Let Us Compare Mythologies
You’ve probably heard by now that the ongoing digital cinema conversion has fundamentally transformed the way movies are produced, distributed, and exhibited. Taken on their own, petitions and protests that aim to save 35mm film can look nostalgic, naïve, or simply Luddite. With 92% of American screens already film-free, this looks like a settled issue, with no outstanding questions.
The scene looks different at a farther remove. Cinema is hardly the only industry in the midst of a digital transition, after all, and comparative analysis promises fresh insight.
Let’s talk about the parallel upheaval in voting technology for a moment. In the wake of the Florida’s extraordinarily close vote totals in the 2000 presidential election, America focused anew on problems at the polling place. Poor ballot design, antiquated punch cards, obsolete lever machines—all came under post-mortem scrutiny. The technology was an incongruous, even dangerous, anachronism for the dot com economy. “In the age of the microchip,” CBS News opined, “the leadership of the free world is being decided by boxes of paper ballots with hanging and half-punched “chads,” leaving it to harried election officials to decide who meant to vote for whom.” In California, the ACLU cited the scattered usage of the much-maligned Votomatic machine as an impediment to equal protection guarantees and sued to delay a state-wide election until all the machines could be replaced. Continue reading
Now that the film vs. digital debate is winding down, the National Association of Theater Owners has turned its attention towards more pressing matters. Last month the exhibitor’s trade group issued new guidelines for movie trailers and related promotional material, effective October 2014. It was a canny move, seizing upon public sentiment that “trailers are too damn long” and thus earning ink for NATO in publications like RedEye that would typically ignore its pronouncements. (When you share an acronym with the instantly recognized North Atlantic Treaty Organization, it’s hard to get mainstream press coverage. Then again, as an industry trade group, perhaps you don’t want the sunlight in the first place.)
The new NATO guidelines, which are completely voluntary, mandate that movie trailers run no longer than two minutes and be released no more than five months before than the movie that they’re promoting. (Trailers are presently around two and half minutes apiece.) Each distributor will qualify for two exemptions per year, though these exceptional trailers cannot be any longer than three minutes. NATO’s latest also clamps down on “direct response prompts (QR codes, text-to, sound recognition, etc.)” in trailers and endorses practices that most theaters abide by already, such as assuring that age-appropriate trailers accompany each feature so that Dallas Buyers Club isn’t pitched at the Frozen crowd. Continue reading
Can anything else be said about The Night of the Hunter? After a BFI monograph, two book-length accounts of its production, an exhaustive Criterion Collection edition, and numerous critical appreciations, one fears not. Robert Mitchum’s monologues are quoted with giddy abandon and the spectral image of Shelley Winters underwater is recalled with undiluted emotional immediacy. James Agee’s screenplay (long ridiculed by associates who outlived him) is now released under the banner of the Library of America—an honor that the screenplay basically aspired to long before such a collection existed. Continue reading
“Film is Dead,” proclaimed one Logan Square art gallery last February, referring not only to the imminent end of film manufacture, but more broadly to moment when ‘film’ lost its currency and accuracy as short-hand for a diverse range of artistic activities. If everybody’s shooting on video/digital/data, then why persist in applying the genteel label of film to anything with the slightest genetic relation to sprocket-and-emulsion-based celluloid?
It’s an important question, albeit one that might be posed a bit less antagonistically. After all, film gains about as much from being associated with gallery installations as video artists do from being confused for 16mm cinematographers. Greater medium specificity and more precise vocabulary ultimately help everybody. Continue reading
Can we learn about film history through non-filmic means?
By most metrics, this week’s film, Thanks a Million, is not a very familiar title. It hasn’t screened theatrically in Chicago—or anywhere else, for that matter—in many years. I don’t know of any video release, and I can’t recall many TV airings. It doesn’t have much of a paper trail either, with minimal mention in histories of the musical or American cinema in the ’30s. It’s not discussed in relation to director Roy Del Ruth’s career either, but that’s because far too few people are thinking about that expansive and bewildering subject in the first place. (For one rare and sympathetic take on Thanks a Million, see William K. Everson’s brief Program Notes for a 1978 screening.) We managed to preview a collector’s 16mm print before booking an infrequently-circulated 35mm print from the studio vault for our calendar, but that was a stroke of luck.
We only knew to seek the film out in the first place after coming across some very attractive sheet music for it. Continue reading
There has always been an artificial divide between cinema and television. The latter, it was prophesized, would bring about the death of the former. Movies quickly embarked on out-flanking TV with innovations like widescreen, stereo imagery (3-D) and stereo sound (four-track magnetic playback), Eastmancolor, and, eventually, sex and violence that would make any network censor blanche. Cinephiles proudly declared they didn’t own a television set and TV buffs shook their heads over the expense and inconvenience of going to the movies. Frank Tashlin satirized this division early on (and hilariously) in The Girl Can’t Help It and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?
In reality, the two media were often closer than partisans would admit, with moguls freely shifting talent and resources from one to another. Universal, the studio that invested most seriously in TV production, would reap the benefits many times over.
In a more material sense, the first few decades of television broadcasting would be inconceivable without film. Local stations, especially unaffiliated ones that relied on syndication deals and back catalog feature film packages to fill out their schedules, were grindhouses in all but name, projecting celluloid prints of TV content hour after hour. Continue reading