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Movie Vs Video

by Zettel 

Posted: 05 April 2006
Word Count: 3753
Summary: I am working on a project that requires 1/2 extended essays on movie themes. This is one effort. It is intended for anyone with a serious but not professional interest in movies as an art form not just a consumable entertainment product.


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Pauline Kael once said: "Anyone who watches a movie on video is guilty of an aesthetic crime of which they are themselves, the victim."

There are a number of reasons usually adduced to support this point of view. The first is to do with the frame. It is argued that the much-reduced size of picture on a TV not only literally reduces the scale, but that the TV frame somehow 'encloses' the image and so to speak, 'domesticates' it.

There is some truth in this. Because of the size of the image relative to the frame, there is a sense in which one is seldom 'drawn into' the movie with such a complete loss of consciousness of self that often occurs in the cinema. Part of this 'getting lost' in a movie has to do with the way one becomes oblivious of the frame of the screen, creating the illusion of actually being within the action as a kind of unseen bystander. This undoubtedly happens and is almost impossible with a TV-based image. It is interesting however that while this is usually a phenomenon of perception, almost the same experience can be induced, even on TV, by the sheer absorbing quality of the action, story and performances. Almost, but not quite.

We can find a similar phenomenon with books. Gripped by a good book, the reader becomes oblivious to the act of reading itself. The colloquial expression for this is the same as for the movies. 'Getting lost' in a good book or movie expresses a similar kind of experience across radically different media. The similarities appear to be a function of the absorbing content but the differences are perhaps more defined by the strong perceptual element with movies that does not apply to books. Indeed the balance between the two is probably undergoing constant change as we become increasingly sophisticated in 'reading' movies as what we might call their 'grammar' becomes progressively more complex.

The difference in location and setting marks a further difference between the two experiences. Despite the public nature of a visit to the cinema, the darkness can enhance the solitariness of the experience of getting lost in the movie. Regrettably, the behaviour patterns of watching TV have increasingly invaded the cinema in recent years. The distractions of talking, food, drink and the tyranny of popcorn, are patterns of behaviour characteristic of watching TV at home. The distinctive difference between the two experiences can still be achieved, but is being systematically undermined by changing conventions of acceptable behaviour.

Another commonly cited reason for the 'Kael' effect is the literal loss of scale for big action scenes: battles, landscapes, high speed chases, fights etc. The increasing sophistication and technical development of computer-generated special effects in recent years has led to a dominance of this element in the movie experience, often at the expense of other factors such as narrative, script and even performance. Indeed computer-graphics have almost displaced traditional feature-length 2D animation films dominated for decades by the Disney Studios. This is partly a cost issue: the technical level of picture, especially 3D effects, and animation quality through CG would be either technically impossible for traditional manual animation techniques, or prohibitively expensive. These pressures are driving 2D animation away from long features to shorter projects where the cost disadvantage is less acute and the unique quality of 2D can be exploited at affordable cost.

As for major action, or epic scale movies, the distinctive quality of the movie experience is commonly indicated by the comment that "you just have to see it on a big screen, it wouldn't be the same on video." We must not forget that a key element of this overall experience is sound. The dramatic improvements in sound with Dolby and THX, and their widespread installation in cinemas has added further to the advantage of the cinema-based movie experience as opposed to the home-based video. But even here, retail technology is beginning to compete. Taken together, these technical developments have been driven more by commercial considerations than aesthetic. We might say that Hollywood has intentionally been making must-see-in-the-cinema films, partly to fight off the challenge of TV. Differentiation. Of course, the video/DVD release of major movies has become a vital, second-phase income stream for the studios along with tied-in merchandising.

The other commercial drive to cultivate a market appetite for large scale, big action movies is that they are so massively expensive that only Hollywood can fund them. This is a powerful strategy which has the effect of creating a virtual global monopoly for Hollywood output. Few non-US studios or even countries, can successfully finance such expensive projects, especially as occasionally they fail. Even Hollywood is commercially uncomfortable with the level of risk associated with the astonishing escalation in big project costs. There can be little doubt that New Line would have simply disappeared if the Lord of the Rings trilogy had not been a box office success. Earlier examples like Cimino's Heaven's Gate and Costner's Waterworld put whole studios at risk.

This relationship between finance and risk is a commercial imperative that has had a damaging impact on the aesthetic quality and diversity of movies. If box office success can be reduced to a formula, the investment risk can be reduced. Thus, Hollywood studios for about a decade have aggressively pursued the market for large scale, action-driven movies heavily dependent on expensive technical sophistication.

