Much of the power of the film image, excluding for the moment its historical preeminence, resides in its grandeur; its tiny images in multiple millimeters projected over our heads and transformed into gigantic images in multiple meters onto a single screen which dominates and transfixes our view. If there is a cinematic aura in the Benjaminian sense, then this aura rests on the transformation of multiple tiny images reproduced in slight variation to create motion which are then projected to become gigantic moving images flowing past our retinas. It is the transformation of tiny static images into gigantic moving images that creates the aura of cinema in an age of mechanical reproduction.
But in an age of digital reproduction the transformative process is reversed: tiny images are made even smaller into pixels, which in turn are not projected but multiplied via a process within (or behind) the screen depending upon the device one is utilizing. The transformative process of digital reproduction is reductive and elusive in the sense that the image on the mobile device, home theatre, laptop or tablet does not reproduce itself on a solitary screen which dominates and transfixes our view, but instead these smaller images are packaged inside of multiple image devices and image files which all compete simultaneously for our attention. It is in this way- the competition for our attention through multiple image displays and files- that the cinematic aura has been devalued- degraded and perhaps may be ultimately destroyed.
Even the projected digital image in a theatre which transforms tiny pixels into slightly smaller, but more densely packed pixels does not replicate the cinematic aura in the sense that the luminescence of the digital image -surpassing the cinematic image in brightness, color and clarity- puts the projected digital image in competition with other digital images from various devices whose brightness, color and clarity it matches or temporarily surpasses. The digital image does not set itself apart from other digital images but instead integrates itself within other digital images which are competing for our attention.
In a theatre where the digital image is projected one is less likely to be distracted by others using their digital devices because the luminosity of the two devices (the digital projection and the mobile device) compliment each other. Whereas the light from a digital device that is used during the projection of an actual film is a greater distraction because of the difference in luminosity between the two apparatuses (film projector/ mobile device screen)…
But what does all this mean for the cinephile, the person who adores film, makes films, collects films preserved on various mediums, and who enjoys seeing film images on the big screen? Why is it that, with all of the many, many screens (large and small) at our disposal, it is harder to see any good movies? Are there less good movies being made? That perhaps might depend upon your own personal standards of what is a good movie. It might also depend on how a movie is distributed and marketed so that it is brought to our attention in the first place. What has actually happened to the film image in the age of digital reproduction is that the volume of a single image which once dominated our field of view in a movie theatre has been replaced with the number of screens multiplied within our field of view which are simultaneously competing for our attention at any given moment, at any given place in our lives.
In fact, the standards of what is a good movie have been changed by the ubiquity of mobile technology and social media in such a way that a “good” movie may only be a movie that is able to moderately keep you from distracting yourself with other screens. That is, can the film keep you from looking at the other mobile screens around you or in your possession for ever increasing, but moderate, amounts of time?
The incredible success of television shows like EMPIRE and films like FAST & FURIOUS 7 or STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON rests on their ability to keep the viewer distracted from their mobile devices for moderate amounts of time and if these viewers are distracted into using their mobile devices, then they are using these devices to access social media to document and share their experiences while viewing the film or television show.
But the dire question here is: Do we really want “distraction” to be the new aesthetic standard for measuring whether or not a movie (or television show) is any good?
In fact the phenomenal success of that unholy dramatic mess called EMPIRE is based in no small part upon a set of dramatic freedoms that can be listed here as 1) Characters must willfully contradict themselves in the very next scene; 2) Inscrutable shocks and surprises can happen at any moment within a scene including but not limited to surprise cameos, sudden deaths, and returns; 3) Actions and dialogue after a commercial break do not have to follow through with the actions and dialogue before the commercial break; 4) Themes, storylines and characters can be dropped at a moment’s notice and are arbitrary to the (in)coherence of the series.
