May 31, 2014

IMAX in the broader revival of Midcentury aesthetics

The sudden explosion of 3D movies in the 21st century is not a revolution, a game-changer, or whatever else it's supposed to be. It's simply a return to Midcentury preferences, which favored as complete of a sensory immersion as possible at the movies.

By the '80s, audiences had undergone a change of mindset -- sensory immersion was felt to be obvious gimmickry that took you out of the moment. You wanted to listen in on the movie, and behold the movie -- from somewhat of a distance, as with any form of popular art -- not to escape into it physically as though it were a two-hour amusement park ride.

Along with 3D, there's been an explosion in IMAX, not only in blowing up ordinary films to the mammoth size of the IMAX screens, but also shooting more and more of the original on IMAX film itself, which is a much larger format than the standard 35mm film. How does this tie in with the general resurgence of Midcentury aesthetics in the Millennial era?

Well, the mammoth size of the screen is easy enough to understand. Folks in cocooning times are not very excitable, and the falling crime rates that go along with cocooning leave them cushion-brained from reading the daily news. They prefer vegging out in front of one kind of idiot box or another -- today, the internet and TV; in the Midcentury, radio and TV. Movie studios felt they had to really "wow" them at the theaters in order to lure them out of their domestic cocoons.

Remember, that was the era of the drive-in restaurant, church, and yes, movie theater. If they didn't even want to leave their cars when they ventured away from home, they would really need a spectacle to get their butts in the movie theater seats.

By contrast, the fun-loving folks of the '80s already had their motor going in daily life that they didn't need the movie projector and speakers to shock them awake like a heart defibrillator. And the rising crime rates put them in a higher state of arousal in everyday life. They didn't need to get woken up by melodramatic acting, bombastic musical scores, or gory details.

But now we're back to Midcentury levels of cocooning and falling crime rates, so audiences need to get whacked over the head to feel like the trip to the theater was worth it. You can't get your eardrums blown out at home!

There's something more going on than the sheer size of the screen, though. The size of the image as it is captured on film itself is much larger than usual. The standard since forever has been film that is 35mm wide and 4 perforations high, so that the image occupies a frame that is 20.3 mm by 15.2 mm, with an area of 309 mm squared. The film used for IMAX cameras, however, gives a frame that is 69.6 mm by 48.5 mm, with an area of 3376 mm squared -- or nearly 11 times as large of area as the 35mm image.

What does this larger image size on the film get you? A much higher resolution when it is projected. IMAX was originally used for nature and other documentary approaches that sought to deliver the most lifelike picture possible. It is like shooting a movie on "medium-format" film used in still photography (in this case, near the 6x7 size for 120 film). There, too, the larger image size on film gives much higher resolution than the standard 35mm format (the kind of film you used to buy when you used to shoot on film yourself).

It's not hard to see how the far greater resolution and more lifelike picture ties in with the rest of the whole "movie as sensory immersion in another world" phenomenon.

So, was there a counterpart in the Midcentury? My research wouldn't amount to much if there wasn't. And there was: 70mm film. It mostly went under the names Todd-AO or Super/Ultra Panavision 70, depending on whose cameras were used, but the image size on film was the same -- 48.5 mm by 22.1 mm, or 1072 mm squared. That's more than 3 times the area of standard 35mm film, although below the mammoth size of IMAX images.

And its marketing appeal was the same as that of IMAX today -- a more lifelike resolution that you were never going to get from watching TV in your home. Or even from watching standard movies. The 70mm format produced such Midcentury spectacles as South Pacific, Cleopatra, The Sound of Music (on Todd-AO), Ben-Hur, Lawrence of Arabia, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and 2001: A Space Odyssey (on either Super or Ultra Panavision 70).

In fact, the first two major hits for Todd-AO -- Oklahoma! and Around the World in Eighty Days -- were also shot in a higher frame rate than usual, at 30 frames per second instead of 24. Note the parallel to today where Peter Jackson is trying to push 48 frames per second because it looks more lifelike than 24.

Yet the more it looks like real life, the less it looks like a movie. And, sure, if it doesn't look real at all, it won't look like much of a movie either. Somehow the degree of realism has been snuggled into a happy middle spot -- fairly realistic, but not too realistic -- since movies have had spoken dialog. A 35mm 4-perf frame, and 24 frames per second. Once you move far enough away from that optimum, it gets into the realm of virtual reality and escapism rather than stylized reality with a clear distinction of roles between performers and spectators.

