Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Where does technology make things better (and where does it make things worse)?

With the intense heat the last couple of weeks, I’ve been spending less time outside than I might otherwise do during the summer and in particular in the evenings and on the weekends I’ve been watching a fair number of movies. On our one set that does HD (and has the nice home theater bells and whistles) we have TiVo bundled in with our Dish Network Satellite box. I really like the combined functionality. I can scout out for things that I might like to view, schedule them to record with a simple click and voila. It might be a month or more before I’ll actually watch the thing. But having known I recorded it is sufficient for me to find it easily in the stored library of programs that we’ve recorded. In the old days when I recorded onto VHS (and before that onto Beta) building such a library was painful, even if I labeled the tapes themselves. This is essentially the same issue as filing paper documents, and I’ve got no aptitude in that realm.

Since mostly I want to view things that the rest of the family is not interested in and when the three of them want to watch something I’d consider junk, and since they win by majority rule if they can agree on something, this way we can better accommodate everyone. Also, once in a while I can impose my tastes on the others (last week I got my older son to watch Blackboard Jungle, a film he probably wouldn’t have selected on his own and this week I got my wife to watch an Inside the Actors Studio interview with Dustin Hoffman).

I’m noticing that I’m preferring older movies more and for the most part have a disdain for special effects and other high tech cutesiness in favor of thoughtful and well written dialog. And movies that say something about the human condition are that much more interesting to me, even if they are otherwise dated and so don’t directly echo current events. A few films in this category that I’ve seen recently are A Passage To India (David Lean films are generally well worth viewing), The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (this film gives a different type of Richard Burton where “the voice” is largely in check but the intelligence and weariness make for a provocative character portrayal), and Capote (the only comparatively recent film that I’d put in this same class of pictures).

In contrast, Good Night and Good Luck, Cinderella Man, and The Constant Gardener were engaging pictures but without the depth of character and interesting textures to elevate them into this category of truly uplifting films. So I wouldn’t say the absence of special effects (of the kind we associate with Star Wars and The Matrix) is a guarantee that a film will reach a more elevated status and I will even go so far as to say that I really liked the Matrix when I first saw it (but I didn’t go for the sequels so much). So I think the special effects can be used well when they complement the story well, but not when they substitute for the story.

A couple of nights ago, I saw The Glass Menagerie and I thought it was amazing; both the dialog and the acting were superb. It really is a play recorded on film. All the action occurs in a rather tiny apartment and the patio where Tom goes out for a smoke. There is not much in the way of cuts and scene changes, so from the perspective of movie making it may seem rather ordinary and I suppose for that reason the direction of Paul Newman might be criticized. But, really, it lets the actors perform as if on stage and they deliver stunning performances. Joanne Woodward plays the aging southern belle mother and while that genre itself gives me the willies, with the unctuousness, the pretense, and the conniving but even with that she hits it perfectly – voice tone and pace, physical mannerisms, …..everything. John Malkovich, in the role of the narrator and son Tom, who is Tennessee Williams’ alter ego in the play, also does an incredible job.

Although the film has a PG rating, there are sexual undertones in the dialog throughout and the style of talk as well as the background music (original work by Henry Mancini not part of the play itself) gives a sultry and sensual feel to the entire picture. But the fact that every metaphor is spot on and yet easy for me to understand and that while the play focuses on the unfilled wants and desires of the three main characters (the third is the daughter played by Karen Allen) each of whom have a somewhat unrealistic bent on life with aspirations that likely can’t be met, in so doing provides a wonderful social commentary on life that is broadly applicable. The play works extremely well at many different levels. It is a gem; there is no other way to put it.

(Coincidentally, in that Inside the Actors Studio interview Dustin Hoffman talked about his early training as an actor and one of the roles he played for that was the Gentleman Caller, the fourth character in the play and the only one depicted more realistically. So at least circa the early 1960s, the Glass Menagerie had become in grained as a classic for teaching actors how to act. I wonder if it still plays that role now or if it has been discarded for something else more current.)

Now let me return to the theme of this post. I believe that technology bears at least some responsibility for what I perceive to be a decline in American Cinema. It has contributed to the economics of going after big block buster films, where special effects seem to be a requirement for entry, and it thereby has crowded out the possibility of more films based on narrative and dialog, that would be inexpensive to make if they were produced but which can attract studio funding in the current climate. Further, because these types of films are rarer now, the tastes of younger people have been influenced by the technology block buster films in a way that discourages them from valuing well spoken dialog as something to seek out in their own recreation. This indirect effect on the demand side makes the technology approach self-fulfilling.

One is tempted to make a metaphor out of this argument but I think we have to be careful in doing so. Quite apart from the special effects, the movies themselves are technological marvels. And film as a medium is wonderful. There is so much that works in its favor for the viewer (though I believe most actors would prefer the live stage for the feedback from the audience). It is when technology drives out the human elements that we must be careful. And, further, we must in advance identify those important human elements that we do value.

I will confess, however, that as an economist I’m a bit troubled by the above because the market doesn’t seem to do a good job of identifying those human elements. The market mostly seems to like junk. That’s why Rupert Murdoch rules in that domain.

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