The Slow Death of Cinema

These days I’m down on cinema, so it’s probably not the best time to be interviewed on the topic. But I was, by two journalists (Cody Benjamin and Chris Hayes) for their upcoming book: What About the Movies? Exploring Cinema’s Place in a World Full of Screens, Streams, and Smartphones (March 2020). And given permission to post the full interview here.

What is it about movies — both past and present — that you believe makes them so captivating, especially in comparison to other media?

Since the first moving picture of a stream train chugging silently right past a camera spooked French audiences in 1895 [L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat], film has been intense, immersive, and thrilling. Our movies are much longer, louder, and complex. And the movie industry has become a dominant center of our cultural mythologies (The Avengers, Transformers, Star Wars, etc.). CGI and 3D and surround sound have all caught up to the imagination of the myth-makers, bringing to life imaginary worlds, amplifying those worlds to truly superhuman proportions.

Countless people in and around the movie industry point to two main reasons for the theater’s longstanding relevance — (1) its tech-fueled experience, which you can get at home (big screen, surround sound, etc.) and (2) its physical, communal space. Do you foresee those factors maintaining their influence amid today’s media landscape? Why or why not?

Once subwoofers, surround sound, and 60-inch TVs moved into the home, the personal theater was destined to become the epicenter of video consumption and the cinema was doomed to stagnation, now reflected in domestic profit growth lagging behind overall economic growth. Theaters have tried to incorporate 3D and various digital surround systems with proprietary names. But to this point most of the technologies that attract moviegoers into the cinema can be replicated at home to significant effect.

For cinemas to break from this stagnation they will be forced to incorporate more and more extraneous value-adds: Freestyle touchscreen soda machines, foodie-level dining delivered to your seat, over-21 screens with alcohol and waiters walking through aisles of La-Z-Boys with electric recliners. New ways of attracting moviegoers will have less to do with the movies themselves or A/V advances.

Would you go so far as to suggest that physically going to the movies (where we are prompted to “disconnect” and focus our attention on what’s literally in front of us) could be beneficial to our health, at least in some senses? Why or why not?

Movie theaters are public entertainment, like major sporting events. I don’t see any inherent virtue in them. I guess the question would be which setting fosters greater personal interaction to love others, and for me personally I know my experience with my family is that we typically feel more together at home, pausing for breaks, and talking about things immediately. For obvious reasons a theater intentionally stifles conversation, so we try to hold off our thoughts until we can get to a local restaurant in order to talk over what we just ingested whole. I do think there’s advantages to going to the theater on special occasions, but I engage with others more at home.

Being someone who’s researched and reported on digital media, technology, etc., what do you believe are the biggest pros and cons of theater-going, both in general and in comparison to at-home, on-demand media consumption?

The biggest cultural con is that theaters have notoriously been targeted by agents of mass violence. It’s really hard to break that stigma.

I think theaters will thrive around major holidays, with families seeking to go out and see new blockbuster releases together. Otherwise apart from pretty significant changes and adaptations to food culture, I don’t know if the theater will thrive, and if they do survive I don’t see them again claiming a cultural center like they once did as anchors in the golden age of the mall.

Looking at the movie theater industry from afar, what do you believe are some of the most promising signs of its survival/future success?

Bringing back historic films, remastered, could draw people back into the theater to relive memories of seeing a movie three decades later. I think the incorporation of live events, like concerts and major sporting events, could be a new way to leverage existing technologies for new purposes. Subscriptions (like, unlimited monthly movies for $19.99 a month) will bring volume up. But no matter what, the industry seems to be in need of major rethinking.

Similarly, what do you believe are some of the biggest challenges for its survival/future success?

Cinema is an incredibly powerful medium for projecting the dominant cultural mythologies of our age. But the video-gamming industry is doing the same thing, and better, by putting us inside the action. If 3D immerses us into a gigantic screen, video games immerse us inside the mythology itself. Action role-play video games move us from merely spectating a mythology to actually becoming a star/spectator within it. And it’s incredibly addictive, more addictive than the cinema.

The Netflix film Mowgli (2018) was a game-changer for me. I streamed the film with my family at the same time it was a new release in local cinemas. Theaters have gotten used to holding proprietary rights for a movie for a certain length of time before those films go to streaming services. And if this continues, as large media streaming services fund their own large-scale sitcoms, dramas, and feature-length movies, this will continue to blow up the big studio/cinema marriage we have come to assume. And as streaming giants find themselves in a foot race for proprietary content, this will continue to undermine theaters.

If you had to take a few guesses (educated or just for fun), what are some ways you believe movie theaters — the industry, the experience, whatever it may be — will change over the next 5–10 years? What other technologies might be weaved into cinema? And what is your general outlook on the industry as a whole?

