Tuesday, January 10, 2006

STATE OF THE ART

How the Digital Revolution & Television have conspired to Shrink the Movies


Technologically and artistically speaking, the movies have gotten smaller. Yesteryear’s ornamental movie palace is today’s large box stadium styled multiplex. The once enveloping concave surface of Cinemascope 70mm projection has today been replaced with flat, television friendly aspect ratios that are easily transferred to the small screen. Excluding the errant overstuffed Oscar contender, the average running time of today’s film rarely tops the two hour mark. More often it leans toward the much shorter ninety minutes.


Coupled with an inflated price of admission and the absence of newsreels, cartoons and our national anthem, the excitement of going to the movies has on the whole been compromised. Contemporary directors have been encouraged to shoot their stories with future television broadcasts in mind. Is it any wonder that the contemporary filmgoer is inundated with commercial endorsements for Ford, Coca-Cola and Cingular wireless service before their feature presentation? Today’s moving going experience has been systematically reduced to glorified television status.

In both content and genre, the movies have shriveled from their once galvanic narratives of Olympian heroism. Instead the artistic milieu is populated by quick cut juxtapositions befitting the six o’clock news with all the lack of subtlety in having been produced by Geraldo Rivera.


Bio pics have regressed from character driven and introspective critiques of Zola or Gandhi to tabloid-esque investigations of serial killers (Monster 2004) or smut-raking corporate titans (The People Vs. Larry Flynt 1996).

Today’s musicals have supplanted the blind optimism and sparkle of sheer joy found in Singin’ In The Rain (1952), creating an artistic discomfort in the shift from buoyant fantasy to jaded reality (Chicago, 2003). In absence of any genuine shock value, contemporary horror merely repulses for its obligatory thirty-second moment of gruesomeness.

Romantic comedies have perhaps suffered most under political correctness; merely eschewing the all out battle of the sexes, still most astutely handled in films like Woman of the Year (1942) or Adam’s Rib (1949). At best then, today’s comedies reaffirm the cliché of idyllic heterosexual romance (The Wedding Date 2005) or serve to make light of ethnic stereotypes (My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2002).

However, stylistically, all genres today share in a new regime of guerilla editing that has taken over film aeshetics. As an audience we are no longer treated to complete performances but momentary glimpses of celebrities awash in a barrage of quick cuts, heavy panning and highly unstable hand-held camera work. This is precisely why older films seem slower when viewed from a contemporary vantage.


Yet in that slower pace there is the opportunity for stars to prove their metal, to make love to the camera in close up and wow their audience with their gifts as highly trained thespians. In keeping with the shortcomings of contemporary actors, who do not act per say, but allow the camera to do it all in their stead, the editor has been given the autonomy to hack into scenes as though he/she were making coleslaw instead of film art.

Yet what I find even more disheartening in contemporary American cinema is its concerted effort, nee zest, to mimic its old arch nemesis – television. What is occurring on screen today is not tributary to the bravado and genius of great American directors like George Cukor, John Ford or Frank Capra. Rather, it is a debasement of the very fundamentals in film making and a direct result of Hollywood’s reverse psychology where television is concerned.


Once considered the tiny gremlin that cannibalized movies by luring prospective ticket buyers away from the box office, television has today become the movie’s newest best friend. As a result, movies are now feasting on T.V. for their own sustenance; Starsky and Hutch (2004), Scooby-Doo (2004) et al.

Plots that were barely sustainable within a half hour or hour of commercial interrupted broadcasting are being awkwardly stretched to accommodate a two hour time slot. Some small-to-big screen incarnations, like The Brady Bunch Movie (1995) or Addam’s Family Values (1993), combine several narratives borrowed from the series to fill in these discrepancies in time.


However, these small to big screen mutations narrowly rely on nostalgia to sustain interest for the audience. One marvels, for example, at Shelly Long’s emulation of Florence Henderson’s Mrs. Brady, or Raoul Julia’s more subtle evocation of John Astin’s Gomez. So too is there a hushed reverence afforded to the set and costume designers in their abilities to resurrect the bygone tacky 70s chic of the Brady home or reinvent the lurid gothic appeal of the Addam’s family abode. Yet these imitations are gratuitous and tend to reek of parody.

However, there is indeed a deliberate purpose to the copy cat madness. Nearly two thirds of today’s film revenue is derived from a combination of cable/satellite and network broadcasting deals, and, through distribution and sale of films as byproduct to the home video market. Hence, films have transcended the realm of pop art to become chronic regurgitations and fill-ins; disposable entertainment for the twenty-four hour film junkie. The net result is that movies are no longer considered as stand alone bread and butter for the studios.

