Sunday, November 04, 2007

Returning to the biggish screen: The moving picture in the age of digital reproduction

Image via

Recently over at Clusterflock, Deron Bauman asks a simple question: "What movie(s) have you seen the most?" As I read over the comments and contributed my own, I was reminded of something I said in this post, specifically the following:

I'd like to argue that we can apply [Walter Benjamin's] concept of aura1 to the not-so-old days of moviegoing, in which the only way the vast majority of people could see films was at the moviehouse with hundreds of other people. True, scores of copies of these films had to be made, but the audience desirous of seeing a film more than once had no choice but to go to the moviehouse again, in obedience to its--not the audience's--schedule, and then, when its run ended, would most likely never see that film again. Sure: film can endlessly reproduce images of reality; but surely the aura of film [by which I mean more precisely "moviegoing"] lay to a large extent in the fleeting and arbitrary nature of its exhibition. More: each successive viewing of the same film back in those days would itself have been an irreproducible experience. The individual viewer would notice different things each time, think differently about the same things . . . but just as important would be the different composition of the audience each time.

The corollary to that, I say elsewhere in that post, is that our current ability to see films pretty much whenever we want to, and via ever-expanding and ever-more-convenient and portable delivery systems, signifies several fundamental changes in how we experience film now.

Well, okay: in that post, I identify just one fundamental change: that whereas before, the communal space of the moviehouse was part of the experience of movie-going, that communal space has become devalued via the simple fact that it's no longer a prerequisite of . . . well, not "movie-going" any longer (since we no longer have to "go" anywhere, not even away from our computers, to see a film), but "movie-watching." Indeed, I speculate there that movie-going shares in some ways the dynamic of church-going and may, indeed, fill in a secular manner the idea of churchgoing-as-communion (in "communion"'s broadest sense).

[aside: the big program-oriented non-denominational churches are analogous to multiplexes, come to think of it . . . ]

But the Clusterflock question--specifically, its querying of multiple viewings of films--got me to wondering whether the delivery systems for films shape how we regard them. This is something that partly involves saying, "You should really see [name of film] on a biggish screen," but it also involves asking, How do the easy availability of films and all these different delivery systems shape how we perceive certain actors, certain films or, for that matter, the experience of watching films?

I have some hazy ideas about these matters that I hope will assume more definite form when I also have a moment to blog about them.
1Discussed here (from "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction"):
Unmistakably, reproduction as offered by picture magazines and newsreels differs from the image seen by the unarmed eye. Uniqueness and permanence are as closely linked in the latter as are transitoriness and reproducibility in the former. To pry an object from its shell, to destroy its aura, is the mark of a perception whose “sense of the universal equality of things” has increased to such a degree that it extracts it even from a unique object by means of reproduction. Thus is manifested in the field of perception what in the theoretical sphere is noticeable in the increasing importance of statistics. The adjustment of reality to the masses and of the masses to reality is a process of unlimited scope, as much for thinking as for perception.


Joel said...

I thought about addressing this after I saw the comment on clusterflock -- this seems to be as good a place as any.

I think that there are two, paradoxical, effects of being able to consume film and other kinds of pop culture on demand. (The changes in film have also happened to TV now that many series are available on DVD and in music thanks to the iPod.)

The two effects:

• This has been pointed out elsewhere, but since we have so much technology to do the "remembering" for us, humans don't have to do so much remembering on their own anymore. So the experience of going to a movie or seeing a well-done TV show becomes, in a sense, that much more disposable. If you watch a movie, on your couch, with a laptop on your lap -- as I admittedly did last night with "The Quiet American" -- you're going to miss out on details. But that's OK because I can watch it again today, if I feel compelled.

• The paradox is this: Now that movies, etc., can be viewed ad nauseum repeatedly, pop cultural minutiae has started to replace actual conversation. In college, I had friends who would, literally, spend the better part of a dinner hour quoting "The Simpsons" to each other; I have a colleague who quotes from that, "Pulp Fiction," "Back to the Future," "Star Wars" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark" a number of times per day in conversation. And so on. This isn't unusual with people my generation and younger; conversation has, in essence, become entirely postmodern to a lot of folks.

And that's weird, if nothing else.

R. Sherman said...

What Joel said.

On the upside, though, is our ability to study a movie now, much as with a book. We can stop, "rewind," and watch a scene again, to try to divine the director's purpose. This is why so many movies for which we have ambivalent feelings at first viewing become our favorites. It is simply because in a moment of boredom, we shell out a few bucks at Blockbuster to give them a second chance.


Joel said...

Just to respond a bit more: I'm not sure our view of performers has changed all that much because of the technology through which we view their performance than because of the Hollywood-media saturation that we all fail to avoid every day.

(This isn't entirely true. Repeated viewings of "Star Wars" over the years have tuned me into the awfulness of Mark Hamill's acting -- something that wasn't fully apparent when the movies first appeared because there was so much else, new, that was going on.)

Amy said...

(Dating myself): Wizard of Oz. Because it was on TV once a year and it was an event. Same for those holiday movies like It's a Wonderful Life.

My daughters and I went through a phase of watching all or parts of our VHS copy of An American in Paris quite often, for Gene Kelly's verve and dancing and choreography, the music by our hero Gershwin, Leslie Caron's sly innocence, and the trippy early 50's colorized looking scenes. Also, we love Oscar Levant's character, the gloomy pianist Adam Cook.

Search clips on YouTube and enjoy!