Film Evolution

One of the more “fun” aspects of evolution is its sheer unpredictability. Sure, mathematics and chaos theory provide some analytical parameters, but evolution is mostly wild and woolly.

Which is something to keep in mind when reading recent news reports on the rapid changes taking place in film. A diverse ensemble of voices and messages can be heard on the current and impending future of the art and industry. Some may prove to be profound. Others will be less so. Taken together, the chorus they form is more significant than any individual part.

First up is the recent pronouncement by James Spader that the era of classic films is over. Not just doomed (which is what the headline at says) but finished. Over! As gone as the sled at the end of Citizen Kane.

Unfortunately, Spader is right. He is basing his comment on the near-complete collapse of available structures for an organized evaluation of film history. Sure, there is a surprising amount of historical material available through online sources like YouTube. But, few people know where to look or what to look for, and only a few care; and mostly it has become a littered room in the digital cellar without any context.

Which also means that most of film history has entered into a dark age.

Here in the US, Hollywood film history is often presented (and only on rare occasions) through brief clips that are done in a mishmash style that resembles a Quentin Tarantino movie. As for the international cinema, virtually nada. These days when I do a presentation to a classroom, I have found it best to really spend time explaining what I mean by such terms as Italian Neo-Realism and French New Wave. Otherwise the students haven’t a clue what I am talking about. And why should they?  The average viewer will be exposed to elements of film-making derived from these movements, but they will rarely (if ever) be exposed to the sources.

Likewise, entire chapters of this history have, for all practical purposes, vanished altogether. Take for example the history of Eastern European cinema from the 1950s to the end of the Cold War. The legendary Polish director Andrzej Wajda summed it up best when he noted, back in the 1990s, that the Eastern cinema had created a vital tradition that was a complete alternative to the American commercial system, such that (he felt) each had filled a vacuum in the other. But, that symbiosis is now gone without so much as a whisper.

I could do a whole lecture on this topic, but suffice it to say that Spader has a point. Most of modern media is about consumption, and it is much like dining at a McDonald’s. The experience is pretty basic, and not much will linger on after the viewing. Heck, most modern movies are forgotten before many viewers even get back to their cars in the parking lot.

So we are now dealing with the post-classical period in film history. Some would call it post-modernist, but that term has been used for everything (including hamburgers) and has lost its value through mindless repetition. Better still, we could call this the neo-dark age. Seriously. We are experiencing a period of ignorance and destruction underlined by various dynamic elements that will evolve into the next stage of enlightened development. After all, the previous dark ages have been the necessary pauses just before the next level of major movement in the history of civilization.

That movement may or may not resemble the digital vision presented by Ynon Kreiz and Maker Studios. Since their recent purchase by Disney, Maker is suppose to be exploring the outer reaches of the emerging digital universe. But in his recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Kreiz sounds more like an ad executive making a marketing pitch to investors.

In the interview, Kreiz envisions an emerging digital entertainment format that operates in short, nonlinear bursts (about 4 to 4 ½ minutes). The Millennial Generation (the ideal marketing demographic) is not into watching longer pieces online. Further, they are not into linear narrative. Besides, this provides more opportunity for more ads. OK, he doesn’t mention that last part, but that is his point.

Kreiz’s comments are both interesting and debatable. His focus on keeping digital pieces short skips the issue of viewing situations. For example, a lot of people are often sneaking views at the work place and a short running time is essential to job security. Likewise, increase viewing by way of smart phones and tablets are often done under awkward viewing conditions. But the technology is rapidly heading toward total technical convergence and I suspect that the issue of running time will be changing and responding to many new forms and situations.

Likewise, his comments about nonlinear narrative form is open to various objections. Besides, this debate has been going on for about a century, so why is he acting like he just discovered something new? Either way, there is a wide range of other factors that will play into this development as the digital process evolves. This is part of the unpredictability factor.

But mostly, Kreiz is there for the marketing. The short form and nonlinear structure are key components to modern advertising. Which is a reminder that Disney (and every other major studio) is entering the digital arena for only one thing: They want young consumers. They basically view the digital form as pom-pom girls at a football game.

Which is a pretty narrow approach to a technology that has already demonstrated a vast range of possibilities. The evolution of digital media is already hinting at shapes and forms yet to be explored and the unpredictable nature of the whole thing is bound to throw lots of curve balls into this process before a new media emerges.

Copyright (c)2014 Dennis Toth All Rights Reserved