One of the critical additional commercial benefits of this kind of movie is that it is an ideal global product. With its inevitable concentration on image and impact over narrative and script it neutralises the language issue. This is critical in non-English speaking markets. Many of these films are significantly accessible without understanding the dialogue. Better still, the relatively minimal dialogue makes sub-titling or dubbing easier, less expensive and not so distracting to the viewing experience.

This formulaic approach to minimising risk on high cost projects rests on one other element - star names. As the audiences became more and more used to sophisticated graphics and special effects, the studios found that they had to put big names into the mix in order to ensure success. The commercial paradox in this of course is that inevitably, commercially astute stars and agents turned this box-office power into financial reward. Thus Hollywood was stuck between a rock and a hard place: they needed the stars to guarantee the box office, yet the consequential rocketing of star costs, massively increased the overall costs of the movie, thus further escalating the risks they were brought in to minimise in the first place. This creates serious commercial problems when a star loses box-office pulling power. A good example is Kevin Costner; riding high with films like Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, first Waterworld and then The Postman blew well over $250 million and made Costner a very unappealing risk. A financially nervous Hollywood tends to be an aesthetically timid Hollywood.

While Hollywood's competitive strategy with big movies may have begun as an effort to overcome the competition of TV, they have certainly taken advantage of the increasing sophistication of home-based entertainment systems. Their commercial strategy now for any movie is to factor in the video/DVD profits. However as they can control release dates for both, they optimise both cinema and video based income streams. This is reinforced by restrictive agreements with major DVD retailers on Region codes, permitting market manipulation between say North America and Europe. One clear marketing strategy up till now, has been to ensure that video/DVD is not a 'first-see' product. They have increasingly generated a 'see-again' audience demand as well as an 'own-your-own-copy' sales pitch enhanced with special editions, out-takes, interviews and background production elements. This also explains Hollywood's immense sensitivity and exposure to the problem of piracy. The recently announced plan to stream new release movies direct from the internet is a massive gamble for Hollywood and perhaps a serious threat to the cinema film in its present form. As a long-term profitable outlet for its product Hollywood may be attracted to the potential cost savings on DVD versus cinemas and film distribution infrastructure. The direct-to-market profit possibilities of downloading may dominate movies as it looks set to dominate music.

These are important strategic developments in the film industry over the last 10-20 years. They highlight the ever-dominant force of commercial, marketing considerations driven by financial necessity, over the kind of movies made and their artistic or aesthetic aspiration. Given the commercial importance of stars in this context, it is perhaps not surprising that to some extent the weight of aesthetic emphasis has focussed on acting performance in recent years. The clean sweep of Lord of the Rings - The Return of the King in the 2004 Oscars was a rather special exception to this trend as it won almost everything in every category except individual performances. This was perhaps the ultimate triumph of the epic scale special effects dominated movie. CGI was the star of this movie, and it was perhaps sentiment and Hollywood's inherent love of size and scale, that led to its extraordinary and I think somewhat undeserved success in what we might consider the more aesthetic categories.

Commercial necessity driving aesthetics has been commonplace within the Hollywood film industry throughout its history. But Kael's remark with which we began, was irreducibly aesthetic, to do with film as an art form. This is clear as it was written some time before the technical and market developments outlined above. So if Kael was not referring to the diminishing effect of video on scale and impact and special effects, what kind of aesthetic crime might she have had in mind? What was it she felt was lost?

I can't speak for Kael but will offer my own thoughts provoked by her observation. We might state the issue in this form: what special features, elements of film aesthetics are harmed or lost on video compared with cinema viewing? I think this is closely connected with an issue already raised above - the concept of being 'drawn-in' to a movie to such an extent that one may feel as if one is sharing the experience of the characters rather than simply watching them. I have attributed much of this to the quality of the narrative, script and performances. I still think this is true but I believe there is something more fundamental at issue. And that something more is to do with film as an art form, a medium. A technical issue if you will but with critical aesthetic implications. The key technical elements are I believe the close-up, acting 'technique' and editing and the relationship between them. Aesthetically and emotionally, these technical issues have to do with intimacy, 'truthfulness' and what I would call the 'innerness' of character and performance.

