TMI: Too Much Information!
The problem of media saturation certainly predates film.
In the mid-‘70s I interviewed Alain Resnais for a book about his films. He admitted that if it wasn’t for the money, he might not be making movies. There is so much else to do. For example, he had just discovered the music of Franz Josef Haydn. Among many other works, Haydn completed 108 symphonies. Resnais calculated that if he listened to two a day it would take him until the end of the year to finish. That reminded him of a friend of his who looked at the unread books in his library and calculated that to read them all, he would have to live to be 100. "But he was courageous," Resnais continued. "He went out to the bookstore and bought more books!"
As the old MGM logo said, "Ars longa, vita brevis" (art is long and life is short). That’s usually taken to mean that art survives for a long time. But you can take it Resnais’s way, too!
As all of our collected texts, images, and sounds become digitized, they also become instantly available. It is hard for someone who has grown up with an Internet connection to imagine what it was like less than 15 years ago. A class like this one would be unimaginable. It’s not just that we are all plugged into this class and its community via the Internet. It’s also that access to the films we have watched would have been infinitely more difficult 15 or 20 years ago. Video rental stores were just getting started in the 1980s. Chances are, your video store at that time had only a few thousand titles available, and it’s guaranteed that none of the films we’ve watched in class would have been on the shelves—only contemporary Hollywood product.
The time is probably not far off when you will be able to log on to the Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com) and click a button to watch any one of the tens of thousands of titles listed on the site. In the 1960s, it was not unusual for film buffs to drive a hundred miles to see a screening of a rare movie. Now, a trip like that seems absurd, and in a few years, it will be totally unnecessary. We are approaching the age of the ultimate jukebox, when all media—print, audio, and video—will be accessible with a mouse click. Not at the ultimate quality, true, but good enough to satisfy most of the people most of the time for most of their purposes.
In the past, "publishers" and "distributors" decided which articles, books, music, and films would be delivered to the public. Now everything is published or about to be published. The burden falls on editors and critics to separate the wheat from the chaff.
What does this mean to the movie business? Probably not a lot. There are still many good reasons for teenagers to get out of the house and go to a movie. It isn’t the quality of the projection that draws them there; it’s the fact that the theater isn’t home.
On the other hand, though, what does this mean to filmmakers? Enormous freedom. Film used to be a difficult and expensive proposition. Now it is a medium available to everyone. And getting your film "published"—made available to the world—is becoming almost as easy, due to the Internet.
One of the film assignments for this lesson is Salt of the Earth. The director, Herbert Biberman, wrote a fascinating book (Salt of the Earth: The Story of a Film) about the making of the film in which he recounts how difficult it was to edit the film, print it, and get it exhibited. If you were to read that account, you would probably think on every page, "That’s not true today." And you’d be right. Today, it is infinitely easier to edit a film and distribute it. The blacklisting of Salt of the Earth simply could not happen anymore. Technology has opened up the floodgates of expression.
I learned a trick for dealing with the media flood in the early ‘80s when reporters at The New York Times went on strike for more than a month. I discovered an exhilarating sense of freedom without the newspapers to read every morning. When the strike was over, I continued this pattern: I glance at the front page a few days a week, but don’t bother with what’s inside. Instead, I leave the papers in a pile, and at the end of the week, flip through them in reverse order.
If you’ve already read that the Pope is recovering nicely in Friday’s edition, you don’t have to spend much time reading about how he was shot in Tuesday’s paper. What’s more, you are behind the times knowing which books you have to read, which movies you have to see, or which "must-see" television shows you can’t miss. Let that information ferment for a while. If it is really important it will come up again. Or your friends will tell you. With a shorter "to do" list you have more time to do what you want to do.
At about the same time that I made this discovery, technology was freeing millions from the burden of at least one medium: television. The VCR was supposedly used for time shifting, but its real value was responsibility shifting. It watches TV for you. And if no one is talking at the water cooler next day about that show you taped last night…well, feel free to tape over it.
But who will protect us from the flood? What does the digital revolution mean to audiences? What does it mean to you? Well, that is a decidedly mixed blessing. Everything is now available. But how do you decide what to watch? It is now doubly important to have a sense of the art of film, to be able to make choices based on knowledge and taste.
In the 1930s, you saw whatever was on the bill at your local theater. Usually, it was a double feature, with a short and a newsreel. Your decision was simple: to go or not to go. (And sometimes you went not for the movie, but for the free dishes.) Today, you have more than a hundred cable channels competing with a dozen films at the local multiplex, which are competing with 10,000 titles at your local video store and whatever you can find on the ‘net. Making choices is a thousand times more difficult.
Therefore, you need to exercise the power that you have as the Observer—an equal partner in the triangle of art. It is not necessary that you consume even a fraction of the wealth of material that Hollywood studios (and the independents) produce on film. Indeed, you can live a full life without consuming any movies.
It’s up to you to make informed choices.
The first step in doing so is to realize the dimensions of the problem. You can’t see every important film―not even if you do nothing else but watch film 18 hours a day, 365 days a year. So don’t try. The fact is, even if the film industry were to disappear tomorrow and no more films were ever made, you could survive to the ripe old age of 105 enjoying the films that have already been made.
Here’s another helpful hint: turn off the television. Television is to film as popcorn is to fois gras. One is very filling and usually fluffy; the other is intense and flavorful. TV reached a peak in the 1990s with inventive shows like Seinfeld and The Simpsons. Right now, the art is in the doldrums. You won’t miss anything. If something important happens on TV, we’ll call you. If you are an average American, this frees up eight hours of your day for more interesting pursuits.
But whatever you do, don’t panic. If you see one or two truly great movies a year, you are ahead of the game. Movies are a part of life, not life itself. And having an appreciation for movies isn’t about logging the most hours possible in a multiplex recliner or wearing out the most membership cards at the local rental outlet. It’s about studying film as an art, being aware of the movies that you think will interest you, and viewing them as more than just escapist entertainment. It’s okay to watch films when you want to “get away from it all”―as long as you’re enjoying and appreciating them for your own reasons while also trying to enjoy and appreciate the hard work and meaning that went into their creation.