(Visual) Notes on Culture
Art Film at the Academy Awards
Is it just me or are "art films" getting a good deal of airplay at this year's Academy Awards? Usually "Oscar winner" translates to "blandly palatable" - most of the awards go to well-crafted, often brazenly benign, bourgeois movies, and seldom ever to daring, transgressive (or even innovative) works. This ceremony has placed a good deal of acknowledgment onto the art films of the past. The opening, white-screened "confessional" had a nod to Stan Brakhage. The highlight montage of past winners in the foreign category included some stuff that I would have never imaged would get prime airplay on a major American network...it seems like risky business to show even a few seconds of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie
, 8 1/2
, or The Tin Drum
in mass broadcast media. Clint Eastwood mentioned Pasolini's The Canterbury Tales
and Arabian Nights
in relation to the award that went to Ennio Morricone.
Wait...Morricone at the Oscars? This man has worked on a full spectrum of films, from genre exploitation fare up to the highest art, all the way up to well-financed mainstream work. In one sense, he embodies what the Academy Awards should
stand for...film experience across the whole spectrum. Maybe things are getting better - maybe this year inaugurates a trend toward internationalism, open-mindedness and innovation in Hollywood. Then again, maybe it doesn't...
THE HOUSE BETWEEN - ARRIVED
The first episode of THE HOUSE BETWEEN, John Kenneth Muir's original sci-fi series, is now available online. Visit the official website
The Aesthetic Ramifications of YouTube
Moving images have undergone multiple "revolutions" that redefine the experience of watching. Media changes (magic lanterns to film to video to digital) simultaneous with peripheral concerns (to watch a film means to hear its projection, splice reels, and feel the heat of the projector's lamp). On top of this, stylistic concerns often change with innovations or alterations in media. The introduction of cinemascope meant that films began to feature more deeply-focused "establishing" or "long" shots. The larger-than-life mentality began to perpetual the rival of the "epic" movie, itself a genre that flourished as a knee-jerk response to the limitations of television.
Video began to flourish in the 1970s. It began as an "artists" medium - much performance and conceptual work was captured in this new, more compact format - and was eventually integrated into television and later film production (an early example is the Frank Zappa helmed 200 Motels,
which was shot on video and transfered to film for theatrical distribution). Video was cheap but still evidently inferior to film. In the last 10 years, filmmakers have begun to see the comparable quality and cost-effectiveness of digital formats. The digital revolution has captured the contemporary world of independent film...and as such, methods for digital distribution are evangelically spreading the word.
How will YouTube (and its close cousins like Revver, Google Video and MySpace Video) alter the substance of moving images? One of the great ironies of the digital age are the two "extremes" in quality. Fixed-source media like HD-DVDs, Blu Ray discs, and DVDs are revolutionizing a viewing experience of clarity and photo-realism. On the other hand, streaming video is compressed, small, and clunky...watching a video on YouTube means enduring digital artifacts, variable bit rates, and tinny sound.
But there is more to the "YouTube compromise" than just quality. The types of videos that comprise the bulk of the site are constructed using an amateurish, and in some case non-existent, sense of film principles. The primary means of creating original content seems to be to point-and-shoot with the camera in all of its shaky glory, using the in-camera microphone for poorly mixed sound. While this is an incredibly democratizing - now ANYONE can make and distribute a "film" - it also increasingly exposes a film illiterate public to film illiterate video.
The YouTube experience is rapid-fire. Patrons of the site can watch between 4 and 40 clips during the normal length of an unedited TV program. Professionally made "clips" from larger programs - portions of TV shows, excerpts from films, commercials - seem to be more and more dictated by the principles of condensation. Montage, quick cuts, and quick punchlines are the order of the day.
There is a wealth of material of YouTube, though most of it is either cheaply amateurish (point-and-shoot "humor") or flashy, marginally professional, and FAST. As I see it, the accessible video revolution needs to have content that does not fall into either category. It needs full-length shows that fulfill classic paradigms and are carefully constructed by people who understand craftsmanship. It needs to house alternative forms that are ill-suited for fixed-media...perhaps Peter Watkins' towering film The Journey
, which is nearly impossible to see through traditional channels because of its length. If YouTube and other places for internet video are to be where the younger generations get their main burst of media literacy, there needs to be a more inclusive group of programs that show a vibrant historical connection with traditions of filmmaking that can sit (perhaps uneasily) alongside of the bulk of what passes as entertainment.
The Overwhelming Library
Forgive the vague title of this post. I am in a bit of a bind. As I've mentioned before, I have a lot of books. They are a great source of pride and amusement to me, and I dare attribute my successes in scholarship to them. The largest sections in my personal library are devoted to film and art, but that is not to say that I don't have many volumes of literature, science fiction, or drama. I'm feeling critical mass. I'm spreading myself too thin.
I talked to a friend today about what I was reading. When I stepped back and listed all the books, I was shocked. Why am I reading so many books at once? Surely the best way to tackle a particularly good book is to show it the respect and attention that you yourself would want - singular affection, recognition, and time. While I am perfectly capable of respectfully devouring a single book, and have done so recently, I feel that I've entered a phase of unbridled curiosity, and with it have encountered the central problem for bibliophiles in our day and age. Even with publishers dying left and right, once proud titles gracelessly falling out of print, and on, there are more books available now than at any other point in human history. For readers in the English language, this not only means an entire world of books from before the era of the mass market paperback, but also the fruits of the solidification of the blockbuster publishers, the specializations of academic markets, and the extreme niches provided by independent publishers. Books can now be printed on demand in varying quantities: soon, libraries and book stores will have equipment from which a patron can merely select a title from a very, very, very large list, pay, and wait as their book is PRINTED and BOUND before their eyes. The internet has already dispensed with the physical form of the book and extracted its guts in the form of eBooks. These range from specialty files readable on tablet pseudo-book screens down to the large, in open-ended text files provided by Project Gutenberg. SO MANY OPTIONS.
Is this a lament? A call to arms? Neither, I think. Walter Benjamin told us of the disappearance of the "aura" of the art object in the age of mass reproducibility. Fredric Jameson tells us of the rise of consumer goods as simultaneous with the disappearance of personal style, as such. We've got the vestiges of the old and the quirks of the new at our finger tips. I'll probably continue to read 5 or 6 books at once as long as I have a love affair with the book, though I can see myself spread ever-thin as the opportunities increase throughout my lifetime.