Sunday, March 16, 2014

Books and the Web

Vishnevetsky has a great article about film criticism and film books in the Chicago Tribune, in which, among other superb observations, he says,

When the physical is no longer considered practical, physical characteristics become qualities. A film book ceases to be merely a vehicle for text and becomes a sensory experience, a particular way to engage with ideas and observations, as controlled and specific as the Internet is shapeless.

It’s a compelling, and I think, very legitimate idea. As rich a resource as the internet is for reading about film, it has its pitfalls. The most obvious is that while it gives talented writers an outlet to express their views, it offers even more mediocre writers an option to clog the web with lousy, dull content. But perhaps more important than that is the act of reading these online pieces on cinema and the psychological effect it has on the reader.

First of all, the sheer amount of good writing that has been done on film for the internet is overwhelming. Anyone with a fairly busy schedule, and who doesn’t forget that the most important cinephilic act is still just watching as many good movies as possible, can only give worthy attention to a few writers/sites/blogs. And yet because there are so many worthwhile sites and writers to be found, it’s still hard not to pay too many of them a visit—only to be frustrated by all the good writing that cannot be consumed. In short, online film reading can be a little chaotic.

It also can be fairly flavorless in that there are lots of people who write according to the very knowledge that many of their readers only have a short amount of time to visit their site. This results in shorter pieces that can be read in just a few minutes (something this blog is unquestionably guilty of). It’s nice and convenient, but the brevity of such writing also results not only in potentially shallower writing, but in the blurring together of what the reader is consuming. If one were to go online, visit ten film blogs, and read one short article from each, those articles would start to become interchangeable and would have no place in the mind’s repository for consumed writing. Internet reading is, as Vishnevetsky said, shapeless.

On the other hand, reading a longer article often proves to be more fulfilling. The writer has the time to fully consider his subject and produce deeper, more insightful arguments or opinions. Also, for those who embrace a well-spun sentence of phrase, the prose on longer piece tends to be better for the very simple reason that good writing often takes good time.

Thus, spending time with just one of these longer pieces (which includes thinking about not just what it’s saying but how it’s working) instead of quickly surveying the ten shorter ones logically seems as though it would have a lasting impact because the reader would be forced to absorb it and would then remember it.

The natural extension of this is the act of reading actual film books that Vishnevetsky describes. Simply put, the psychological stamp a good film book will have on the mind versus online reading is equivalent to a newspaper with thick black ink versus a poorly printed edition with faded words and pictures. It’s something exact, it’s one thing, and it demands the kind of acute focus that frankly the internet does not. One can read a blog post without really reading it and move on without a thought because they know that, one: there is always another article waiting, and two: we somehow are aware that regardless of how we read it, it will not last (this is just in general, as there are certainly plenty of short little pieces that are brilliant and do last).

Reading a book, though, is a completely different beast. The book demands time, attention, and even proper atmosphere (we’re generally indifferent to where we are doing our online reading, whereas the setting when we read an actual text is vital to the experience). No one will read a good film book casually because the very idea of picking up a book suggests that the reader is willing to give it their full attention. Otherwise we wouldn’t read film books, but stick to the web and the fast-food mentality that goes along with it.

The very nature of a two or three hundred page text also pays emotional dividends in that it provides closure. Consuming online film writing is such a random act that has no beginning or no end, and thus while always abundant is never fully satisfying. But having one piece of writing to focus on that has a distinct and opening and closing point provides one with a feeling of fulfillment. Closure shouldn’t be relied on all the time, but sometimes it really does matter.

Vishnevetsky is right. It is not practical to read film books anymore when the internet has so much to offer. And yet to engage with a real film text is to learn how to think about the content we’re consuming and to experience a form of reading that is truly unique. The internet is said to have endless variety, and yet it is still, again, shapeless. The book gives us something to hold on to.

No comments: