The Hobbit's high frame rate as mid-century revival
Judging from the Lord of the Rings movie that I fell asleep during, the new Hobbit movie must be a real snoozer -- blowing a kid's movie up into a hundred-hour trilogy? Jesus.
Although I won't go see it, I was interested to hear that Peter Jackson has been trying to push for a new technology in recording and displaying the movie -- capturing it at 48 frames per second, or twice the standard rate. It's actually closer to the frame rate used for TV shows. By taking twice as many snapshots per unit of time, the result is more photorealistic.
And yet by pushing photorealism too far, it winds up looking merely like TV. Here's someone's attempt to re-create the effect as accurately as possible through a YouTube video:
Now, 24 frames per second has been the industry standard since the birth of the talkie era in the late 1920s. It provides just enough of a flow of images to be convincing, yet not so much flow that it looks ordinary. It conveys that the movie is something special, like the brushstrokes of a painting.
As it turns out, there was an earlier attempt to boost the frame rate of blockbuster movies, then as now to achieve less flicker and more realism. When would you guess that was? That's right -- the 1950s. Oklahoma! (1955) and Around the World in Eighty Days (1956), both of which landed in the top 10 at the box office, were filmed at 30 fps when the Todd-AO process began taking the industry by storm.
They soon dropped the technology and returned to 24 fps for their subsequent hit movies like South Pacific, Cleopatra, and The Sound of Music. Based on the tepid reaction to the Hobbit's high frame rate, I assume it too will become marginal after perhaps another couple of trials.
The approach to movie-making in the mid-century might be best described as the Bombastic Ordinary. And in so many ways, movies of the past two decades have slowly revived that approach: not only taking a stab at higher frame rates, but also running times well over 2 hours, epic themes and plotlines overflowing with backstory, a long depth of field that displays too many distracting objects in clear focus, the worsening of that problem by the use of 3-D, other sensory gimmicks like vibrating the theater seats, and dull visual effects, whether the rubber suit of many a cheesy '50s sci-fi flick or the porridge-like CGI of today.
The general audience in both periods has so little appreciation for the unusual, the sacred, or the sublime that no profit-seeking movie producer would make something that stood out as visually special. It has to look as much as possible like everyday real life. And yet audiences "won't leave their homes" unless there's some kind of different experience, hence the bloated narratives, pretentious acting, and fantasy settings that don't feel tantalizingly exotic, but too remote to get truly lost in.
Our Neo-Fifties zeitgeist is easiest to see in the visual culture because it's palpable rather than abstract, and because the visual culture of the past is fairly well preserved, unlike fuzzier social trends. Those who refuse to believe that teenagers these days have such low sex drives cannot wave away how similar our movies look and feel to mid-century movies.