I'm surprised to find myself actually pleased that television is making such a sudden strong showing in the posts and comments of The Conversation. Weirdly, it's somewhat related to what I was about to get around to saying about the state of cinephilia, so let me back up and start there.
In short, and to state the obvious: DVD. A few weeks ago, Dave Kehr proclaimed in the New York Times that 2004 was the year the DVD "came of age," and relative to previous years, he may be right, but it does seem that many of us felt the little silver discs have made decisive breakthroughs and larger claims on our collective cultural experience each and every year for the past, oh, four or five at least. "Has there been a single technological advance - even the advent of sound - has changed movies as quickly and thoroughly as the DVD has?" asked Elvis Mitchell in those same pages way back in 2003. "Sound changed the scope of movies, but it didn't really change the way they were made, the way they were marketed or the way they were watched. The DVD is changing all those things."
And at a rapid, ongoing pace. As for how movies are made, think of just one easy example, the luxury Peter Jackson was able to take in going ahead and filming the demise of Saruman before he'd decided whether or not it'd be included in the theatrical version of The Return of the King. Which leads to how they're marketed: it's practically conventional wisdom now that, very broadly speaking, a theatrical release primarily serves as a promotional campaign for the DVD. But it's how movies are watched that's the most vital part of this overall equation. Mitchell wasn't alone in pointing out that the better DVDs are each like correspondence courses in a grand, freewheeling film school into which millions have enrolled - enthusiastically, too, sopping up lessons in film history, craft and, in some cases, maybe even a dash of theory.
Which, in turn, leads us to the delightfully irrational component in all this. You can't take those first steps and wade into the murky pool of cinephilia without access to movies. And yet the DVD isn't, of course, the first format to provide it; there've always been libraries, VHS had been around for a couple of decades, and eventually, there was Facets and so on. But just as, around five years ago, there was something about Napster that rekindled a love of music that had been long lost for so many, there's something about the DVD that's done the same thing for movies. You could probably break it down and quantify it, but ultimately, DVDs are simply, irrationally, cool.
And we watch them on our TVs. Now, then. I really don't want to talk shop too much here, but one of GreenCine's managing directors and our content acquisitions fellow have just returned to the main office in San Francisco from the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas all abuzz about the ever wider, ever more fluid hook-up between the PC and the TV. Yes, this is something geeks and futurists have been chatting up for literally decades, but now concrete steps are being taken in that direction. With that in mind, consider what the Web did to the CD-ROM. Hell, the plain ol' music CD has had a far sturdier life span, but look at what the iPod and iTunes are doing to it now. In whatever form(s) it takes, video-on-demand, or whatever else it is that we end up calling it, is on the verge of doing the same thing to the DVD. Of course, none of us have any idea of when that might happen - three years at the very least, presumably, maybe as many as 13? - but recently in Slate, Paul Boutin even went as far as to suggest that the vicious (and expensive) battle over the next generation of the DVD (i.e., Blu-ray vs HD-DVD) may turn out to be completely irrelevant.
To steer this back to relevance, though, there are signs all over the place that the line between shooting a "film" and shooting a "TV show" is getting fuzzier by the hour. Let me just spill a bowl of random thoughts:
- Britopia brings up Deadwood, "the best film I saw last year"; just as notably, I think, is that it hopefully signals the welcome return of Walter Hill as a director. In the same vein, a few months ago, Joy Press had a piece in the Voice about the impressive number of idiosyncratic directors whose only hope at the moment is cable TV.
- In this, the year of the doc, how many of them were actually little more than glorified and extended segments of 60 Minutes or Frontline? Not that there's anything wrong with that; one of Michael Moore's accomplishments has certainly been to prove that a doc can be worthy of event status.
- Digital video is progressing by leaps and bounds, and its possibilities are being explored by talents as vastly varied as Jonathan Caouette and Michael Mann.
- The home viewing experience progresses as well, already beating that to be had in a typical suburban cineplex. The ways the demands of TV used to hamper filmmaking (e.g., producers requiring directors to simplify compositions, make greater use of close-ups, etc., so they could sell movies to broadcasters) are diminishing rapidly.
Now, none of this suggests a complete merger or, if you like, unfriendly takeover. But these bits of evidence of an overall evolution, combined with the eventual rise of video-on-demand, suggest a possible cinematic equivalent of the much ballyhooed and pined for "celestial jukebox" in the relatively near future. In the most utopian terms, imagine being able to call up on your widescreen home display a digitally remastered version of just about any film you can think of, and then, after watching it, with or without subtitles and so on, selecting this or that associated doc or commentary or checking to see what this or that scholar or even "snake-hipped wordslinger" has had to say about it - and then perhaps leave a comment of your own. Imagine how much Criterion could save on packaging and manufacturing, that is, how much it could invest in salvaging our cinematic heritage instead.
In part, and I guess not so briefly as I'd planned (I haven't even touched on what digital projection, via satellite or wires, might do for local festivals, because I'm sure we'll never want to let go of the communal experience of watching movies together), these are some of the reasons I'm an upbeat cinephile.