[-empyre-] screenal - Yes, Norma Desmond, the Pictures Are Getting Small Again
rrdominguez at ucsd.edu
Mon Jul 9 00:52:24 EST 2012
I thought this screenal tale might play along with the conversation:
GO back far enough in the history of the Big Screen, back to the 1890s,
and you'll find no screen at all.
A Kinetoscope parlor in San Francisco, circa 1895. More than a century
later, movie-watching has again become a solitary experience, with tiny
images on cellphones and tablets.
The earliest motion-picture viewing was a solitary experience. One
looked through a peephole at the top of a Kinetoscope, a waist-high
cabinet in which a light illuminated the frames of a continuous film
loop. A magnifying lens was attached to the peephole, but the images
remained tiny. That means the first cinematographers didn't have much to
When projection arrived, movie images could be made life-size in a
theater, then larger than life, on a big screen accompanied by big
sound. Taking in a movie became not just an immersive experience, but
also a social one, with members of the audience sitting in the dark
together, laughing, crying and shrieking.
Today, we've reached the acme of technical sophistication --- and have
come nearly full circle. Movie watching is, again, a solitary
experience, involving small images on a laptop, a tablet and, tinier
still, a cellphone. The convenience is wonderful, of course, but it
comes at a price: the loss of the immersive cinematic experience.
Americans will pay to watch 3.4 billion movies online this year, IHS
Screen Digest estimates. That's much more than double the number for 2010.
It's impossible to say exactly how many of those movies will be viewed
on which portable devices. A spokesman for Netflix, the leader in
streaming older movie titles, declined to share details about streaming
We do know that the newest movie titles, including the most visually
spectacular, are available through Apple or Google for inexpensive
rental on the small screen. (Apple made movie rentals available for
phones starting in 2008, and Netflix introduced a smartphone app
<http://nyti.ms/9mr5w6> in 2010). Cellphone owners can rent "Hugo," the
2012 Academy Award winner for cinematography, for $3.99 and watch it on
a screen whose size is not much larger than the image seen through the
When an online movie is viewed at home on a giant flat screen and heard
through an expensive sound system, the sensory experience surely exceeds
what might be had at a rundown multiplex on a bad day. But movies viewed
on mobile devices aren't going to give the brain's sensorium much
"It's a sensual experience when you go to a theater, if there's sharp
projection and six-track sound," says John Belton
<http://bit.ly/P72qu9>, a professor of English and film at Rutgers
University. "That is a very different experience than watching on an
or on other portable devices.
Professor Belton points out that the first projected images in theaters
were not all that large. In a movie palace that might hold 5,000 people,
an early screen might have been only 15 feet wide. But the images became
larger around the time that sound arrived in the 1930s.
Then, in the 1950s, as Hollywood found itself competing against
television, it used special lenses to create movies for screens of
expanded width. Marilyn Monroe's body, in languorous repose, would
stretch across screens as wide as 64 feet. This was an intentional
shift, Professor Belton says, to "an image that overwhelms the
spectator," part of Hollywood's campaign "to show the limitations of
television." Later, Hollywood reversed course and began selling to
television, though that meant cropping its wide-screen pictures so they
would fit on a small screen.
The most glorious attempt to fully engage the theater spectator's senses
was Cinerama, introduced in 1952. Filmed with three cameras outfitted
with wide-angle lenses, it used three wide screens, put together in a
sumptuous near-semicircle of 146 degrees.
"This gives you a 'first-person' experience," says Thomas Hauerslev,
editor of the Web site In70mm <http://www.in70mm.com/>. "You see what
you'd see if you were sitting where the camera is." He says IMAX "is not
a first-person experience --- it's just big."
Each frame in Cinerama is 50 percent taller than a regular frame,
providing more detail. This makes the cinematic illusion "extremely
realistic," Mr. Hauerslev says.
Cinerama was costly both to film and to exhibit, and its commercial life
was short. It was used only for travelogues, except in 1962, when the
only two story-centered features were released: "How the West Was Won"
and "The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm." The Cinerama name was
transferred to a smaller format, and then that format, too, was abandoned.
Cinerama was the high-water mark in sensory immersion. Yesterday's
Kinetoscopes and today's smartphone screens, the low-water marks.
"If you look at the great Hollywood classics in the 1930s and 1940s,
you'll see many wide master shots and sparing use of close-ups," says
John Bailey, a cinematographer with more than 60 feature credits who
serves on the executive board of the American Society of
Cinematographers <http://www.theasc.com/>. "But with the advent of TV
and now also with smaller screens, we're seeing more close-ups."