I'm worried how Christopher Nolan's upcoming movie Interstellar will look, given that he's shooting more of it on IMAX than anything else he's done, including The Dark Knight Rises, which already had over an hour of IMAX-filmed scenes.

The lenses on IMAX cameras are spherical, not anamorphic, so they don't give you that sublime shallow focus that good ol' Panavision does. Oddly enough, in still photography shooting on a larger film format gives a shallower depth-of-field. Evidently, though, this effect is swamped out by the loss of the anamorphic lens when shooting on IMAX, since it gives deeper rather than shallower focus.

In my review of The Dark Knight Rises, I noted how confusing the melee scenes were because they were filmed in IMAX rather than Panavision -- too many of the crowd members' faces and bodies were in decent focus, and Bane and Batman were not singled out from the rest to be shown in focus. You didn't know where to look, and the melee looked jumbled rather than striking.

And that was with ace cinematographer Wally Pfister at the helm -- you can imagine where things will go when filmed-on-IMAX becomes as ubiquitous as 3D, and every tentpole project will try to outdo the others in how much of their movie can be shown in an overly realistic resolution.

On a broader social note, we can foresee the end of the cocooning phase of our society within the next probably 5 to 10 years. The last time around, the peak of sensory immersion and virtual reality hit between roughly 1955 and '64, a decade defined by shifting the gears from cocooning to connecting (and as a result of the more outgoing climate, a steady rise in the crime rate). So if you aren't a fan of IMAX, rest assured that it won't last that much longer. In the meantime, you'll just have to hope that they don't abuse it... but with Hollywood I wouldn't get your hopes up.

May 9, 2014

Cocooning on public transportation: Victorian, Midcentury, and Millennial snapshots

Now that folks are becoming aware of how pervasive and stifling the trend toward cocooning has gotten, the awkward army has begun to mount a more active defense.

“OK, so we’re physically cutting ourselves off from one another -- is that really the worst thing in the world? Maybe we’re truly connecting over the internet anyway.”

Uh no, dork, batting five-word texts back and forth over the course of a few hours is not emotionally connecting like a simple two-minute conversation, voice-to-voice or, God forbid, face-to-face. And it doesn't answer the original charge of being anti-social -- even if you were connecting normally with the person you're texting while riding the subway, you're still closing yourself off from everyone else on the damn subway, and blocking out your surroundings when walking down the street, sitting in a coffee shop, etc.

This response is obvious and persuasive to all normal people, so that the cheerleaders of cocooning have taken a new approach to attempting to normalize abnormal social behavior -- “people used to act this way before.” How warped could such behavior be, if it had persisted for so long during an earlier time?

Here is an item by some airhead opinion writer expressing the new approach, referring to “old pictures” that show subway riders staring down at their newspapers rather than engaging one another in conversation. Nothing new to see with the phones-everywhere trend, just a contempo variation on a timeless theme, so move along folks, back to your cyber-cocoons and man-caves.

The writer must be a Millennial if she doesn’t remember the ‘80s, and is left to speculate what the past was like by lazy Googling rather than asking someone who knew, which would’ve quickly set her straight. (Real-life contact wins again.) It’s striking, though, how little awareness Millennials have of the past even from mediated sources like TV, movies, and pop music. Where are they getting the image of subway riders staring at newspapers?

In fairness, they may be thinking further back to the Midcentury, when public cocooning was in fact common. This is giving them too much credit for being aware of the world before they were born, but I can’t think of a better way to get to the snapshots of earlier cocooning periods that the title of this post promised.

First, here is a collection of complaints from the late Victorian and Edwardian periods, when cocooning was reaching its peak before folks started to socialize and connect more during the Ragtime and Jazz Age. One complains about people using newspapers as distracters and fencer-off-ers while they sulk around on public transit. Sound familiar? But notice again how the complaints trail off during the 1910s and are gone by the Roaring Twenties.

But the Jazz Age wouldn’t last forever. Here are some “old pictures” showing Midcentury subway riders, who are indeed wrapped up in their own private little worlds despite being packed in like sardines, using a mass media product to focus their attention no further than their personal space and to physically fence themselves off from their fellow travelers.

These pictures do disprove the idea that we are forced into cocooning nowadays because of technological changes. Folks in the ‘40s and ‘50s didn’t need portable electronics, let alone web browsers, to isolate themselves in public. It goes the other way around -- there’s a change in the social mood, and people use whatever is available to further their new goals. Back then, it was newspapers, now it’s devices for web-surfing and texting.

