Thursday, March 22, 2012

Some thoughts about the movies

I haven't seen Hugo, but I'm told it enshrines one of the significant moments in film history: the Lumiere brothers' screening of "Train Entering a Station" for an audience which fled in panic. This is one of the movies' foundation myths, like Washington and the cherry tree, and just as plausible. I don't buy it.

The people who gathered to observe this novelty in 1897, at a fairground in the French countryside, were cinema virgins but not idiots. They certainly knew that a. trains run only on track, which was not in the tent, and b. steam locomotives make a great deal of noise. The few seconds of film they saw were silent, and in black and white. Nothing to scare the merde out of a hard-headed French peasant. I believe the Lumieres planted this story in the press, to call attention to their wonderful new medium. In their infancy, movies were already dependent upon publicity, and publicity was dependent upon merde.


Next month, to mark the hundredth anniversary of the disaster, there is to be a theatrical re-release of Titanic in 3D. This is alarming, and not just because it's Titanic. If the technology exists to convert 2D movies into 3D, will it be as hard to contain as nuclear weapons?

Re-rigging movies to make more money has been going on for a long time. In the 1950s Charlie Chaplin brought out a version of The Gold Rush with added music and his own narration, to reach a new audience before there was home video or Turner Classic Movies. This is not the version beloved by cinephiles and Chaplin fans, and is difficult to find today. In the 1980s we had the great colorization scare. Ted Turner found himself in possession of thousands of old movies which had entered the public domain. In December, videotapes of It's A Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street could be bought for less than a box of Christmas cards. Turner's lawyers told him that if he created color versions, he could obtain new copyrights and sell his own videos.
(Colorization technology, like opera titles and William Shatner, originated in Canada, which makes me suspect we may be fortifying the wrong border.)

Like Smell-o-vision and Cinerama, colorization was a dead end. The result looked like a lobby card, the color registers changed from shot to shot, and the nadir was reached when a clueless techie working on Miracle of the Bells gave Frank Sinatra brown eyes. Before it was abandoned, however, it generated outrage in the community, with filmmakers like Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese testifying before Congress about the need to protect our cinematic heritage, and defenders pointing out that old films were now reaching people who wouldn't be caught dead watching a black and white movie. Now, of course, even TNT and TBS don't show the new, improved versions. Come to think of it, they don't show black and white movies either.

The latest gimmick is 3D, and it's already being employed retroactively. But is this necessarily a good thing? Do audiences at The Band Wagon want to duck instinctively out of the way of Cyd Charisse's legs? When the pious gather for the 3D Passion of the Christ, should they slip into plastic ponchos like the first few rows at a Gallagher show? And at Monty Python's The Meaning of Life, when Mr. Creosote consumes that wafer-thin mint...I think you can see where this is going. Some things should stay on the screen.

When we have 3D Citizen Kane, Gregg Toland's revolutionary deep-focus photography will be...just photography. When corners were cut, it will be even worse. In the airport scene of Casablanca, it will be all too obvious that the Lisbon clipper is a balsa-wood model being fueled by Little people. It's bad enough to know that from reading about the movie; now we won't be able to ignore it. The special effects in movies like Vertigo and 2001: A Space Odyssey already look pretty cheesy -- 3D will render them ludicrous.

At the risk of sounding like King Canute arguing with the tide, I ask that the proprietors of the movies think before adding a third dimension. I don't care what you do with the Porky's, Saw and Friday the 13th franchises. No matter how many dimensions Jack Black and Seth Rogen have, I'll never see their work. Just please...think of the children.



Blogger john_burke100 said...

Chaplin's voice-over for The Gold Rush is an example of his sentimental streak: he keeps referring to his character as "the little fellow" and at one point sets up a scene with the phrase "Somewhere, in that nowhere..." He was notorious for having resisted sound and I can't help wishing he'd held out longer than he did.

7:27 AM  

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