Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

Custom Search

© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Brave new world

While mining YouTube the other day for snippets of old episodes of Dark Shadows, I started musing about how technology has totally changed our relationship with visual literature like movies and television shows.

For earlier generations, fond memories of beloved films and television programs were just that: memories. You might get a chance to see all or part of a favorite old movie if it happened to broadcast in your area and you were in front of set at the right time. And you might have gotten another chance to see episodes of a favorite old TV show if it went into syndication. (Fans of I Love Lucy, for example, have never had to worry about withdrawal.)

But years ago there was a time when, for the most part, once you had seen a movie or television show—apart from returning to the cinema during its engagement or waiting for the summer rerun season—that was it. It was gone, only to exist as a memory in your head. Then there was the advent of video cassette recorders, and that was a huge shift. If you really treasured a movie or TV series, it was possible to rent it or own it and replay it as often as you liked—assuming that it had been released to home video.

And now we live in a world where there is a huge catalog of movies and TV shows on DVD and nearly anything can be purchased locally or ordered online. And even literature that is not available this way for whatever reason (legal restrictions, idiot owners of distribution rights), bits of nearly anything that has ever been screened or broadcast can be found on video streaming web sites. Anyone with a computer and a reasonable internet connection can indulge any nagging memory about something he or she sort of remembers seeing years before. If you have a favorite screen moment, more than likely it is somebody else’s favorite as well and that person has likely helpfully uploaded it to YouTube or a similar site. It’s as if time has dissolved. There is no past or present in the world of film and television anymore. Everything exists all at the same time.

At one time, if you were having an argument in a bar over what was actually said during a scene in an old movie, there was no practical way to resolve the issue—short of taking a poll of enough people who had seen the movie and getting a consensus. Now it can be settled instantly if someone has a laptop or PDA or even a mere cell phone handy. (“See! He didn’t actually say, ‘Play it again, Sam.’ Now buy me a drink!”)

Not to be too momentous about it, but this is like some evolutionary step in our development as human beings. To the extent that our tools are extensions of ourselves and part of what we are, this ability to always been in touch with our culture’s literature, regardless of the medium, hugely refines our collective cultural awareness.

What amazes me is how fast this all has happened. It reminds me of a visit I had with my elderly grandmother back in 1969. She was living in what we used to call “the old folks home,” and we were talking about the recent Apollo 11 moon landing. Grandma said that she could remember the first time she saw a plane flying through the air. Unlike me, she could remember that moment very clearly because she was in her late teens at the time. She was 15 years old when the Wright brothers made their historic flight at Kitty Hawk. She had grown up with no man-made object flying through the air above her farm until she was nearly an adult. And she lived to watch men walking on the lunar surface on her television. At the age I was then, Kitty Hawk seemed like ancient history, but all that technical progress from man-powered flight to lunar landings all happened with one lifetime.

The technological surge of the 20th century was not just in the area of flight. The technology of printing changed very little for centuries after Johannes Gutenberg built his printing press in the 15th century. That is, until circuit boards and computer chips quickly changed letterpress printing to offset printing. In less than half a century we have gone from 15th-century state of the art printing technology to a world where it is not crazy to think about paper becoming obsolete altogether.

So what does all of this mean for the way we relate to movies and television? Apart from quickly being able to settle bar bets, I mean.

For one thing, I suspect that it means that fewer, if any movies, in the future will become “classics” the way film fans and students have thought of classics up until now. Because movies lived in our memories rather than on our shelves, there was a special, nearly mystical quality about them. A select few in the population might have had reels of movies and their own projection rooms, in order to be able to watch them when they wanted, but the vast majority of us saw a movie once and then all that was left was the memory. And things tend to grow and get better in our memories. We have all had books that we have loved, but the fact that we have always been able to own a book and be able to retrieve it from our shelf anytime we liked always made it that bit less elusive or mysterious. Certainly, repeated readings of a beloved text can bring new insights or appreciation each time, but reading a book the second time is often not as wondrous as reading it the first time. As for the third time, well, it had better be a pretty amazing book.

The same principle applies to movies, but it is complicated by the fact that movies trade in the art of illusion. Like a magician’s trick, it may not be as amazing the second or third time it is seen. We begin to want to understand how it was done. We watch for the technique rather than to be caught up in the fantasy. Repeated viewings of a movie can reveal bad edits or suggest how special effects were accomplished. This doesn’t mean that we like the movie any less or change our mind about it. It just means that our relationship with it changes. After that happens, it is difficult, if not impossible, to go back to the wonder of the first viewing.

I’m not sure many movies can survive that kind of scrutiny, so it will be harder for movies to become classics. In fairness, unlike normal folks, professional critics have always relied on multiple viewings to gauge the quality of a film. So, in a way, everyone will sort of be a professional critic. That means, I suppose, there will still be new classics going forward. It’s just that there will be fewer of them (even while the number of movies being made increases) and our appreciation of them will be more hard-headed and less rose-tinted.

* * *

Even though this has nothing to do with movies, I want to make mention of the death of longtime New York Times columnist William Safire. Few newspaper writers have given me so much pleasure over so many years. He was mainly known as a conservative pundit. One of his claims to fame was arranging the famous “kitchen summit” between then-Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. That led to him being hired by Nixon as a speechwriter, and another claim to fame: penning the phrase “negative nabobs of negativity” for Vice President Spiro Agnew. Safire was aghast at finding his phone in the White House had been bugged and that resentment colored his generally libertarian/conservative views for the rest of his life. He may have supported the Iraq war, but he was against the Patriot Act.

But what I will really miss with Safire’s passing is the wonderful language column he wrote for decades in The New York Times Sunday Magazine up until just a couple of weeks ago. Every week he scolded his readers on correct usage of words that were widely misused, e.g. words like fulsome, noisome and enormity—which mean respectively disgusting, smelly and wickedness. He also examined trendy turns of phrases in the national discourse (his last one was “bend the curve”) and where they came from and exactly what they meant. Like a good detective, he was constantly digging to find out where words came from and how they got the meanings they have. Getting the fruits of his tireless research is a Sunday habit I will find hard to break.

-S.L., 1 October 2009

If you would like to respond to this commentary or to anything else on this web site, please send a message to Messages sent to this address will be considered for publishing on the Feedback Page without attribution. (That means your name, email address or anything else that might identify you won’t be included.) Messages published will be at my discretion and subject to editing. But I promise not to leave something out just because it’s unflattering.

If you would like to send me a message but not have it considered for publishing, you can send it to

Commentaries Archive