This week I saw a 5-minute film that would seem to herald the death of cinema.
There’s been talk recently about the convergence of television and film at a formal level: some half a century after television consumption began its meteoric post-WWII rise (to the apparent detriment of cinema attendance), television production values, script quality, and visual complexity may have finally caught up with film. Oft-cited shows which appear to have matched their cinematic relatives include ‘The Sopranos’, ‘The Wire’, and ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’.
But this argument only holds if we compare the formal presentation of the media irrespective of the mode of consumption. Comparing a DVD of, say, any film featuring Will Ferrell to an episode of ‘The Sopranos’ does indeed indicate a disparity, and Monsieur Ferrell’s enterprise fares notably unwell. But this disparity is not so convincing when we take into account the socio-psychological differences between watching films in a cinema and on a television. The former is an epically public, visceral event during which one enters a dark womb of collective individual experience; the latter is a mundanely domestic, distracted experience through which one creates and enhances social bonds. The cinema-going experience is inherently raw: we permit ourselves to be made vulnerable by sitting defencelessly in a darkened room surrounded by strangers while allowing our emotions to be manipulated. Television feels safe, the action confined to a small box ten or so feet away in the sanctity of the home, the controlling remote within easy reach. Yes, television programme makers are now able to construct a cinematic narrative and weave a complex visual fabric, but the apparatus governing its consumption precludes any assertion that it can truly make me feel the way I do when I go to the moving pictures.
But what if we were to transcend the technical limitations of television? This week I went to a presentation in the BBC Media Centre given jointly by the BBC Research & Innovation lab and the Japanese Broadcasting Corporation (NHK) called ‘Beyond HD’, a demonstration of the latest iteration of Super Hi-Vision, also known as Ultra-High Definition Television. Hitherto I’ve ignored high definition as a viable contender in the battle to replicate the look of traditional film, and as we watched the footage, I was struck by the inescapable digital feel of it all – it still looks like video. But what made this different was the inescapable detail of the image, as 33 megapixels of resolution made this high definition on steroids (sixteen times the resolution of ‘standard’ high def, in fact), while a screen as wide as the room coupled with twenty-two channels of audio yanked us out of our seats and threw us into a post-cinematic world.
This was no television experience, and this was beyond the tenuous comfort afforded by the theatre; the closest correlate I can think of is an amusement park ride. The first image on the omni-screen was an epic NASA-like view of the earth rolling in the gelatine of the cosmos, and when it appeared I was immediately overcome with a sense of unsettledness, a vertiginous unease like I had peered over the edge of an abyss. Was this real? No. But why did it feel real? Why was it all around me, invading my periphery, resplendent in all its gory detail, why couldn’t I escape it? Image after image spilled out of the frame and into my visual sphere: sunflowers teetering in the breeze, insects emerging moist and glistening from their cocoons, landscapes of sand pulsing and vomiting forth waveswept turtles; all in incredible, crisp, seemingly three-dimensional detail. It was unlike anything I had ever seen before, and I was reminded of Maxim Gorky’s description of his first cinema-going experience: ‘Last night, I was in the kingdom of the shadows… Not life, but the shadow of life. Not life’s movement, but a sort of mute spectre… It is terrible to see, this movement of shadows, nothing but shadows, the spectres, these phantoms.’ Over a century later, are the spectres finally dead, the shadows having been obliterated by an all-consuming ambient digital light? I had to turn my head for a visual respite, unaccustomed to having life presented to me as hyper-reality, and I pondered one of the bullet points from the presentation before the film that had asserted ‘camera technology is now exceeding the resolution of the eye’. Indeed this was an understatement!
It will likely take several years for Super Hi-Vision to make its way into the consumer market, but it will, and quite possibly in the next decade one will have the option to turn one’s living room into a cinematic showplace. The unique paradox of cinema as an anti-social social activity will be further challenged, as it is absorbed into the personal domestic space. But television such as this is in truth no longer domestic, as it demands completely submissive attention, to the detriment of the social interaction inherent in the cultural act of watching television. As the film came to a close, a group of Japanese children sang a song reminiscent of ‘We Are the World’. I paid little attention to the song and its underlying suggestion that technology is making the world smaller and more accessible – the only thing I could concentrate on was the cuff of a young girl’s pant leg, curled up under the tongue of her shoe in a most annoying way, and she being there, right in front of me, I wished more than anything else to reach out and correct it. It took all my willpower not to try.