What is perhaps even more discrediting to the art of bygone cinema is its contemporary resurgence as easily marketable iconography for television commercials. Through digital manipulations stars like Fred Astaire and Humphrey Bogart are seen endorsing everything from Coca-Cola to vacuum cleaners. Such postmodern misrepresentations are hardly flattering, but particularly insulting in the case of deceased stars where the level of compliance remains questionable.

Would Bogie appreciate seeing a tie-dyed version of himself sipping Coke in a trendy café populated by super models and Elton John? Would Astaire, who once danced with a coat rack in Royal Wedding (1951), recognize the not so subtle jab at his artistic integrity in the juxtaposition of his image next to an Orek Excel? The answer can never be known. What is clear about these marketing strategies is that in the final analysis films’ importance has been diminished into an even more manipulative form of disposable pop art.




Part Two: “It’s The Pictures That Got Small!”


After a brief interlude in expansive film making, that began with the dawning of Cinemascope and ended approximately in 1969; where the whole of finite earthly delights and infinite realms of outer space teemed from the grandeur of widescreen – Hollywood began its slow reverse shot into safe film making. This is not to suggest that the 1920s, 30s or even 40s were decades in absence of progress and innovation. On the contrary, technologically and artistically they were cutting edge in developing the state of the art of motion picture entertainment and paved the way for the big and bold look of the 1950s. And for a while, at least, it seemed as though the influence of the “bigger is better” mentality would become the new standard. Instead, and almost universally, contemporary American cinema has abandoned its anamorphic globe-trotting for the clinical solace of digital domains.

After all, why should today’s film maker seek to immortalized the timeless beauty of Rome on location, when a fully realized three-dimensional facsimile can be generated from a computer artist’s hi-resolution monitor? Lest we remember that the Rome in Roman Holiday (1953) or Three Coins in The Fountain (1954) or even Ben-Hur (1959) is not perfect. It breathes imperfection from its craggy pavement and masonry, its chipped and fragmented wrinkles that reek of the mastery of the ages. But the Rome that William Wyler glamorized and Fellini scrutinized is, with all its obvious visual flaws, nevertheless eternally haunted, thrilling and alive; visceral qualities that the Rome in Gladiator (2000) decidedly lacks. In the latter example the human eye is instantly drawn to the obvious absurdity of cleanliness in digital effects; the smoothness of an orb too round to have been chiseled by human hands, or the supreme perpendicular incline of a temple that is more schematic than ancient skyscraper.

To be certain, in absence of computer wizardry the old Hollywood masters were well schooled in the art of visual deception through usage of trick photography and matte paintings. Yet, even in the knowledge that some background effects from some of Hollywood’s most beloved classics are little more than cardboard craftsmanship working overtime, more paper mache (Brigadoon, 1954) or a series of brush strokes added by matte artist Albert Witlock (The Birds, 1963), not only, but especially in these, there is a retention of genuine weight presence and believability. It allows for the fantastic to seem quite plausible. The art consumes its spectator, moving our collective consciousness from the darkness of the theater into these labyrinths of visual excitement. The real becomes hyper-sensitive. The illusion burst forth from its two dimensional mirage and becomes its own spectacular reality. It convinces the mind of its own alternate state. The result; its artistry entertains.

Yet, today’s cinematic experience has lost much of that visceral charm. Perhaps from the moment Steven Spielberg imposed his digital dinosaurs on the suspecting moviegoer in Jurassic Park (1993) he forever altered the tenuous and delicate sustainability of illusion to its own detriment. As a director he should have looked no further than to generate fantasies from mechanical sharks and rubber-masked alien puppetry. Instead, what has been lost in the translation from genuine fake to graphic invisible is the humanity behind the art of cinema fantasy. The differences between the traditional canvas and the computer template have in fact grounded the cinematic world of adventurous thrills to a much more narrow, deliberate and more easily manipulated realm of possibilities.

For example; there is a moment in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962) where the valiant charge of Arab revolt on camel back raises so much sand and dust that the audience’s view of the principle actors is threatened with total eclipse. And yet it is in the immediacy of that threat, in anticipation of the inevitable that never happens, that the screen thunders with a heightened sense of realism.

