When the first edition of How to Read a Film was published in 1977, it was unique. At that time, film and television were considered separate areas, and television didn’t have anywhere near the level of respect that feature film had. It was well known that no television star could carry a feature film (this was before Clint Eastwood and John Travolta disproved that truism). After all, it had been only 10 years since a few pioneering colleges and universities had begun to offer courses in the art of the feature film.
That a serious film text like How to Read a Film would include an entire chapter dealing mainly with television was remarkable. What’s more, that chapter included a lot of information on text and the new digital technology that was then emerging. What on earth were explanations of LCDs and pixels doing in a book about film? The first real personal computer, the Apple II, didn’t even land on store shelves until months after the publication of How to Read a Film.
Now, the connection is clear. The last 25 years have been a period of synthesis as the media―both print and electronic―have fused, both as business and art. It’s all about stories—and the numerous ways to exploit them. As you’ve seen from this course, How to Read a Film takes a broad view of the movies by trying to set the art in the larger cultural, philosophical, and economic context.
In the last seven lessons, we’ve covered a lot of ground together. We’ve unraveled the mystery of moving images, gained an understanding of the basic technologies we use to reproduce images and sounds, studied the basic esthetic approaches and psychological reasons behind a good film’s success, and touched on the business background of film and the digital revolution in its present and future.
Now, let’s try to sum up.
Fade to black. Hold it a beat. Fade up slowly on...
I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas
A man sitting at a piano. His back is to us. There is a window behind the piano. There is a palm tree outside, visible through the window. The man is doodling. We pan slowly until we can see his face. He is in his mid-fifties, thin-lipped, pensive. We realize it is Irving Berlin, sitting at the piano in his house in Beverly Hills. He’s working on a song for his upcoming film called Holiday Inn. It is 1941 or early 1942. A Russian immigrant, he is already America’s greatest songwriter. He needs a finale for the film. It has to have empathetic power. He starts making notes for the verse of the song he is calling "White Christmas."
[The verse of an American popular song is a couple of introductory bars before the "chorus." Verses are omitted in most performances—although they often hold the key to the lyrics.]
The sun is shining
The grass is green
The orange and palm trees sway
There’s never been such a day
In Beverly Hills, L.A.
But it’s December the 24th
And I am longing to be up north, for…
I’m dreaming of a white Christmas,
just like the ones I used to know…
So when you hear the verse, this most famous of American popular songs is not so much about nostalgia for an old-fashioned Christmas, as it is more specifically about the contrast between Los Angeles and the rest of the country. Hollywood is a city unlike any other, a city completely driven by an artform and an industry based on a false reality. As early as 1942, this was clear to—at least—Irving Berlin. The power and reach of the medium only increased after that.
Let this image of a middle-aged, highly successful Russian immigrant seated at his piano serve as one emblem of the media-driven entertainment matrix in which we all live.
By the mid-1950s, motion pictures had left the theaters and established themselves in our homes. There is an interesting science-fiction story from that period that suggests the consequences:
The story opens in the streets of New York. Few people are about. There is grass growing in cracks in the pavement. Clearly, it is some strange time in the future. No, it is not after a nuclear war. That’s not where the people went. It turns out that at this certain point in the future, most people make enough money by the time they are 30 to retire. At that point, they plug themselves into their television sets and dream away. Occasionally, they wake up to switch channels; having been John Wayne for several years, they decide that they want to be Humphrey Bogart for a while. This is an eerie extrapolation of the couch-potato syndrome long before the phrase was invented.
Let the plug-in TV stand as another emblem of the entertainment matrix.
Fast-forward another 40 years to the mid-‘90s. Let’s stay in New York. The streets aren’t empty; they are more crowded than ever. But look at the people. By this time, everyone has a Walkman (or a Discman), and many have cell phones. They are privately wired for the audio channel. Everyone has his or her own life soundtrack (music and dialogue, anyway, if not yet effects). It’s only a matter of time before the picture track is added to the personal connection.
Let this personal soundtrack stand as a third emblem of the entertainment matrix.
As plugged-in and turned-on as we all are now, it becomes vitally important to understand the business, language, and technology of film and media. This is the ocean in which we swim. Since the beginnings of film, there have also been critics—observers and commentators—whose job, ostensibly, is to help us navigate these waters. As the entertainment matrix becomes increasingly pervasive, this task becomes ever more significant. Let’s examine how it’s done.