Digital film: Digital, yes; film, no

Previously, we wondered whether the designers of digital-cinema systems would blow it, or at least blow a few details.

However, Godfrey Cheshire, recently fired as the New York Press film critic (he was too old), has pretty much nailed the entire question of digital cinema. In short, when the methods of transmission and projection eliminate celluloid altogether, cinema will be eliminated altogether, to be replaced by television.

Pondering digital’s effects, most people base their expectations on the outgoing technology. They have a hard time grasping that, after film, the “moviegoing” experience will be completely reshaped by – and in the image of – television. To illustrate why, ponder this: if you were the executive in charge of exploiting Seinfeld’s last episode and you had the chance to beam it into thousands of theaters and charge, say, $25 a seat, why in the hell would you not do that? Prior to digital theaters, you wouldn’t do it because the technology wouldn’t permit it. After digital, such transpositions will be inevitable because they’ll be enormously lucrative.

[...] Here’s another possibility, based on a fairly rudimentary expansion of what’s already available technically. It shouldn’t be difficult to install automated cameras and mics in most movie theaters. So let’s say you go to see one of the new, theatrical specials like, say, Oprah’s America. Thanks to the new technology, you can punch a button in the console on your armrest, and if the host chooses you, you’ll be able to talk to Oprah or Dave from your seat, live, as people in theaters around the country watch you and hope for their own moment in the limelight.

We are surprised that the great cinéaste failed to note the parallels with Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451, in which communal two-way television experiences do reach into everyone’s homes, with a flashing red light to tell you when to speak. (Very spooky, with a drugged-out Julie Christie and sinister Sprockets-like on-air host.)

Typically, people now watch TV as if in a group, even when alone, and view movies as individuals, even when accompanied by others. That is, they’ll talk, hoot, flip the bird at the tube, but sink into mesmerized solitude before the movie screen. Digital may well turn that around. People wanting to watch serious movies that require concentration will do so at home, or perhaps in small, specialty theaters. People who want to hoot and holler, flip the bird and otherwise have a fun communal experience – courtesy of Oprah or Scream: Interactive, say – will head down to the local enormoplex.

While dystopian, is this a more credible preview of a world of convergent media than the unworkable delirium of melding television and the Internet, against which we have raged impotently?

Note also that Cheshire’s predictions aren’t all that futuristic. It is already quite possible to visit a movie theatre to watch a pay-per-view “event,” like a smackdown wrestling XXXtravaganza.

Further, it is well-known that urban African-American (sic) audiences do a lot of talking back at the screen as-is – and not just for comedies or whatever “black” pictures the white studios put out. One is also familiar with the phenomena of Rocky Horror, Grease, and Monty Python pictures, all of which elicit call-and-response or audience delivery of dialogue. And there is of course Sing-a-Longa Sound of Music.

And finally, movies shot on digital video are the ugliest things we’ve ever seen. Indeed, even television series and music videos (and, increasingly with Procter & Gamble, commercials) that are shot on video and broadcast on television look vaguely cheap compared to the equivalent shot on film. (We recall being able to spot the difference as early as age 12, and arguing over it. We of course always called ’em right.)

In short, lovers of cinematographic beauty and the communal solitude of moviegoing had better get set for ugliness, crudity, and forced collectivism for the rest of our lives.

Posted on 2001-01-14