Consider a similar scene; the attack on Mordor from The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003). Here the hoards and hellions have been digitally created. They are kept in deep focus but avoid scrutiny from an audience through the new manic editing style that has plagued many contemporary films and never allows the eye to entirely settle on the action. This assault on the moviegoer’s senses is made complete with the roar of six track stereo rushing in from all sides of the theater. Yet, the spectacle does not stimulate as much as it stifles its audience into a sort of visual submission. The ultimate impact is not enveloping, but engulfing. What it lacks in genuine exhilaration is overcompensated for through the exhaustion of the senses.

To be certain, the technical wizards behind these new worlds without end have learned their craft well, perhaps too well. What they lack is the good sense to exercise restraint in their ability to dazzle. The on-camera result is akin to executing a trick without sustaining any belief in its magic. As a result, the audience is completely robbed of its suspension in disbelief. Though more cleverly camouflaged, the wires are nevertheless more than obvious. They are obtrusive. It is impossible not to pay attention to the men “behind the curtains” because their very absence is suggested as deliberate metaphor in the handy work seen on the screen.

The illusion becomes mere effect, drawing attention instead in itself instead of becoming integrated into the arch of the narrative. As an audience we are no longer teased from the peripheral edges of the screen but force fed obviousness front and center and without any great regret in its discovery. The illusion is no longer grand once the human eye and the mind make the connection and acknowledge that nothing before them is real. What remains then for the audience is mere acknowledgement for the hours of painstaking effort put forth in order to create its effects.

While American cinema of the 50s and 60s sought its stories in spectacle, today’s strain of film making has substituted heavy-handed layering of spectacle for substance, thereby burying its hubris beneath a malaise of artifice. This is primarily why classic Hollywood films retain an aura of mystery that re-invites audiences to multiple viewings. The retention of hubris despite spectacle has made these films classics. But there can be no lasting future for great American movie that relies on a universe constituted in key strokes and clicks of the mouse. Neither offers its audience any tangible resolution beyond that series of zeroes and ones.




PART THREE: Stars Vs. Celebrities


When the cameras began rolling nearly one hundred years ago in that mythical Eldorado beyond the Rockies no budding film producer or tyrannical mogul could have foreseen the dawning of a new kind of super hero. In their infancy and shortsightedness the industry of film making have birth to the “star.” These were the original test subjects; the most rarefied and intangible examples among us of evaporated magnitude and flickering greatness. In these last one hundred years many names and faces have passed at twenty-four frames per second for a chance at immortality. Yet, the distinction must be made between yesterday’s “star” and today’s gross caricature of stardom – the celebrity.


In part, because of the well-oiled machinery of studio sanctioned public relations, stars of the golden age (1929-1959) were primarily known for their on camera histrionics and body of artistic achievement. Stars were worth money to studios on the basis and cultivation of their quantifiable talents and unique personalities. Stars were other-worldly, magical, escapist apparitions of shadow and light. No star was quite like another and none were thought of as belonging to regular society. For example, it remains inconceivable, even today, to imagine encountering the likes of Bette Davis while pumping gas, or stumbling across Spencer Tracy while on a casual fishing expedition. Their displacement from the every day is precisely what made both Davis and Tracy ideally suited for stardom.

To be certain, stars did have careers and lives removed from their press releases. Occasionally these were exploited to good effect in the gossip columns. For example; Mario Lanza was a truck driver before becoming MGM’s most popular operatic tenor. Though nobody could have known of his vocal talents then, in hindsight it seems implausible that he ever earned a living making deliveries. But Lanza’s rags to riches overnight success helped to perpetuate Hollywood’s dreamland myth that even today finds fuel in the American dream; adding believability for the average star gazer that their own fame and immortality might not be far behind. However, for the most part the birth of stardom remained a mystery to the world beyond Hollywood, as much a mystery as stardom’s fleeting longevity was and continues to be to its human guinea pigs.

Then, as it is today, stardom’s only concern was with the immediate here and now. What came before Lana Turner’s discover as “the sweater girl” in Schwab’s Drug Store was as inconsequential to her fan base as what became of her once the cameras stopped rolling for good. What mattered most to the public’s voracious appetite was a star’s ability to generate timelessness in a timely manner. Some stars, like Marilyn Monroe or James Dean, were galvanized by personal tragedy and untimely deaths. Others, like James Stewart or Bing Crosby, have become renewable commodities on television.