All this “freedom” from any kind of plausible dramatic standard is done so that viewers can “tweet” their shock and awe or provide unintentional spoilers on social media so that others will want to join in the excitement of what –pray tell- is going to happen next. Judging from the success of EMPIRE and other shows like it on cable and streaming on-line one could say that the overall effect of social media on dramatic narrative is that it dissolves all previous unified standards of theme, storyline, character consistency and reflection upon previous actions into desultory and vapid exercises in shock and relentless character twists and plot turns for sake of being plugged into a conversation on social media that amounts to nothing lower than a real time guessing game.
Twitter and the likes are making (nit)twits of many of us who cannot help but to be part of a social conversation about a show created to incite a social conversation about itself.
Yet these artistic freedoms listed above could signal the death knell of the previous standards of “good” writing which leads to “good” films and television in the sense that these are not freedoms at all, but instead a new set of strictures for narrative incoherence hidden behind new technology that forces writers and filmmakers to pitch ideas that they think can distract us long enough so that we can get on our mobile devices and tell others of our distraction.
For Black writers and filmmakers who have honed their skills studying August Wilson, Octavia Butler and watching early Spike Lee and Classic American, Independent and European films for inspiration- we are left as lost souls blowing in the winds of change. Eroding our spirits are the new and profound changes in the relationship of the viewer to multiple digital screens, coupled with social media and its ongoing social conversation about what’s going to happen next-instead of fully comprehending what is happening now. And worse still, any cherished film from our exalted cinephilic past can be easily remade and trashed as these new dramatic standards force major deviations from the original source material to accommodate what will shock and distract today’s viewer.
Black writers and filmmakers, who are already segregated from the wider global audience and profits of their White counterparts, must now contend with the fact that there is an ever growing evaluation gap between what we think is good and what the public thinks is good. That classic moment from Spike Lee’s MO’ BETTER BLUES (1990) where Wesley Snipes’ character of Shadow Henderson berates the other jazz musicians for not “playing the shit that the people want to hear” was always a challenge to the notion of the independence of Black artists to pursue the limits of their art with true artistic and expressive freedom. In that famous scene, the notion of Black artistic freedom was being directly challenged with the moribund and complacent idea that Black artists are dependent upon how they please their Black audiences which affords them the luxury to pursue their craft.
White artists are not encumbered with such a challenge as their work and freedoms are upheld at all costs and regardless of the size of their audiences by the deep seated illusion of White supremacy which sets the standard of excellence others must pursue or surpass. If in doubt see the film careers and box office totals of Woody Allen, Terence Malick, Wes Anderson, David Lynch, The Coen Brothers, David Cronenberg et all.
As lost souls blowing in the winds of change we are compelled to acknowledge the success of shows like EMPIRE, inchoate blockbusters like FURIOUS 7 and by-the-numbers bio-pics like STRAIGHT OUT OF COMPTON but we are also compelled to retain our integrity, our courage and our passion to continue to pursue our previous “pre-digital” reproduction standards –even as we use the digital technology to create our work.
We must be sensitive to the fact that social media magnifies what is perceived as popular even if the thing that is popular is mediocre. In that magnification process that is social media lots of money is being made by the producers of mediocrity, but as an artist do you really want to sully your hands in the muck of something mediocre for the sake of being popular?
If the answer is yes then you were never really an artist in the first place.
But let us return to our initial question: What does all this mean for the cinephile: the person who adores film, makes films, collects films preserved on various mediums and who enjoys seeing film images on the big screen?
What it means is that even though technology has advanced to the degree that today you can watch Coppola’s 70mm widescreen film APOCALYPSE NOW (1979) on your 5 inch cell phone screen- why should you really want to watch such an epic film on your cell phone screen? The experience of the visual volume and dramatic weight of those widescreen images is not transferrable to the mobile screen, even though technology can so easily deliver those images to the mobile screen.
We have to make images and construct powerful and coherent dramas that people would be dissatisfied watching on anything other than the big screen.
To preserve our cinephilia and fight back against the mediocrity encouraged by new technology and social media we have to paraphrase Norma Desmond from Billy Wilder’s SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950) and constantly remind ourselves that cinema is still big, it just the screens that have gotten small.
Andre Seewood is author of "(Dismantling) The Greatest Lie Ever Told To The Black Filmmaker." Pick up a copy here.