Despite its familiarity to us, the close-up shot does something absolutely unique: it crosses the boundary of personal, physical space between individual human beings and enters the intensely private space within. It is extremely rare in real life for one person to see so deeply, uninterruptedly and clearly into another's eyes. Those few occasions are themselves instructive: they are paradigms of human intimacy. I can think of three: between a parent and a baby (not a child); between lovers; and between two people, one of whom is seriously ill or dying. These are unique moments in human relationships when at least one is totally, unreservedly open, emotionally naked and therefore utterly vulnerable to the other. The critical emotional element of these examples is that there is absolutely no concealment or manipulation. These are moments of pure being, not doing. The basis for this in each case is importantly different but they all share two profound but common features - absolute vulnerability and trust. In the case of the baby this is straightforward - the baby simply is totally vulnerable and dependent on the parent for everything from love to food and shelter. Though largely one-sided, the baby case is not entirely so, for it is here in this total openness that a parent sees literally the first signs of awareness, consciousness, a rudimentary form of personality. It is if you will, the extraordinary experience of first 'meeting' the person your baby is going to be.

The lovers' case is richer and quintessentially 'equal'. As human beings' personality and individuality develop, they learn to protect themselves, cope with the demands, challenges, even conflicts of relationships with other people. In this process, we all develop a kind of protective personal 'space' around ourselves. And social convention reinforces a sense of absolute mutual respect for this space. When it is invaded if only for a moment, without permission, we become very unsettled and uncomfortable. All of this self-preservation, protection, wariness, is broken down and willingly shed as the ultimate and unique expression of love and trust between lovers as two individuals unique to each other. They each invite the other into this personal space, openly and without reserve.

The asymmetry returns in the case of serious or terminal illness. Here one person's complex range of emotions is distilled into one: the awareness of the imminence of death. There is no longer any need, or purpose to conceal or protect oneself.

The close-up does all of these things as a simple matter of technical fact. It is the nearest films get to the narrator in a novel. It is our main way into thoughts and feelings, the 'innerness' of the character. How satisfying or revealing this is, is a function of acting and editing. Editing is crucial as the privileged access must be meaningful. A gratuitous close-up is one which occurs at a moment in the action where this character does not have anything significant or important to reveal. An effective close-up is the opposite, we are permitted to see, from within the character's personal space, what their reaction is to a significant moment in the action of the movie. The third vital element is therefore the actor's performance. When actors have acquired technique, all aesthetically is left to play for. How that technique is applied, the nature of the aesthetic aspiration it serves is at the heart of issues of truthfulness and honesty of performance. Some actors use technique to try to hide their actual response or more commonly, mistakenly they try to show us their reaction, rather than trust us to see it for ourselves.

Here lies the truth of the idea that the camera always 'catches' someone acting. It has been said that great film actors know how to be on camera rather than how to act to it. This is a profound principle, unique to film acting, and lies at the heart for example of the 'method' technique. In this respect, film acting is for example absolutely distinct from theatre acting. Many great actors can embrace both forms but only if they are able to adapt themselves to the critical differences between the technical requirements of the two contexts.

This principle is also the basis of the truth that great film acting makes great demands on personal confidence and courage: to overcome one's natural tendency to conceal one's inner self from general scrutiny and understanding and thereby protect oneself from attack or harm. There are many examples here. For me a very instructive one is Nicole Kidman. It is quite clear that Kidman can act. Her so far, fatal weakness on screen is that cannot not act. She always, in every performance I have seen, hides her inner self from the camera. This is why all the feisty ballsy qualities she displays in interviews somehow evaporate on screen. It is very interesting however that if one looks very closely, there are brief moments, looks, glances, when the camera seems to get under her guard and reveals just for an instant, this hidden, private self. Until a Director can engender in Kidman the confidence and courage to abandon this acting mask, her performances will lack the depth and passion of which perhaps she is capable.

In contrast, consider Meg Ryan in In the Cut. Notoriously Ryan's actual personality off-screen bears no relation to the lovable, sometimes ditsy, vulnerable feminine characters which made her movie name. In In the Cut with great courage, she revealed some of her more complex, multi-faceted, less appealing, uncomfortable, challenging real personality. I don't mean that she actually is in real life like her character - this is still a performance, but she allows uncomfortable aspects of herself to be revealed in her performance where these uncertainties and ambiguities are centrally relevant to the character she portrays.

