from STUDIO 10 (October 1996)
Compared to artforms that have been practiced and refined for hundreds of years, the artform of cinema is in an adolescent state. It was in 1895 that Edison, Lumiere, and others took what was considered a novelty and refined it; today, cinema has become fully integrated into the fabric of popular culture. There is no need to coerce an unwilling public to attend the showing of the latest movie. Their attention is fixed and devoted to each fleeting image. While art museums must cajole the public to attend (often relying on public funds to stay in operation), the movie theaters play each weekend to packed houses.
Even though cinema is but an adolescent, its voice is loud and unruly. After all, it grew up during a period beset by rapid change and confusion - the twentieth century. All arts, sciences, and other spheres have been influenced by this woeful era. But other artforms have had masters who have consistently shaped and guided their charges. While cinema has had its champions and visionaries, the task of guiding cinema to a state of maturity has been abandoned.
Is cinema of any redeeming value whatsoever, or can only evil come from it? Since it is an invention of mankind (it may be reasoned), and mankind is depraved and incessantly evil, then the works and the tools that he fashions must be evil as well. What more proof does one require, the evidence is all around - movies that depict every perversion from the evil heart of twisted mankind. In this fantasy world that has been fashioned, fleshly desires are realized in a convoluted universe that accommodates wayward lifestyles without fear of consequence.
However, even if mankind did not have the ability to shape his surroundings and conceive new devices and inventions, nature in its raw state contains enough dangerous elements that could be used to inflict harm. A forest set ablaze by the unyielding heat of the sun could provide a firebrand that might be used to do one's neighbor harm. Or the herbs that grow freely on the earth might be ingested and abused for their narcotic properties. Or a stone might become a makeshift device to carry out plans of murderous revenge.
The inventive urge, the desire to improve one's surroundings, is built into the design of each of us. For the will to live and survive is strong, and in order to survive the change that storms around us, we must continually adapt our environment, using the materials around us to fashion the tools for survival. Suppose this question were asked - would life be better lived in the 20th century or the 19th? There would be those among us who would think wistfully of dreamlike days lived in the midst of a Victorian society, with everyone traipsing about in clothes of white, and the earth springing forth a bounteous supply of flowers and fresh vegetables, and evenings spent lounging around the parlor, and being entertained by after- dinner amusements. But what of telephones, computers, automobiles, airplanes, refrigerators? The society of the 19th century did not have to deal with the challenges of coping with our modern conveniences, but they were busy working on challenges of their own, problems inherited from previous generations.
One could look at the internal combustion powered automobile, and declare its invention a serious error in shortsightedness. See all the harm it has caused - noxious fumes polluting the atmosphere! Horrendous deaths on the Autobahn! Depletion of the earth's natural fuel reserves! The tearing apart of the family, casting its children to the far ends of the earth! Congesting land fills with worn-out tires and junked wrecks! Drive-by shootings! It is a wonder that everyone on earth does not abandon their vehicles immediately, so that society may return to its former days of peace and sanity. Yet it is recognized that the automobile, which was once the playtoy of the wealthy, has become necessary for present day survival. Did the inventors of the first automobiles ever imagine that their toys would become vital tools of the future?
The pioneers of cinema were in the same position as early automobile enthusiasts. They envisioned that improvements could be made to the magic lantern shows that amused the late 19th century public. How could they foresee the grandiose movie palaces of the 20's and 30's, the advent of "talking pictures", Technicolor, Dolby sound, IMAX theaters - or the capability of every home having giant television screens, lasers discs, and satellite dishes?
While the usefulness of the automobile is acknowledged, of what use is cinema, other than, at best, a pleasant diversion, and at worst, a submersion into hellish depravities? The automobile, or any material thing, has limited usefulness and function - it will forever be bound to the task of providing a means of transportation. But cinema is a tool that has allowed private thoughts and ideas to be transmuted into works of public display, accessible to the entire world. A movie is not shown so that the public can admire pleasant colors cast about the wall of the movie theater. The eyes of the public are fixed upon the screen itself, for when the projector is switched on, the screen becomes a window into worlds never before realized.
There have been windows before the advent of cinema. The written word has long evoked images in the theater of the mind. Sculptures and painting has given the images visual form. Live theater uses the visual form, the spoken word, music, and one other important element, the living human performer. All of these elements were combined to provide an overwhelming and ecstatic experience. The audiences were submerged into a world fashioned for them with all the force and vigor that the players and stage crew could muster. When the curtain fell and the house lights were raised, the spell was broken. But the audience, giddy with the rapturous visions they beheld, could not contain screams of delight, earth shaking rumbles of stomping feet, and ear splitting waves of applause.
Yet, there was a boundary that live theater could not cross. There were visions that could not be conjured. There was the physical boundary between the audience and the stage. The audience was bound to their respective seats, never could the players come any closer. There were certain visions that could not find a proper avenue of expression - that is, until the entrance of Messrs. Lumiere and Edison.
