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Losing control, or ceding control, or not...

mrlaz.jpg Mr. Lazarescu pukes blood strings on his living room rug. He is not at all well.

Critics, filmmakers and pundits have been writing quite a bit over the last few years about what "digital" means for the future of cinema, and about the sorry state of the audience for foreign language films (not just distribution and exhibition, but demand) in the United States in the age of the DVD. Much of this speculative writing has been hopelessly vague and rather dismal -- and, in some cases, I don't think the writers really understand what they're talking about. But for every dozen "digital doomsday" observations, there's a concrete insight that's worth considering.

I'd like to take excerpts from three recent pieces and follow a thread that I think connects them:

David Denby, The New Yorker (January 8, 2007):

In a theatre, you submit to a screen; you want to be mastered by it, not struggle to get cozy with it. Of course, no one will ever be forced to look at movies on a pipsqueak display—at home, most grownups will look at downloaded films on a computer screen, or they’ll transfer them to a big flat-screen TV. Yet the video iPod and other handheld devices are being sold as movie-exhibition spaces, and they certainly will function that way for kids. According to home-entertainment specialists I spoke to in Hollywood, many kids are “platform agnostic”—that is, they will look at movies on any screen at all, large or small.

A.O. Scott, The New York Times (January 21, 2006):

The [National Society of Film Critics] vote stands out a bit amid all this welter because its top three choices for best picture of the year were all movies in languages other than English. The third-place finisher was Clint Eastwood’s “Letters From Iwo Jima,” which is in Japanese; the runner-up was “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu,” a Romanian film directed by Cristi Puiu; and the winner, by a narrow margin, was “Pan’s Labyrinth,” Guillermo del Toro’s tale of magic and malevolence in 1940s Spain. [NOTE: Subsequently, the mostly-foreign-language films "Flags of Our Fathers" and "Babel" were nominated for Best Picture Oscars, while "Pan's Labyrinth" received six nominations, including Best Foreign Language Film.]

The honors bestowed on those three movies, not only by the National Society of Film Critics, might be taken as evidence that foreign films are flourishing.... The movies are out there, more numerous and various than ever before, but the audience — and therefore the box-office returns, and the willingness of distributors to risk even relatively small sums on North American distribution rights — seems to be dwindling and scattering. For every movie that manages to solicit a brief flicker of attention, there are dozens that will be seen only at film festivals or on region-free DVD players.

David Lynch, in his book "Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity" (published December 28, 2006):

I'm through with film as a medium. For me, film is dead. If you look at what people all over the world are taking still pictures with now, you begin to see what's going to happen. I'm shooting in digital video now and I love it. [...]

How we see films is changing.... A tiny little picture, instead of a giant big picture, is going to be how people see films. And the good news: At least people will have their headphones. Sound will become, I think, even more important.... The whole thing is, when those curtains open up, and the lights go down, we must be able to go into that world. And it many ways, it's getting very difficult to go into a world. People talk so much in theaters. And there's a tiny, crummy little picture. How do you get the experience?

I think it's going to be a bit of a bumpy road. But the possibility is there for very clean pictures -- no scratches, no dirt, no water marks, no tearing -- and an image that can be controlled in an infinite number of ways. If you take care of how you show a film, it can be a beautiful experience that lets you go into a world. We're still working out ways for that to happen. But digital is here; the video iPod is here; we've just got to get real and go with the flow.

I think Lynch, Scott and Denby are all correct in what they say above. Although elsewhere in his piece, Denby oversells an idealized view of "the theatrical experience" (which "theatrical experience"?) as if all 16mm, 35mm and/or 70mm (or VistaVision or Todd A-O or IMAX) presentations were the same: The Best Of All Possible Ways To See A Movie. The most important thing, as I think all of us would agree, is that the audience feel able to submit to the film. We may fight it, we may be unwilling to go where the film wants to take us, but we should, as Lynch says, be allowed to "go into that world."

There's no question that "the theatrical experience" and the "video experience" can be different -- and there are many varieties of each. I've seen video projected on the big screen where the image depth, clarity, richness and stability is actually better than most 35mm presentations -- even when the movie itself was originally shot on film. I've seen 16mm prints in living rooms and classrooms with wooden chairs and movie theaters, and 35mm films in concert halls and projected on the exterior walls of buildings. All of those experiences are quite different, a matter of the quality of the print, the size and nature of the projection/presentation, and the environment in which the image is encountered.