This striking technical fact about the close-up is also a key factor in the issue of the voyeuristic nature of the camera. This is a fundamental aesthetic issue, because the camera always technically tends to be voyeuristic in effect: the distinction between when it is and when it is not, is a function of artistic intention and achievement, essentially on the part of the Director. Both are essential to overcome the inherent voyeurism of the camera. It has after all, without permission and contrary to a deep-seated human convention, even taboo, crossed a boundary and invaded personal, private space in the close-up. It needs more than a well meaning intention on the part of a Director to defuse this reaction. He must have the artistic skill and ability to realise that intention on screen. Bertolucci for me succeeds in this only sporadically; some of his filming and editing in otherwise excellent films like Stealing Beauty displays an uncomfortable ambiguity of intent. David Lynch it seems to me, except for The Elephant Man and The Straight Story seldom succeeds. Lynch in my opinion, despite his undoubted technical talent as a Director, has the cinematic instinct of a pornographer. Not only is his camera always voyeuristic, but that is precisely what fascinates and satisfies him most about it. Every cut and edit is consistent with this assertion. The 'lesbian' sex scene between Elena Harring and Naomi Watts in Mullholland Drive is a good example of this.

Contrast Sophia Coppola's treatment of the central relationship in Lost In Translation. The risks here are palpable: a late middle-aged man with the power of fame and riches is drawn towards a vulnerable, young, neglected wife in the context of a foreign country with alien values. They meet in what we might call a morality-free zone in the sense that the only thing that maintains their sense of duty and moral responsibility to others, is their own personal choice. No one would know Ė except them. The social and moral pressures normally present are absent: they don't even have to explicitly lie or deceive their respective partners to develop this relationship. Yet it is the consistency of moral perspective and the emotional sensitivity and reticence with which this fascinating relationship is portrayed, that makes this an extraordinary and unusual film.

The power and subtlety of the close-up is used here to perfection. We spend much of the film in the heads of the characters with a real sense of sharing their experience rather than watching it, voyeuristically from the outside. The extraordinary achievement of this film is to make us understand, even feel the essence of this relationship without being told or in any obvious way, shown it. This is artistically achieved through brilliant use of the three key elements above: the close-up, superb film 'acting'; and editing as precise and perfectly timed as a heartbeat. That Bill Murray's consummate, subtle, extraordinary acting performance in this film should have been overlooked by the Academy in favour of a flashy, self-conscious "look-at-me" performance such as Sean Penn's in Mystic River is a species of aesthetic crime in itself.

Lost In Translation is a film about, among other things, real intimacy. While creating a genuine impression of passion it conveys a true sense of the selflessness of love with a necessary reticence rare in modern movies. Even the final words between the 'lovers' are respected as private between them. However, just as we have felt throughout the movie, the audience has an overwhelming sense of somehow knowing, not necessarily the precise words but the essential sentiment they would have expressed. We have been privileged to come to know these two people and how they think and feel with all the uncertainties and conflicting pressures they experience, without at any time feeling intrusive of voyeuristic. The brilliance of the direction, editing and especially performances, lies in our sense of conviction that we have understood these two characters' inner thoughts and feelings without having been explicitly told hardly anything at all.

Returning to my theme therefore, I would argue that the absolutely key feature of a film that is lost in watching it on video/DVD against the cinema is the significance and impact of the close-up. The editing after all, crosses the different mediums relatively intact. But even in close up, on the TV screen we always stay this side of the personal private space of the actor/character. The unique intimacy that the large screen close-up generates is lost. As a result we are literally and metaphorically more detached from the characters and thereby the action. As a result the acting performances are significantly diminished: many of the subtlest shades of expression and meaning are lost. As a result, inevitably, our attention is driven to the more obvious physicality of performance and as a consequence towards the usual preoccupation with narrative, plot and action.

Because of its lack of scale, action and to some extent plot, Lost In Translation is perhaps a perfect example of the kind of film that people might suggest, it would be fine to watch on video/DVD. Yet I would argue the opposite. What it loses is precisely the kind of fundamental aesthetic value at the heart of Kaelís remark. It is my hunch that those who only ever watch Lost in Transaltion on video/DVD are very likely to be dissatisfied. They are quite likely to say I think - "I really don't see what all the fuss is about". Quite so. The heart-on-the-sleeve obviousness of the cinematic qualities of films like The Lord of The Rings - The Return of the King is merely diminished by the transition. Whereas the subtleties and shades of meaning and performance which are the essence of Lost In Translation's aesthetic value are almost entirely lost. This gives the film's title a curiously apt but unwitting irony.



Zettel - March 2006






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Comments by other Members



Cornelia at 17:21 on 05 April 2006  Report this post
A though-provoking piece, although too long for me to do it justice just now.