Cinema progressed throughout the early part of the 20th century, from the recording of everyday events, newsworthy items, and travels to foreign lands, to the dramas of DW Griffith. According to Arthur Knight in his book The Liveliest Art (1957), Griffith, between the years 1908 and 1912,
took the raw elements of movie making as they had evolved up to that time and wrought from them a medium more intimate that theater, more vivid than literature, more affected than poetry. He created the art of film, its language, its syntax...the closeup does more than merely emphasize what is important in a scene: it eliminates everything else. It forces the audience to see what the director wants it to see. It concentrates attention on the significant detail, whether it be an object, an actor or a portion of an actor. Griffith discovered that the close-up of a hand, an arm, the eyes or lips could often be far more expressive on the screen than the most highly trained actor projecting an emotion in theatrical terms.
Just before the introduction of synchronized sound (the "talkie"), movies such as Josef von Sternberg's The Docks of New York (1927) represented the apex of sophisticated cinema technique, the result of 30 years of experimenting and refining. When viewed today, it holds it's own against modern movies, in fact, being much more compelling than most. Has so little innovation occurred since the early days of cinema? Or have the limits of the artform been reached, with no further progress possible?
Shortly after the introduction of the "talking picture", French film maker Rene Clair, according to Knight,
worked with a minimum of dialog, using music, choruses and sound effects to counterpoint and comment upon his visuals. In this principle of asynchronous sound, sound used against rather than with the images, Clair discovered a new freedom and fluidity for the sound medium. In Sous les Toits (1929) a fight takes place at night near a railway embankment. The fight is almost obscured by shadows, but its force and fury are conveyed in the roar of the passing trains heard on the sound track. Clair demonstrated to everyone's satisfaction that much of silent technique was still valid, that it was the image and not the word that kept the screen alive. Sound, and especially asynchronous sound, could add its own grace notes, its deeper perceptions, its enrichment of mood and atmosphere - but not independently of the visual.
There have been technical improvements, such as the introduction of color, improvements in sound quality, and larger film formats that have resulted in sharper screen images. In the 1940's, cinema was forced to reclaim audiences that were lost to the new media of television. In an attempt to draw audiences, film makers sought to feature content that was restricted from television audiences. Rather that concentrating on the further development of cinema, exploiting new techniques that had been discovered, the audience was exploited. Rather that expanding the expressive boundaries of cinema using the latest tools and film theories, cinema was pushed into a back alley, forced to inhabit a world of darkness. Cinema did find a new audience to be sure, but the audience from the heartland was abandoned.
There was a time when a large percentage of America would regularly attend the movies. This is evident in all of the old movie theaters still seen in many small towns, movie theaters that have since been converted into banks or lawyer's offices. It is true that television did play a part in diminishing the numbers of moviegoers, after all, it was much more convenient to turn on the television that was sitting there in the home, than to arise and go forth to the movie theater. But sitting in the home is an everyday event, whereas sitting in a darkening movie theater is an exciting adventure. There was an audience, fellow adventures that were knit together for the space of a few hours. Then there was the environment, a special place that was designed for the experience, the experience of being witness to an extraordinary event. Sitting in a darkened movie theater before the curtain rises, the audience's minds are prepared for an experience not unlike hypnotism. But with most of the movies of today, the trance is quickly broken several minutes after the movie begins, as the audience realizes the film maker has nothing new to show them. The audience's fragile expectation that this movie might be different from the rest is shattered. Many have simply given up on cinema, abandoning it, leaving it to those who have little sense and taste.
In order to continue the appeal of cinema to its new audience (teenagers and less than mature adults) the movies have become louder, faster, more vulgar, with more explosions, violence, obscenities, and lewdness. The technological advances that should be used to increase the cinema's expressive power through studied nuance and sensitivity have been used to pound the audience senseless.
There is little security amongst movie companies these days, as they fight for the ever diminishing audience for that increasingly important opening weekend. The first weekend indicates whether a movie will succeed or fail. Since so much money has been spent on the average movie, it is crucial that the movie has a large box office draw on that first weekend, because that first weekend will most likely be the movie's best weekend, as the public discovers that the movie is less than desirable. The moviegoers were subjected to previews of the movie many months previously. The previews consisted of snippets from the movie strung together randomly, then displayed in rapid succession accompanied by a pulse- pounding soundtrack. The audience responds as a herd of cattle that is prodded along by dogs and horses, not sure of where they are going, but being driven forward by whistles, noises and shouts.
One of the first questions that is asked these days when a decision is made on choosing a movie is "who is in it?" This is not an unreasonable question, except that it has become not just one of the determining factors, but for many moviegoers, the only determining factor. The movie's plot or moral tone is of little concern, as is the identity of the producer, director, cinematographer, or scriptwriter. Since today's movies are nearly devoid of content, the public needs a recognizable face, so the movies are marketed on this basis. The face need not belong to one that possesses remarkable acting skill - only that it belong to one who inhabits the exclusive society of the Celebrity.