The problem, he says, is that "if you use close-ups immoderately, then
when you need to make a more dramatic point, you have no other option
but to use extreme close-ups."
"The best camera," the old saying goes, "is the one you have with you,"
and a similar thought is apparently held by increasing numbers of movie
viewers, happy with the screen they always have with them. And movie
producers, just as they have in the past, will probably keep adapting,
changing movies themselves so that they look better on a tiny screen.
"You can say it's 'watching a movie,' " says Professor Belton of viewing
on mobile devices. "But it's not cinema."
Randall Stross is an author based in Silicon Valley and a professor of
business at San Jose State University. E-mail: stross at nytimes.com.
On 7/8/12 5:56 AM, Christiane_Paul at whitney.org wrote:
> Thanks! I agree that medium / material specificity and agency, affect, and the relationships between living beings and objects are deeply interrelated (while neither side of the equation is reducible to the other).
> I haven't read all the posts in this very interesting discussion but assume someone has brought up Erkii Huhtamo's understanding of Screenology (http://wro01.wrocenter.pl/erkki/html/erkki_en.html) as a history of the screen that "should comprise not only the evolution of different kinds of screens and the interconnections between them, but also account for their uses as part of different media apparata and within changing cultural, social and economic settings." The current constellations of big screen (urban screens, imax) and small screens (mobile devices) seem particularly rich territory for exploring economic and social relations.
> From: empyre-bounces at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au [empyre-bounces at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au] on behalf of Richard Grusin [rgrusin at gmail.com]
> Sent: Sunday, July 08, 2012 1:44 AM
> To: soft_skinned_space
> Subject: Re: [-empyre-] screens
> As a recent lurker on Empyre and "first-time caller," I've appreciated the discussion on screens, particularly the claims by many on the list about the importance of taking account of the material specificity of screens. I especially admire Ian Bogost's dogged insistence about keeping this material specificity at the forefront of the discussion.
> But in addition to taking up the materiality of mediation, my work (like the work of others) also takes up questions of agency and affect and the way in which objects like screens and sandwiches and orchids and humans act and affect other objects. I believe that this agency and affectivity operate in ways that are directly related to (but I would say not reducible to) their material specificity. I think we need to move more cautiously and think more carefully about the interaction among agency, affectivity, and materiality, resisting the urge to reduce screens (or whatever) to any one of those concerns. To call attention to the ontology of agency or affect is not necessarily to eliminate all material difference, just as insisting on the ontology of objects should not be to eliminate considerations of agency, affectivity, or other forms of what I understand as mediation (although this kind of "reductionism" can happen all too easily, especially in discussion lists like empyre). For those like me (and I think others on this list) who agree with Ian about material specificity and about the ontological continuity among all "objects," but who are also interested in affective and agential specificity and the affective and agential continuity among humans and nonhumans, it is crucial to find a way to talk about the complex interrelations among agency, affectivity, materiality, temporality, mediation, and so forth.
> My two cents.
> On Jul 7, 2012, at 1:47 PM, Ian Bogost wrote:
>> On Jul 7, 2012, at 2:10 PM, Rob Myers wrote:
>>> Computers are significantly correlated with screens at present. Televisions are now computers (or their thralls) following the death of analog broadcast and recording. Even cinemas are transitioning to digital projection with increasing speed.
>> All the more reason to distinguish between different material objects. The digital cinema is not the computational system in my Denon receiver that upsamples signals for HDMI transmission to my television, is not the input/output apparatus in my iPad.
>>>> Many of which have screens of particular
>>>> kinds. If we're ready to simply call all those things "screens" then
>>>> I'm not sure why we wouldn't also call them automobiles or
>>>> architecture or sandwiches.
>>> I'm currently watching "Raiders Of The Lost Ark" on a baguette so I see your point.
>> Here, let me connect the dots: Even sandwich shops order supplies and take and manage orders by computer. Sandwiches are implicated in the logic of computers, c'est à dire screens. Therefore sandwiches are screens.
>> I'm not being coy. This is how this conversation feels to me.
>>> Screens serve to conceal as well as present. Think of hospital screens (or the back wall of the cinema). In Simon's comment, the screens have served to conceal the computers. What the computers conceal probably has something to do with agency.
>> Yikes, there's the sound of the world melting again. All is one. Agency, or affect, or screens, or whatever. I can't get behind it, sorry.
>> empyre forum
>> empyre at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au
> Richard Grusin
> rgrusin at gmail.com
> empyre forum
> empyre at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au
> empyre forum
> empyre at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au
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