In my own view what is lost on seeing the film in video is the cinema experience - the warm dark which has been called womb-like, the absence (unless you are unlucky) of peripheral noise and interruptions as well as the increased concentration brought about not only because you paid for the ticket but the almost unconscious awareness that you are part of an audience. You can't get up and make a cup of tea or be asked to put the cat out.

That said, DVD is a good second best. Having seen 'Final Destination 3' at the cinema I was pleased to see that 1 and 2 were screened on TV shortly afterwards and I could record them

In relation to the point about acting I would say that film stars are not usually required to act much, and are often cast for how they look and what they've done before and for what the audience's expectations are of their previous roles. A screen 'presence ' is more important than any other quality. Alfred Hitchcock was notorious for choosing his stars on this basis, as is Woody Allen, and there are many stories of actors who couldn't manage to walk downstairs and talk at the same time - Rock Hudson, for instance. A really big star can choose his roles and even have the parts changed to suit them, so they don't seem so villainous, for instance. It hardly seems a coincidence that the two stars of Brokeback Mountain, for instance, chose roles immediately following that butched up their images.

I don't agree about Lost in Translation but I suspect it's a female thing to feel uncomfortable watching middle aged men and much younger women in relationships - although as I recall nothing much went on in this particular case. I know that cinema is often a matter of wish fulfilment but somehow that makes it worse. Maybe I'm feeling sensitive, have recently watched Harrison Ford leaping off roofs and and supposedly married to someone half his age, not to mention Kevin Spacey in 'American Beauty' which I saw again on DVD recently, or most of it - I had to get the DVD back to the shop and didn't think the last scene worth paying an extra £2.50 for. Where is the cut-off point where these relationships are classed as paedophilic? OK, the women are above the age of consent - except for 'Lolita' and Shirley Temple, of course, in films of a less knowing era. It's not just a matter of what's plausible, but of what seems responsible. Still, that's true of the portrayal of women in a lot of films. It all adds to the general confusion.

Are you doing a course?

Sheila

Zettel at 11:44 on 07 April 2006  Report this post
Sheila

Thanks for the comments. Not a course. A personal project.

regards

Z

Anya at 13:07 on 07 April 2006  Report this post
Hi Zettel

I thought this was a really thought-provoking piece. I agree about the fact that both cinema viewing and home viewing have advantages and disadvantages, and ultimately that although films are designed to be watched on the big screen, other people in cinemas can be pretty distracting. I also agree that the effect of close-ups are one of the key elements lost when viewing on DVD.

The beginning of the article brought to mind "Cinema Paradiso" which showed the importance of the cinema as a social meeting place for the residents of the local village, but that also was a beautifully crafted and directed film which had a real sense of the art of fim-making to it.

The David Lynch comments were also interesting - personally, I love the way that he directed "Twin Peaks", but am not keen on many of his films. I particularly loathe Blue Velvet, but because he manages to provoke such a strong reaction , then perhaps this makes him a truly great and challenging film-maker? I'm not quite sure myself!

I think perhaps that the benefit of DVDs is the fact that you can watch movies time and time again, and perhaps what's telling is the movies that people choose to do this with. I can quite happily watch some of the commercial cinema releases and enjoy them, but wuldn't buy them and watch them again. It's the more challenging and less commercial films that you need to watch more than once to truly get a handle on what the director has done that I buy.

It would be interesting to see which films were successful in the cinema and less successful as DVD releases and vice versa!

Really good piece!

Anya

Zettel at 00:20 on 08 April 2006  Report this post
Thanks Anya for your thoughtful comments. I too liked Twin Peaks I suppose because within the limitations of the small TV frame it managed to communicate a very special atmosphere and tone. And Cinema Paradiso was always a delight.

Thanks for the point about re-watching - so true. And I had neglected that advantage of DVD. I think Lynch is challenging in two senses - first as with TP - he throws in all kinds of grotesques and weird switches in narrative. Unfortunately I think this is a bit of a bluff and they don't really add up to much in substance though they work fine for tone and atmosphere. Lynch's great problem for me is that he doesn't seem to know how to end[/i his movies. They are always somehow unsatisfying compared with the main body of the film. The benefit of TP for him was that he could endlessly (sic) defer the ending.

My real problem with him is I do think he likes the sexual voyeurism of his camera and he never really seems to create strong, independent women characters. He is challenging in this area for me, only because he shows explicit sex. But I still feel the 'challenge' is more apparent than real. He doesn't do anything with it. And I do think his use of the camera is exploitative.

Thanks again for the comments. Helpful.

Regards

Z


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