Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, and the best of all the rest to every one of our faithful readers!
Over the course of a busy 12 months, the holiday season represents a welcome break from daily pressures as we kick back and (hopefully) overindulge in every manner of food, drink and what-have-you. What makes this time special is not the shopping, gift giving or parties and family gatherings, but the specific context within which they take place. We don’t engage in these activities every day, so they stand out in comparison to the rest of the year.
This begs a question: Has the way we think about and appreciate cinematography lost its context?
Until the mid-1990s, cinematography’s supreme standard was universal and unassailable: originating on 35mm negative and projecting optically on a big screen. It’s staggering to see how quickly and radically things have changed. Outstanding work can now be viewed around the clock on any of a hundred channels, each delivered to your large flat-screen television with the quality of a first-run movie house. At the same time, we are overwhelmed with an endless wave of other images delivered across a variety of transportable and easily accessible platforms; that so many of them are technically superb and aesthetically pleasing is equally amazing — and just as unsettling.
This has created a glut of notable imagery that has watered down the field to such an extent that an overabundance of competence actually seems to have lowered standards. In a world where so much is polished and impressive, how do we determine what really counts? Worse than that, if virtually anyone can press a button and achieve results that some consider professional, where does that leave us? The context has shifted in such a way that the honor once reserved for the result of study, experience, dedication and proper execution — excellence, in other words — is on shaky ground. It has become an era of “anything goes,” and believe me, too often it does.
I think a comparison can be drawn to the blogosphere and the ubiquity of laptops and mobile devices. The massive expansion of the blogosphere surely hasn’t brought us any more Hemingways than we had before, but what does that matter if most people reading online don’t know or care to know the difference?
So, we in the ASC will probably never again experience that feeling of certitude about what we do — that we are the gatekeepers, the final arbiters of what is valued. That notion was ingrained in the Society from the beginning, and it’s a hard thing to let go. Nonetheless, we can influence the new standards that are evolving before our eyes. Technological progress has forced us to accept a new context for what we do, but it’s an imperfect and unfinished one, and therein lies our chance for continuing relevance.
I recall having good-natured arguments with older relatives when I was a teenager. Who was musically superior, Benny Goodman or Jimmy Page? There’s no real answer to that, though you can imagine which side was mine. Today I am much more conciliatory. Both men were enormously gifted, and, regardless of where you stand, you have to recognize that both knew their way around their instruments.
Those of us who “know our way around our instruments” understand that the fundamental issue is not about technology or experience. It’s about taste and choices. And no matter how many images bombard us every day, the appreciation of what’s good about them will never be legislated or reduced to a code.