But what happens when the mood changes, and people don’t feel like cocooning anymore? Hard as it is to remember, there was just such a time in the not too distant past.* All of a sudden, newspaper-starer-at-ers become rare on the subway, and appear to be mostly members of the Silent Generation (the Millennials of their day), whose formative years were shaped by Midcentury cocooning. The pictures below were a thing a few years ago -- “Woah, look how different the New York subway used to be!” -- but even the past five years are too long to remember for people who want no connection to people other than themselves.

Not only did these people have newspapers still available, they had paperback books and toward the end of the period, portable stereos, casette players, and CD players. Yet, it looks nothing like the world 15 to 20 years later, when everyone would be locked into their book, iPod, or smartphone:

True, people from the '70s and '80s are not engaging each other in lively conversation -- they’re strangers riding mass transit in a high-density hive of alienation. It is unrealistic to expect them to chat as though they were suburban dwellers recognizing one another at church.

And yet, they’re at least giving each other their undivided attention. They don’t appear to be focusing on anything in particular, and are “leaving the door open” like college freshmen do when they’re waiting for someone to invite them to something somewhere.

They look unsettled because of the rising crime rate and the growing sense that nothing could be done about it, that you just had to get used to it and cope with it as best as you could, of course with the support of others, who were going through the same situations themselves. Most of them are looking through a thousand-yard stare even inside of a narrow subway car.

If you look through “old pictures” or old videos from the ‘80s and early ‘90s, you’re struck by how dissociative the people look, talk, and move. Not necessarily glum, as on the subway, but just focused outwards and not monitoring the self inside. Every moment looks like it was an out-of-body experience. See this video clip of the Jersey Shore from 1994, thanks to a commenter from awhile ago, and this post and the gallery in the first link, showing the mall culture circa 1990.

Perhaps the tiny uptick in complaints about web browsers everywhere is a signal that the cocooning trend will bottom out in the next five years or so. The complaints of the late Victorian era set the stage for the more outgoing climate of Jazz Age, just as the complaints of The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit and The Feminine Mystique heralded the more outgoing clmiate of the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties.

It’s not an attitude that can be forced to speed up the process. We just have to keep our eyes and ears open to see when others start showing signs that they’re ready to connect again after hibernating for so long.

* Those who were there have managed to block it out because of all the “awkward!” memories they have of more free-wheeling times, while Millennials refuse to explore that time more out of resentment over missing the boat. It’s more than mere incuriosity (though lord knows that’s another defining trait of theirs). They feel gipped that their whole upbringing has been full of lies about how the world would explode if they didn’t wear two bike helmets or didn’t let their parents know where they were going for the day.

May 4, 2014

Cookers vs. cleaners

We hear the phrase "cooking and cleaning" so much that we might think the two activities naturally go together. All they share, though, is their private, domestic setting — the phrase usually signals how domestic or not-so-domestic a woman is, or is expected to be.

Cookers are more corporeal and in touch with their senses, capable of feeling joy, and attentive to others. Cooking can be a social activity, at the very least the meal is social (unless you're dining alone). The cook makes a choice to include others in the meal (they could have prepared a smaller quantity of food), which shows their thoughtfulness.

Cleaners are more cerebral and cut off from their surroundings (which they feel are dangerous or contaminating), rarely experience elation, and are more self-focused. Cleaning is never fun, social, or for the benefit of others (always for the self — get those yucky germs away from me / straighten up the living room, and if it happens to benefit others living here or passing through, then lucky for them.)

Cookers are more likely to be found in pastoralist cultures, while cleaners are more likely to hail from farming cultures. Farming leads to sedentary high-density living, making for a dirtier and more infectious environment, and putting farmers more on their guard for tidying up and napalming household surfaces. Livestock herding allows people to spread out more thinly and to pick up and move away from a nasty area, not to mention the central role of hospitality and providing meals for guests. The culture of honor is the culture of hospitality -- an obsession with reciprocity, whether in a helpful or harmful manner.

You don't find too many symmetric-stackers and containerizers in Southern Europe, where they'd prefer to prepare sensual meals that hit the spot. Farther toward the Balto-Slavic Northeast, people are more likely to be vacuum junkies and make a point of showering every day. Along the faultline running through Germany, folks are known for both — the Swabian housewife who is always sweeping outside her house, in between preparing homecooked meals for her family and the community. Even if they're outside their native habitat, like the Alpine Amish in America.

