Friday, November 21, 2008

A.O. Scott: The Way We Live Now--The Screening of America

The Way We Live Now: The Screening of America
by A.O. Scott
The New York Times Magazine


When television came along, Hollywood responded by expanding the scale and size of its spectacles and by making the big screen even bigger. The studios came up with wide-screen formats — with proprietary names like CinemaScope and VistaVision — that promised a level of sensory immersion no home console could ever hope to match.

Home systems eventually caught up, through a dialectical process that is only accelerating. It took a while, but Hollywood discovered that movies could, of all things, actually be shown on television. The older ones were especially adaptable, since their nearly square dimensions (the 1:33:1 aspect ratio known as the Academy standard) were close to those of the average television set. The newer, wider pictures, however, needed to be cropped or squeezed. In the VHS era, movies were routinely packaged in truncated, distorted versions, their camera movements and compositions destroyed by inelegant panning and scanning. So while you could watch a movie on TV or video, it really wasn’t the same.

Now it might actually be better. The size and shape of the television screen has changed, making it more compatible with the shape of the movie screen. The newest DVDs, especially but not only in the high-definition Blu-ray format, offer images of a clarity and fidelity far beyond what could be found in the old revival houses, where the prints might be scratched or faded and the equipment old and run-down. The digital age may well turn out to be a golden age of cinephilia, with a wider variety of movies available for viewing in better conditions than ever.

But the ubiquity of screens — and also of cameras — may also mean the death, or at least the transfiguration, of cinema as we know it. Already, the pre-eminence of the feature film as a delivery system for complex narratives has been eroded by television, both cable and broadcast. The latent novelistic potential of the dramatic series has been realized by shows like “The Wire,” “Mad Men” and “Lost,” which have also dominated conversation to an extent that few recent movies have been able to match.

At the same time, smaller-scale visual narratives have been flourishing on the Internet, delivering topical satire, political commentary and slices of real-life absurdity with a nimbleness and speed that makes both conventional film and traditional television seem unwieldy. Movies, meanwhile, are once again responding by growing louder, brighter and more sensational. Imax and variously improved 3-D formats are becoming more popular with the movie studios, even as the widespread use of digital effects gives their products less and less resemblance to traditional cinema.

Which nonetheless survives, even if it isn’t what it used to be. As we head toward a way of life organized around the diversity of screens — I’m looking over my laptop at the television, while my iPod charges on the desk until I take it with me to my next screening, where I’ll be sure to shut off my cellphone — there will be at least an equal diversity of art forms and ways of appreciating them, alone or in groups. And they will continue to cross-pollinate. Amateur filmmakers with digital cameras will learn the mechanics of classical decoupage with the preinstalled video-editing software on their computers, while professionals will continue to mimic the grainy, jerky texture of video captured by handheld camcorders and cellphone irises.

Maybe cinema is dead, but it’s a wonderful afterlife.

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