The talent scout of yesteryear was prided on seeking out such unique diamonds in the rough. Buffing out that roughness fell to the responsibility of expert tutelage employed under the studio system. After months, sometimes years, of in-house training, the flesh and blood mortal emerged from that artistic cocoon as the symbolic paragon of virtuous humanity. Technically proficient in the art of making it all look too easy and completely natural, at least on the surface, stars were the embodiment of perfection. They were never ill-mannered or bad tempered. They exuded grace, elegance, charm, and what seemed to be a legacy made on the screen,
not in private lives made public in the tabloids.

If any portion of a star’s private life was made public, it was usually a garble translated from carefully sanctioned junkets that had been seamlessly blended with detailed fabrications in support of their own myth. Private lives were as carefully and cleverly orchestrated by the studio’s public relations as highly publicized extensions of their stars’ on screen performances. Nothing was left to chance.

The price of admission into this land of indoctrinated make-believe for the budding new talent who sought it out was undoubtedly, and almost universally, a name change. Hence, Archibald Leach became Cary Grant; Francis Gumm – Judy Garland; and so on and so forth. Any harsh or unflattering personal history prior to that name change was easily expunged or quietly concealed. Once stardom took hold the studio did everything in their power to maintain each façade of perfection. If any indiscretion proved too great to cover up, as in the rape and accidental murder case of a minor in the Roscoe Fatty Arbuckle scandal, then the slate was wiped clean by the studio. The star was exonerated from responsibility and the studio disassociated itself from the star. As a result, few stars overstepped the boundaries of decency and decorum to the point where their image could suffer.

However, between the studio system’s demise and our contemporary state of pop culture there has been a complete inversion of the principles behind stardom. Instead of going through a transitional period from old to new stardom, yesterday’s star has morphed into today’s celebrity. Robbed of their cloistered and concocted existence behind the walls of studio kingdoms, today’s celebrities have had to fend publicly for themselves. Once shielded by adoring and complicit machinery, today’s celebrity is increasingly scrutinized, criticized and even ravaged by the press coverage they receive. Cover stories, once the stars’ best friend, have almost universally become their less than flattering nemesis.

Minus the built in guarantees of protection associated with long term studio contracts and in-house training, today’s celebrity has been forced to indulge the gamut of tabloid sensationalism in order to keep their public profiles and careers alive. Hence the craft of North American acting has degenerated into an option for the celebrity to consider only after the status of celebrity itself has taken hold. Compulsory bonds between talent and stardom have been dissolved. Innate ability and talent fall short in their ranking behind good looks; the latter subjective and increasingly subjected to the hands of skilled plastic surgeons. As a result, this hit or miss probability of achieving and maintaining “celebrity status” has helped to populate an artistic landscape where only the most outlandish are able to survive.

The angst of fame is that it has always been fleeting. However, past fame was considerably more durable. For example; Joan Crawford’s career had weathered more than four decades of public scrutiny before being deconstructed in a tell-all biography written by her adopted daughter. Yet despite that exposure Crawford’s reputation as an enduring cinematic legend remains intact. In resurrecting the specter of Mommie Dearest (1981) on film, the perceptive incarnation of Crawford by actress, Faye Dunaway seems to serve the realization that today’s celebrities are increasingly relying on past personalities to buttress their all too brief tenure in Hollywood.


The perennial favorite among today’s aspiring divas for this sort of cheapened flattery is undoubtedly Marilyn Monroe. From Anna Nicole Smith to Madonna, in gross caricatures of mannerisms, dress and gregarious parody, Monroe’s legacy as a sex bomb has become a chronic regurgitation. Yet, what eludes all who aspire to emulate Monroe is the very essence of Monroe herself; that intangible quality that instantly establishes a great distance between her and the everyday and helps to generate her inimitable mystique.


Paralleling the brief period in which today’s celebrity is expected to “make a name” for themselves, is the point of distinction that, in its very essence, today’s popularity lacks resiliency when directed pitted against yesteryear’s fame. Popularity diverges from a flashpoint of spontaneous combustion between a skilled press publicist and a mediocre story that has been blown out of proportion. For example, today’s celebrity is often featured in publications of intimate details about their weddings, honeymoons, infidelities and divorces.

During the golden age of stardom, these points of interest would have been footnotes instead of focal points. However, today’s rapid stamp of cookie-cutter celebrity and faux stardom has forced celebrities to achieve their fifteen minutes by whatever means possible before being cast aside in favor of the next disposable property. As a result, today’s celebrity appears, not only to relish scandal, but seem more at home awash in it – more human in an inhumane sort of construction that is two parts tactless extrovert and one part deliberate reprobate. Hence, while many an old time star has found both the time and interest to pen their memoirs, today’s celebrity quickly discovers an insufficient body of professional work experience to sustain a biography.

