which were pretty well known. I have more than that in my living room right now. They didn’t even carry the stuff Tarantino would have recommended. I suspect this is more common. Bad advice is still freely available at message boards all over the Internet and Amazon has a selection far broader than any corner video store ever did. Also, even before cell phones, theaters were full of noisy kids whose parents shouldn’t have brought them to see The Temple of Doom and people who yelled advice to the characters.

Is it really that great to not be able to see a movie? Only popular ones got revived and shown on television. I would really like to see Out on a Limb and Lunatics: A Love Story again. My family rented them when I was a kid. Both came out before 1997, though and never made it to DVD. I could track down a blurry VHS in the wrong aspect ratio and pay a bundle, as I did for Miles from Home, but I would like a good version to watch. Is my life somehow improved by only having vague memories of these movies to go on? I think not. Worse, my dad was in a movie called Dreamer in 1979 as a featured extra and it doesn’t seem to have ever been released on any home video format. I would have really liked to see him at twenty-one years old, bowling in the background behind the stars. Young people tend to think in terms of every movie ever made being available to watch whenever you want, but a lot of movies disappeared this way. (In fact, this is one of the main reasons most of the old bad movies have been forgotten.) I think it’s a great benefit to the world that this doesn’t happen anymore.

One of the ways this has affected me personally is the rise of television of DVD. VHS tape were bulky and relatively expensive and laserdiscs more so, so only the most popular shows were released on home video. You could get Star Trek, The X-Files, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Xena: Warrior Princess and a handful of other shows in their entirety, but since you could only fit two episodes to a tape on VHS, a season would take up about a foot of shelf space. It would cost about two-hundred dollars. Most shows only had a best-of release with five or so episodes, if anything. On laserdisc, selection was even more limited. I think Star Trek and The Prisoner were the only shows ever released. In 2000, Fox released the first two seasons of The X-Files in full-season sets. Star Trek and Monty Python were also released, but in the more traditional single discs with several episodes. The X-Files had an SRP of $150/season, but it sold pretty well. This was, after all, considerably less than VHS and took up 80% less room. These successes inspired more and more TV releases and prices dropped to the point where, two or three years later, most show were available a month or so after they stopped airing for about $40 and were considerably cheaper if you waited. However, the consumer win doesn’t stop there. Executives started to notice that continuity-heavy shows sold really well on DVD. Previously, they were seen as a bad bet because if someone missed an episode, they were lost and would likely quit the show. Continuity was pretty much for soap operas. A little snuck in due to the rise of the VCR, but it was DVD that made it popular. Thanks to the DVD format, Buffy the Vampire Slayer stayed on the air a couple of years longer than it otherwise might have due to strong DVD sales. Some shows, like Heroes and 24, took it even farther and largely disregarded episodic plots to make long-form narratives like the world have not previously seen in any similar medium. I don’t think a big, expensive, arc-heavy show like Lost would have even been made without the prospect of home video sales. Having to wait to see new shows and having to just remember old episodes didn’t make TV more special and actually held it back artistically. The days of having to reset everything back to normal at the end of each episode are gone for good and TV has grown immensely artistically in the last decade or so as a result. (See also Mad Men, Weeds, any HBO show, The Shield)

I should mention that the issue of low-profile works being lost forever isn’t really solved with TV. Some classics can’t come out because rights were never negotiated for home video and the issues are either intractable (Batman) or would make the series prohibitively expensive (The Wonder Years). Some have been released missing episodes (The Tick, Profiler) or with the music altered (Daria). Some shows just don’t seem to have enough demand. For instance, we only got the first four season of NYPD Blue and the first three of Animaniacs. Plus, a lot of shows produced in HD are only available on DVD, where they don’t look nearly as good as they did on broadcast. While thanks to personal recording devices, you can find most of these lost shows on the Internet, doing so will likely get your Internet access suspended and maybe get you sued for ridiculously inflated damages. If it weren’t for DVD, all shows would be like this, though, except for the few dozen popular enough to stay in syndication (probably edited to squeeze in a couple extra commercials.)

In short, I don’t think we are any poorer culturally from having easier access to higher-quality versions of movies than ever before. In fact, it’s allowed a lot of great cultural developments which would have been impossible a few decades ago. Thanks to the Internet and democratized cinemania, we now have TV Tropes, who in fact has a great article about the attitude that New Media Are Evil. As I wrote this, I realized I could do a similar article about video games, where the retroists are perhaps even more obnoxious. I likely will down the line. Tomorrow, I think I’ll take a break from my media series, though.

(edit: I hit publish a minute too early)

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3 Comments
  1. Human beings ruined movies. That, and technological interventions.

    All joking aside, very interesting – I don’t know much about the history of cinema.

    • You probably went to the same video stores I did as a kid. Don’t you ever find it tempting to tell the young people that they are missing crucial parts of the experience by just ejecting a DVD without rewinding it?

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