Southern cooking, but Northern efficiency.

That ought to be a warning sign about women — those who bring up how much they like to clean, trying to lure the man in with dreams of domestic devotion, only to find out that she cannot and will not cook, and that her senses don't light up even when someone else prepares a sumptuous meal for her. Like, what response were you expecting from a neat freak?

Also ties in with the con-artistry of Balto-Slavic gold-diggers and Asian mail-order brides. The magazine holder is dust-free, but my belly is empty. A word to the wise.

May 2, 2014

Why has Gen X always been the focus of reality TV dramas? Are Millennials too boring?

As the reality-drama genre has steadily taken over TV programming during the last 20 or so years, it's striking how consistent the generational background of the characters has remained — mostly Gen X, particularly the ground zero ones born in the late '60s and early '70s.

The first reality show phenomenon was The Real World on MTV in the mid-1990s. The cast were younger 20-somethings, with the occasional late teenager. It had already lost relevance among youth audiences — its only target audience — by the turn of the millennium. It has long featured stock character stereotypes for the benefit of the autistic youth audience made up more and more of Millennials. The last time there were memorable and distinct individuals was probably the 1995 season in London, when middle X-ers were the cast and late X-ers were the audience.

Big Brother in the early part of the last decade picked up where The Real World left off, only with a now older age group on camera — still late Boomers and X-ers, though.

There's also been a string of "celebreality" shows that followed the lives of famous people who ranged from early Boomers like Ozzy Osbourne up through late X-ers like Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian.

Now the hot thing seems to be housewives, husbands, moms, dads, and other folks in their 30s and 40s. This genre was completely absent during the '90s and even the first half of the 2000s. Boomer parents in the '90s apparently were not thought to be worth the gamble to put on camera. Only when the early X-ers had kids old enough to be active in the background did this genre take off, during the past 5 to 10 years.

Why haven't the Millennials taken the place of the X-ers once the latter had outgrown a given niche? They've been old enough to star on The Real World for at least five years now, but they haven't turned it back into a thing. Nor have they simply made a related but different show a thing. Well, who would want to tune in to awkward brats diddling their digital devices for 60 minutes?

Some of the early Millennials are now also old enough for Big Brother type shows, though again imagine how boring it would be to watch them sulk around, mumble less than ten words per day, and surf the web on their phone.

Ditto for celebreality shows — Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie were 23 when their show The Simple Life became a hit. Early Millennial celebrities have been that age since 2010, yet none of them have spawned hit shows that document their lives.

Sure, they're not old enough to star on shows about housewives raising a family with school-age children. But how did it even get to this point, where housewives and middle-aged husbands are more interesting to watch than college students? It was the other way around in 1992, when The Real World debuted.

For whatever it's worth, Gen X has the qualities that are needed to make watchable TV dramas taken from real-life people: they are sociable like the Boomers, but self-monitoring like the Millennials. Gregarious enough to get involved in other people's lives, and introspective enough to reflect on what the right thing to be doing is.

A Boomer cast would be up to a lot of activity, but there would be little self-awareness among them, hence no internal conflict, just one glib rationalization after another in the confessional. A Millennial cast would be paralyzed by their constant self-monitoring, and would not have much in the way of choices to examine in any case, since they keep to themselves all the time. No actions means no consequences of your actions to reflect on.

This generational influence extends further to that whole adrenaline junkie genre that began with Jackass and continued through Survivor and Fear Factor. Millennials are too fearful and too crippled by OCD to go anywhere near that kind of thing. Their mindset about where the proper boundaries are was shaped by the helicopter parenting culture of the past 20-odd years — not just in the home, but anywhere that their parents held influence (playgrounds, pools, schools). Their idea of livin' on the edge is playing their video games without automatic health regeneration.

The Gen X guys from Jackass etc. grew up when you not only didn't have to ask permission from your parents to leave the house, but you typically didn't even make a point of leaving a note to let them know. You were just "going out," and if they noticed you weren't home, they assumed you had "gone out" and would "be back." Pretty simple, really.

Of course I'm not holding up any of these reality show casts as paragons of personality. But they do reflect differences in the general public that might be otherwise hard to put your finger on. "Come to think of it, who would want to watch a reality show about Millennial phone-fondlers or Boomer blindness?" Reality TV may be near the bottom of the barrel, but think of how much worse it could get if the characters weren't at least somewhat gregarious and somewhat introspective.