As complicit observers and avid contributors to this force-fed consumption of outrageousness, the layering of what would otherwise be considered unacceptable behavior has assimilated celebrity antics as part of the acceptable craziness of our media driven culture. We expect celebrities to be obnoxious. We find nothing shocking or out of order when they start fist fights in nightclubs or are photographed in the company of under aged prostitutes. In fact, as consumers of celebrity culture, we have come to expect so very little that when they reveal to us an ability to disappoint or disgust – beyond even our own modest expectations – our sycophantic exhilaration is akin to the rabid fascination generated by a premiere.

To be certain, and still to be clear, classic stars rarely lived up to the banana oil of studio sanctioned PR. Some, like Ingrid Bergman, fell from grace, were given a cooling off period then resurrected anew. Others, like silent matinee idol John Gilbert were cast into the abyss of forgotten has-beens, never to return. In the face of such magnificently obtuse fiction no mere mortal could hope to compete.


Yet what is missing from the hallmark of today’s celebrity is not merely the essence of living a fairy tale, but a complete lack of interest bordering on unwillingness to even emulate the possibility for the general public. Far from being role models, today’s celebrities most often seem to delight in flaunting their impervious Teflon coating against any and al moral and legal codes of ethics. As far as they are concerned, the rules simply do not apply. The underlying inquiry then is why should they apply at all? The new laisse faire attitude that has debased freedom of speech to embody any provocation that might reek of a good piece of scandal, has liberated today’s celebrity into a foot-in-mouth existence of trivial sound bytes.

Yet, the defiant conviction of postmodern celebrity continues to pale behind the power of stardom. The ability of today’s celebrity to achieve a note of distinction goes against the contemporary grain of postmodern amnesia and cannot find originality in a world of simulacrum. As a result, today’s celebrity is neither all powerful nor iconic, but briefly afforded the opportunity to flex an artistic muscle in great danger of becoming atrophied.


Consider that when Clark Gable disrobed in It Happened One Night (1932) to reveal that he wore no undershirt, sales of that garment plummeted to record lows; compared to Madonna’s brief affinity for the leather bustierre, which neither started a trend among young women or resulted in any considerable fiscal growth for the manufacturing industry.

Perhaps the most telling example of this decline in celebrity clout and influence is the recent case to be made for Michael Moore and his Fahrenheit 911 (2003). Designed as an anti-Bush bit of muckraking to topple the prospects of a second term presidency, neither the film nor Moore’s subsequent campus campaigning for incumbent John Kerry found favorable resolution. Instead, the reinstatement of the president serves to reiterate the point that in terms of proclaiming their own self worth and importance on the world stage, today’s celebrity has an over-inflated opinion of themselves.


But the point of distinction I am urging on between stars and celebrities is not hinged or even limited to popular trends in clothing or politics; not in how successful personal esthetics, tastes and attitudes are at catching the public interest, but in how long afterward these same esthetics continue to spark renewal and consideration from the average film fan. It is not enough then to have mere fond recollections or even bad ones about stars or celebrities. What is of the utmost consideration here is the inability of latter twentieth century celebrities to generate any influence at all in the ever-changing modes of contemplation that work beyond anything they themselves might have contemplated.

The movie stars of the 1920s, 30s, 40s and possibly even the 1950s have retained that ability to inspire, primarily because the talent in front of the camera continues to offer only glimpses into that shadowy world beyond the footlights that studios fought valiantly to, and, for the most part, succeeded in keeping private.

Stripped bare on the nightly news and in entertainment-themed television shows; bombarded with the ever gossipy, though vapid and self-deprecating sound bytes from celebrities – too blind to conceive that the concept of “less is more” might equally apply to them - , and splashed incriminatingly on the covers of tabloid rags as common place as the avocado at the super market or pop dispenser inside the local convenience store, the proliferation of celebrity culture has, in totem, made the essence of star quality its black hole; unattainable in a world of one-hit wonders and twenty-minute disposable icons.


There is nothing left for the world of celebrity but an implosion of its already highly unstable existence. The world of film, chained to and damaged by its problematic reliance on celebrity culture, may eventually find new ways to recover its dignity and survive.


@Nick Zegarac 2006 (all rights reserved).