There have been movie "stars" for as long as there have been movies - starting with Mary Pickford, Rudolph Valentino, Charlie Chaplin, and others. There have always been those who have been paid well for services rendered. But today it has reached such an extreme that the top movie stars receive 20 million dollars for each assignment. This means that 20 million dollars is added to the already outrageous cost of a motion picture production. The movie's story and theme become secondary; showcasing the particular, and often limited, qualities of the celebrity is all important. Usually, celebrities become typecast, playing only a certain type of role, so that when the public hears that magical name, they already know what type of movie to expect. The quality of all movies suffer, because only certain types of stories can be presented, based on the expectations that have been created regarding the current crop of celebrities.
There have been movies that have fared well that have relied more upon the skill of the actors than upon their recognition by the public. For instance, the movie Chariots of Fire (1981), with a British cast of actors unknown by the American public, was awarded the Academy Award for Best Picture.
The public's perception of a movie should be based on who is actually responsible for bringing the elements of a movie together; for the most part, those that work behind the camera. As an example, the Disney name is strong and well recognized, even though the company now relies on its stunning past achievements to sell its current tepid offerings.
It is difficult for some to imagine that cinema could be used to invigorate the soul, since it has been in the hands of those who have possessed a bleak view of the future of mankind. Many of the movies that are used as textbook examples at film schools, while excellent examples of bold and innovative technique, reflect an attitude of despair, with mankind groping about in a meaningless universe. Ingmar Bergman reveals his theological confusion in movies such as The Seventh Seal (1955). The violent "film noir" era in the 1940's and 1950's has impacted filmmakers such as Quentin Tarrantino. One movie that does present a "hopeful" view of mankind, Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), depicts mankind's evolution to a higher species.
For those who desire to bring reformation to the cinematic arts, there are hopeful signs on the horizon. The overall earnings for movies released in the summer of 1996 was disappointing, which is not good news for the movie theater owners who have already committed to greatly expand their market in the next four years (Variety, August 26 1996). The movie theater owners depend upon the movie distributors to provide a product that will be well received by the audience. That product will either be more of the same mindless fare, or movies that bristle with life created by individuals that possess genius and vision.
More attention these days is being given to smaller, independent movies. An example that provides inspiration to film making aspirants is Robert Rodriguez, who spent a total of $7000 on El Mariachi (1993), which was then purchased by a major movie distributor. The independently produced The Spitfire Grill (1996) managed to win the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival. According to Bob Polunsky writing in the San Antonio, Texas Recorder Times, The Spitfire Grill is a movie that "may be old-fashioned in style, but it's more realistic and more entertaining than most movies made today..[it] proves again that a well-written story, well-developed characters and well-cast performers are the most vital ingredients of good entertainment". The smaller movies are not marketed in the same manner as the large ones are; they are not released to 500 screens and expected to sink or swim on the first weekend. Rather, they are released in special runs to limited markets, allowing the movies to find an audience through positive word-of-mouth.
The personal computer, that ubiquitous device, is increasingly becoming an essential tool for movie making. There is great difficulty in translating a written script to a stream of visual images, because there are so many details that can not be fully expressed in the words of the script. The computer provides a tool that is far more flexible and powerful than a mere script - it serves as a bridge between the world of words and of images. A full three-dimensional virtual world can be realized, one in which virtual sets can be designed; virtual actors can tirelessly re-enact scenes, as adjustments are made to dialog and action; camera positions and movements can be planned. Artists involved in the project, whether they be cinematographers, set or costume designers, musicians, writers or actors, can use this same tool, allowing a finely-tuned collaboration, thus improving the quality of the end result. As the capabilities of the personal computer advance further, the three-dimensional world will become so realistic that elaborate real-world sets may become obsolete - actors will perform on a simple set, with their images integrated into the virtual set. Could live actors be replaced by their virtual counterparts? This has already been done in the animated movie, such as Disney's Snow White (1937).
There are those that liken the present age, with the development of the personal computer, satellites, telephones and the Internet, as the beginning of a new age of startling changes, not unlike 500 years ago when Johann Gutenberg built his printing press. The difference between then and now is that Gutenberg had a grasp on how his tool should be used - from it came the Gutenberg Bible. It is not so today, as Christians lag far behind others who have dominated the scene for many years. Those who have no desire to serve God have constructed their own vision of a world without restraints, and forced their vision on others through the use of blaring megaphones - the cutting-edge tools of mass media. But they cannot escape the unyielding grasp of the Creator of the Universe. For God's work continues, relentlessly advancing, with tools forged by those who do not acknowledge Him. The intricate network of communication that is now being built might be likened to the mighty system of Roman roads, built at an opportune time, to carry the message of Christ's apostles.
The new messengers in this present media-rich but content- barren age will include the New Cinema. The revitalized movies will not be celebrity showcases, but will be adventurous explorations of mankind's destiny and purpose. The new movies will be small compared to today's blockbusters, but they will be many in number. Their stories and themes will not be watered down to appeal to the lowest common denominator. The new movie makers will not be forced to uproot themselves from their hometowns to make the move to Hollywood; local resources, plus the power of the personal computer and the grasp of modern communications, will provide them all that they require. The new movies will not be the product of deranged minds that wish to grasp it's viewers by the throat and drag them into the abyss, but they will be the outpouring of those who desire to lead its audience to a life of richness and maturity.