The Loss of a "Reel" Good Thing

        Wendell Berry makes a profound argument in his essay "Feminism, the Body, and the Machine." He is defending his decision to not use a computer in writing his work. Instead his wife types it for him from his handwritten notes on an old-fashioned type writer. He states: "To reduce or shortcut the intimacy of the body's involvement in the making of a work of art (that is, of any artifice, anything made by art) inevitably risks reducing the work of art and the art itself" (76). While here he is specifically referring to popular opposition to refusing a computer, his point is well made and completely true. As America and the rest of the world continue on its path of "technological progress," less and less truly artful things are made because as a society we have developed a technological fix to make the work we do with our hands more time efficient. Technologies, such as the nail gun and chainsaw, have further separated the carpenter from his work. The computer has made writing much faster and to some, easier. Digital cameras have almost completely eroded the classic art of photography by distinguishing the natural aspect of the photographed. People have almost no way of knowing the honesty in a picture because of the hundreds of photography-enhancement programs available. The interaction between the artist and his subjects grows lesser and lesser with each new development, so the artistic depth gained from a piece of work is lost, and for me almost all artistic appreciation. The focus of this paper will be on the loss of certain artistic content with the development of technology, specifically in film. I am seeking to point out that even though technology allows for easier and more dramatic, and perhaps enjoyable effects in film, a certain amount of originality and resourcefulness can become lost in the special effects, and sometimes overdone. While the recent developments do invite audiences for more intriguing film, I am concerned about what will happen to the memory of classic film.

        As with all new technologies, the birth of the film industry was the ending of another. In the nineteenth century simple optical devices were used for entertainment. These devices grew into machines that could portray pictures in motion. The success of these machines was dependent on the optical phenomena, persistence of vision, and phi phenomenon. Persistence of vision is a human perception known by the Egyptians but scientifically credited to Peter Mark Roget in 1824. This is the process that images displayed on the retina of the eye will stay there for one twentieth of a second after the actual image has been removed from the field of vision. Phi phenomenon was discovered by Max Wertheimer in 1912. It is what causes us to see the blades of a rotating fan as one form. Together these images allow us to see a number of unmoving images as a single unbroken movement, which is what cinematography is based on. The first true motion picture camera was the Kinetograph, invented by the Edison Laboratories in 1889. The important aspect to note about this machine is that it was never separated from the idea of motion pictures with recording sound.

        The motion picture industry continued to develop throughout the years and began to have a mass impact in the culture of America. In the beginning of its development, however, it was regarded as a low-class occupation. All the specific jobs, directing, acting, producing, photographing, writing, etcetera, were considered equal status. The production companies did not denote credit to the workers for fear they would develop fans and thus require more money. The move of the industry to Hollywood came in 1913. It is thought that the limited space and cold weather and long nights of the eastern coastline were not as cost efficient as the western days. They were brighter, and longer. The west offered more space and warmer climate.

        Hollywood in the twenties was a glamorous place. The "Big Three" industry giants were Adolph Zukor, William Fox, and Carl Laemmle. The emergence of such great such as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton would take place in the twenties as well. In 1919 Josef Engl, Joseph Masshole and Hans Vogt patented the Tri-Ergon system of sound. This system was covered by so many patent laws many film companies did not adopt it. But in 1922 Dr. Lee de Forest tested his sound system commercially for the first time. Next came the Vitaphone. The birth of the "talkies" came with the film The Jazz Singer because it was the first film to employ sound and synchronized dialogue in a realistic way. The first successful Technicolor film was The Toll of the Sea, grossing more than $250,000. In 1939, Orson Welles had a six-film contract with RKO Pictures that allowed him to control every other aspect of the industry. His beautiful cinematography would influence the film industry for decades. The fifties introduced the transition to color and 3-D film.

        The turning point of classic film to modern film is perhaps credited to Bonnie and Clyde. This film won ten Academy Awards and various other awards, including Best Cinematography: Burnett Guffey. The new aesthetic of violence portrayed in the film results from a montage sequence that concludes the film. The death scene is intercut from several different camera angles and different lenses at different speeds, creating a powerful effect. This strategy is now widely imitated. As the years progressed America would see the industry change and a number of great films enter the cinema including: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Woodstock, Cross of Iron, and The Godfather.

        In the nineteen eighties Hollywood was being affected by technology more than ever. With the developments of cable television networks and videocassettes provided new means of production. On the forefront of these innovations computer generated graphics opened up a whole new realm of production particularly in special effects. Films such as E.T., Aliens, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and Terminator emerged as technological wonders and big hits of the times.

        In the mid nineties digital imaging technology transformed the film industry. Cinema is completely redefined with digital media. CGI, "computer generated imagery is the application of 3-D computer graphics to special effects in movies" (Wikipiedia.com). While CGI is higher quality and easier than other physically based processes like building miniatures for effects shots or hiring extras for crowd scenes, it obviously eliminates further the amount of personal hands on interaction with the art work.

        I am aware that CGI artists do work and study hard for their degrees and do have talent, and I appreciate the art that goes into that line of work. My concern is preserving the art in classic film. The more our culture proceeds into this new era of movie-making, the less the general population will remember the classic version as having any talent at all.

        While I enjoy new films that employ digital imagery and Hi-def. film, I wonder what the loss of traditional film will be to the film culture. The recent remake of the classic King Kong was overloaded with special effects and computer-generated scare tactics. The originality and effort put into the 1933 version is lost in the extensive and advanced imagery of the newer one. The film became essentially about the special effects rather than the plot. This is true of many recent movies loaded down with special effects.

        I appreciate the work in the original version of King Kong more because, unlike the 2006 version, the 1933 version holds a certain aesthetic quality because I know that the work was done by human hands and creative camera angles. The 1998 remake of Psycho fell far short of the genius Hitchcock original in 1960. I am not condoning the ability and effort of modern film because some of the changes are exciting, but a complete loss of the art of cinematography due to digital computer enhancement would be a great loss to an important art form.

Marilyn Kennon

Table of Contents