So, I get a little irritated when people generalize about "video" (or "digital") without considering that their terminology could encompass cable, satellite or broadcast television signals, third generation slow-speed analog VHS dubs, LaserDiscs, DVDs, HDTV, Quicktime files, YouTube streaming files, video iPod files -- and we haven't even begun to discuss the different screen sizes and technologies. Let's just acknowledge that watching, say, a video iPod image on a 60" HDTV in a crowded bar is different from watching a LaserDisc image on an old 27" cathode-ray tube TV in your bedroom. And neither of them would probably be considered "ideal." I've seen IMAX movies that I thought would play better on my home system (particularly the sound) -- in part because I wasn't occupying what I would consider my ideal seat in the theater. (Any movie seen from the balcony or rear of the auditorium is, in my experience, akin to watching it on TV from outside your next-door neighbor's window.)

And this is where I finally get to Scott's mention of "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu." I did not see it in a theater, and I regret that. Not because it is a "big-screen experience"; it's definitely not. It's not even much of a movie -- struck me more like a 150-minute improvisational exercise by a Romanian theater collective that somebody in the company just happened to record with a handheld video or 16mm camera. But because I had a remote control in my hand, I wasn't able to submit to it. I started feeling ill and frustrated (which is no doubt part of the experience the filmmakers wanted me to have) and, on the first try, I couldn't take it. I was feeling a little nauseous even before I popped in the DVD. I paused it a few times (once during the examination of the "blood threads" in the main character's vomit), and finally, after more than an hour (and only two hospital visits), I turned it off, promising that I'd give it another shot when I felt more equal to the task.

Under these conditions, I wasn't able to go through what a friend and critic who liked the movie (and put it on his ten best list) described as the pain and boredom and irritation of the movie, before he finally gave himself over to it. He described it (as have several critics) as being a kind of transcendent experience. But I wasn't up for it. If I'd been in a theater, I would have sat there and gone through it. But because I was in control, it was relatively easy to back away -- even though I wanted to submit.

This, I think, is a more meaningful distinction between theatrical and video experiences than the quality or size of the image. Or even the sound. (I think sound quality is at least as important as the image: Decent headphones and sound can make even a teeny iPod video image seem to expand and fill your head -- or your field of attention. I wouldn't necessarily recommend it for a first-viewing experience of most movies, though.)

Both Lynch and Denby have expressed reservations about HD. Lynch says, "If everything is crystal clear in the frame then that's what it is -- that's all it is." Whereas, "sometimes, in a frame, if there's some question about what you're seeing, or some dark corner, the mind can go dreaming." (There's a powerful moment that illustrates this in "Inland Empire" for me: a shot that I first saw as a close-up profile of a Nosferatu-like figure pressed up against a wall in the darkness. Turns out, it's just a stain -- or maybe even a digital artifact -- on the wall at the end of a dark hallway.)

Denby complains that in a high-definition transfer of Clint Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby" "high-definition transfer of the film, bringing shapes and textures out of the murk, revealed a gym that was old and shabby but also tidy and scrubbed clean.... And I think that Eastwood, having directed almost thirty films, may have intended “Million Dollar Baby” to look the way it looks on film." In that case, what Denby was looking at was a bad transfer job -- which may have been the fault of the digital mastering engineer, or maybe even Clint Eastwood himself, since Eastwood undoubtedly has approval over how his films look on video. It's not the fault of the technology.

Remember when some early CDs sounded all tinny because they were made directly from the tapes that had been mixed for vinyl? The standard-issue disclaimer on CDs was that the music was "originally recorded on analog equipment" and that "because of its high resolution"... "the Compact Disc can reveal limitations of the source tape."

Which is pure bull.

The CD isn't revealing limitations -- it's accurately reproducing the sound of the source tape which was mixed and mastered to compensate for the technical limitations of vinyl LPs! If David Lynch or Clint Eastwood wants their films to look less "hi-def" and more like film, the technology is absolutely capable of doing that. How does Denby think Eastwood got that selectively desaturated color in "Flags of Our Fathers" and "Letters From Iwo Jima"? With high-definition digital interpositives, that's how. (Anybody recall the software that was used to make video look more like film -- adding photographic grain/emulsion to digital images?) Lynch likens the softer texture of the video he gets with his low-fi Sony PD-15 camera to movies of the 1930s (an analogy I question, but that's the way he sees it). But Hollywood movies of that era used all kinds of lenses and filters to get that "soft-focus" look (especially for close-ups of leading ladies). Lynch can go as soft and dark and murky as he wants in HD, using any number of techniques. Put some Vaseline on the lens if you like -- or drape a piece of sheer silk over the camera. Or simply sharpen or soften all or part of any image with readily available digital software, the way people do with their still pictures in Picasa or Photoshop. Nothing's holding Lynch back but his imagination.

And in that respect it's not significantly different than film: The image you see has always been the product of the conditions under which it was shot (lenses, lighting, film speed, etc.) and what was done to it afterwards in the lab (Technicolor processing, pushing exposures, tinting, flashing, etc.). Now, there are just more options for filmmakers to do whatever it is they want to do -- and more options for viewers to see their work.

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