Thursday, November 10, 2005

The revolution will not be televised

I have found it interesting that so often by the time someone gets around to declaring that a revolution is underway the fundamental shift that they are trying to describe is already well in the past.

Case in point, Norman Lebrecht writes for La Scena Musicale about how DVD is making film an individually accessible and archival medium much as the LP and CD did for music, and in a way so fundamental that we hardly even think about it anymore, the printed and bound book did for literature. (Short-Schrift has already weighed in with his thoughts on the matter, and you should probably head over and read his post, and then come back and finish reading this one.)

Lebrecht is certainly right that DVD has made the history of film available for individual viewing in a way that can only be compared to the printed book--able to be stored easily and permanently, and accessible in a way that lends itself to both the viewing of the whole and quick reference of indexed segments. Now films can be studied like poems, examined for meter and subtle metaphor. Lebrecht is the first person I've read who has pointed out that not only has the ease of manufacture and sale meant that vast catalogs of film history have been made available to a broad commercial audience, but that the nature of the disc itself has made the film itself easier to examine. There will, I believe, come a time when people have as difficult a time imagining that moving images were once only viewable in large communal theatres, just as we find it difficult to comprehend that Homer once could only be recited, and not read.

At the same time, however, I think that Lebrecht fails to grasp the nature of his revolution.

[DVD] will, for instance, make it that much harder for Hollywood to remake its own milestones when half the world has the originals to hand for instant comparison. The Manchurian Candidate (1962), with its dream cast of Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey and Janet Leigh was unlikely to be bettered by Jonathan Demme's 2004 reshoot with Denzel Washington, Liev Schreiber and Meryl Streep. But if anyone had foreseen that the original DVD would be around in the public hands, Demme's studio would never have raised the finance, let alone the enthusiasm, for an otiose update. . . .

But it is in public hands that DVD will make an impact, and one that is beyond present calculation. Television will be the first to suffer. Why zap through 139 brain-rot channels when you have just bought Some Like it Hot at Woolworths and can play it without adverts, programme trails and other network interpolations. Beside frenetic TV directors who change camera angles 20 times a minute, the long, cool takes of Billy Wilder, Fellini and John Ford make a sweeter ending to the working day. TV will have to change its ways.

I find little evidence for Lebrecht's first assertion. DVDs were available when Demme's Manchurian Candidate was in production, and don't seem to have acted as much of a deterrent. Likewise this summer's Charlie & the Chocolate Factory by Tim Burton, this fall's Pride & Prejudice starring Keira Knightly, or Peter Jackson's upcoming King Kong. Indeed, the list of recent and upcoming remakes seems to be getting longer rather than shorter.

Sadly, Lebrecht's second assertion is equally questionable. In fact, the quick, jump cuts of television programming and advertising seem to have had far more influence on film than vice-versa. While Rob Marshall's Chicago was heralded, at least in some circles, as demonstrating the continued marketability of the large-scale movie musical, the finished product had far more in common with MTV than Singin' In the Rain. Especially as more films are produced with small-screen home viewing in mind, we will see more tight framing and quick cutting, instead of the long grand shots that filled the auditorium screens.

Lebrecht is right that television will find itself changed. People will be less tolerant of set, scheduled programming times and being forced to sit through blocks of advertising that interrupt programming. This is already taking place, but it will not be DVD but other methods of delivering content-on-demand such as TiVo and improved streaming video technology which will continue to drive current trends.

Lebrecht's revolution is already taking place. In fact, it started eighty years ago when radio, and later television, took entertainment off the public stages and into family living rooms. It started with cinema multiplexes and three national networks offering multiple choices through one TV set, and has exploded into today's digital cable and satellite television. DVD may put the great films onto more shelves, and we are the richer for it, but it will not keep them from becoming antiques.

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