Friday, May 2, 2014

What's a Movie?

Ben Sachs has a piece up at The Reader titled What's the Difference Between Video Surveillance and Portraiture? In it, he describes being at an event where someone captured the faces of audience members and projected them on a screen (for anyone who's ever attended a major sporting even, they'll get the idea) as subjects of a screen test. He notes how everyone has a tendency to not actually gaze into the lens, but rather to look at the screen in order to catch their brief moment of attention. When it came time for Sachs to be filmed, he made sure not to look at the screen, thinking it would make for a more compelling portrait (though, he humorously notes, he doesn't know how it turned it since he wasn't actually looking at screen). What it suggests is that people are more interested in seeing themselves and letting everyone know their self-conscious infatuation with such a thing rather than looking into the camera for the sake of the image (metaphor for the history of human selfishness?)

The point of Sachs' piece is that this event reminded him of just how many images we encounter in this video obsessed age that we don't even think of as images, which prompts Sachs to ask if "the ubiquity of security-feeds-as well as countless other moving images that are captured without creative intent-inhibits our ability to appreciate genuine portraiture when we see it?" The obvious follow-up question then is how does one distinguish between cinematic images and the influx of images we encounter everyday? If someone spliced shots from a security camera at a gas station could it be called cinema? Could a TV ad that tells a story be called a short film?

I guess this is sort of the extreme example of the question that hasn't been this relevant since 1910: what is cinema? It was easy to distinguish it from forms like television shows or TV movies for most of the 20th century because the distinction in quality and ambition was so vastly different. And yet things are a little different today when we have shows like Boardwalk Empire, Mad Men and Breaking Bad are raising the bar for the potential of television and thus bridging the gap between cinema and TV. At this point, it's not uncommon for people to call these mini-movies. I can't recall who it was, but some blogger on Indiewire was listing the best moments of cinema in 2013 and included a scene from Breaking Bad. If someone sat down and watched the entire series of Deadwood without stopping, could they say they just watched a movie? If the main idea behind a film is that it tells a full narrative without being episodic (there's no set length for how long it needs to be-Satantango is over 400 minutes, for example) then arguably, yes.

Ah, says the cinephile, but auteurism doesn't exist in television. Cinema is personal, while a show, even a really good one, shares many writers and directors, thus belonging to no one. And yet that question doesn't hold up quite as well in 2014 because HBO's True Detective was directed by one person (Cary Fukunaga), and as a result the show has a really consistent visual style that no show has quite had before. 

Ultimately, I don't think it's an issue to worry about, but merely something that's valauble-and fun-to discuss. It isn't like cinema is some exterior force that humans must respect, honor, and keep in line with some set of standards. We created cinema, and did so without any particular idea of what it had to be. Thus, it's never really been limited by a certain definition, which is partly why nearly every decade of its existence has been so diverse. 

The only reason I think people might be worried about the television/cinema question is because they're quite attached to the idea of cinema (and rightly so), have always held it as something superior to television, and are now worried about the latter infringing on that separation. In a sense, it's just another power/vanity struggle. And yet even as television grows more cinematic, the original idea of the motion picture will not change. That wonderful fact that a person can come up with an idea, write a script, get a crew, make a movie, cut it, and then share it with the world will not change. It's not as though people will stop making movies because television is simply too dominant. Movies will still be movies, shows will still be shows. If television continues to grow in quality, ultimately that can't be a bad thing for cinema. If anything, it will make people who truly value the idea of personal vision and sitting in a theatre for two hours to experience one contained thing in one sitting
to keep that experience alive and believe that it can grow and still have the potential to be more alive and moving than ever before. 

The more pressing issue, I think, is Sachs' concern with the image. He closes by saying: 

I wonder if cinephilia will come to seem like an affectation as moving images become so ubiquitous as to seem inescapable. (Nothing sums up the phenomenon better than those bars and restaurants with so many TV monitors that you can't sit anywhere without having to look at one. Even if The Rules of the Game were playing on every monitor, I'd still find the experience overbearing and creepy.) Apart from Larson personally controlling the zoom, the main thing distinguishing his video feed from that of a security camera was his instruction for us to approach the results as images rather than information. Perhaps in the future all movie screenings will be preceded with such an exhortation.

None of this (cinema, shows, mini-series) can survive if people are not consuming the image. Thus, a greater emphasis needs to be put on the sanctity of the creative image and how important it is to differentiate it from the endless stream of images we encounter all around. We need to get back to 1895 when an image of a train arriving at a station was something that people held in awe. Then, the image in and of itself was the source of the wonder. With the diversity of images in 2014, we have to consider not the image itself, but its potential. It should not be something taken for granted. We need to look away from the screen and towards the camera and realize it's not just about us; images have the power to last. 

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