Yeah, I think that’s the problem. The technology has reached its marketable limit. I don’t know many people who decide against seeing a movie because the theater didn’t have Dolby Atmos sound. Tech upgrades at this point are subtle and largely overlooked by the public. So theaters will survive as long as they can each brand themselves as something beyond a theater. It’s very similar to what happened to the brick and mortar bookstore industry, especially Christian bookstores, that could only survive by also selling music albums, Jesus trinkets, breath mints, gum, paintings, and figurines — all the things that have nothing to do with books. Those “book” stores have died off. Cinema is in a similar boat, forced to adopt endless amounts of supplementary offerings.

With or without the physical theater, do you believe movies themselves will survive or succeed in the coming generation(s), considering the more immersive qualities of video games, social media, etc.? Why/why not?

It’s hard to say. What is a movie? What is television? These lines are now blurred. During my formative years of adolescence, live-linear television was the place for a quick hit of sarcasm and slapstick comedy (Letterman, SNL, Simpsons). The cinema was where I went to have my mind blown by immersive CGI, longform storytelling, and thundering audio technology (ET, Star Wars, Back to the Future). But this dynamic has drastically changed over the past decade. We’ve entered the golden age of television. I remember a time when you’d never see a Hollywood actor soil their reputation on television unless they were promoting a film. Now television has incorporated many of Hollywood’s well-known actors, along with all of its CGI and audio tricks. Today, it would be really difficult for me to determine if the first season of Netflix’s Lost in Space (2018–) is a 10-part television series or a 10-hour movie. I honestly don’t know. I lean toward seeing it as a 10-hour movie. It offers all the CGI and acting you’d expect from Hollywood. All the lines are blurring.

Hollywood operates by a time limit of about 120 minutes. People don’t want to sit there any longer. So movies need to fit inside this attention-window. That was an impressive feat in the 1980s. And people came away satisfied in the 120-minute storyline. But now the length of how long people will engage with a cultural mythology exceeds 50 hours! People have changed. Media has changed people. Television has made our minds more complex, better able to follow multiple plots over longer periods of time.

Studies have demonstrated this historically. Dragnet (1951–59) was a television series about LA cops. It featured one plot per episode, beginning to end. Real clean. Simple. Each episode works A to Z as a standalone storyline. Starsky and Hutch (1975–79) was also a television series about LA cops. It featured two plots, one at the beginning that is picked up at the end, but a second, major plot filled up the middle. Each episode also tied off cleanly. Hill Street Blues (1981–87) came along, another police drama, but this one featured around eight plots per episode, relatively clean plots, rarely overlapping, some carrying over to later episodes. And then of course you come to The Sopranos (1999–2007), the hit mobster crime drama. It featured around ten plots per episode, overlapping one another, scenes where two or three plots are concurrently developed at the same time, unfinished plots carrying over from one episode to another episode, and some plots dropping out for multiple episodes, even for whole seasons, only to be picked up later. Very complex storytelling.

In today’s media landscape, to imagine an entirely developed storyline in just 120 minutes is overly contained. The Sopranos drama required 4,300 minutes. Again, this is one of the reasons why the home theater trumps the cinema. No one could watch The Sopranos in a theater. Some will say home theater watchers have settled for something smaller than the cinema. But in many ways this is exactly wrong. Home theater viewers are asking for mega-longform media, the kind of media that could never fit inside the cinema.

And would their survival/success be a good thing? Or, like the act of going to the movies at the theater, would it be no different than any other activity of entertainment?

I don’t know. I hope we continue to attend live sporting events and don’t just watch them all on VR goggles in 3D. But if that’s what happens, I won’t be too concerned. The stadium vendors will find other employment. The same is true of the theater. I’m rather ambivalent. But if theaters become a glorified marriage between the privacy and comfort of our dimly lit living rooms, while we are served a foodie-level menu by waiters from a kitchen with the best chef in town, could we really say that the cinema has survived? To double a patient’s life-support is not to say he’s now twice as much alive. It’s to say he’s twice as much dead.

Pulling Technology from Creation

Isaiah 28:23–29 —

Give ear, and hear my voice;
give attention, and hear my speech.
Does he who plows for sowing plow continually?
Does he continually open and harrow his ground?
When he has leveled its surface,
does he not scatter dill, sow cumin,
and put in wheat in rows
and barley in its proper place,
and emmer as the border?
For he is rightly instructed;
his God teaches him.

Dill is not threshed with a threshing sledge,
nor is a cart wheel rolled over cumin,
but dill is beaten out with a stick,
and cumin with a rod.
Does one crush grain for bread?
No, he does not thresh it forever;
when he drives his cart wheel over it
with his horses, he does not crush it.
This also comes from the LORD of hosts;
he is wonderful in counsel
and excellent in wisdom.

The long process of human science, engineering, and technological advance in agriculture is simply mankind being given the intellectual powers to read and take its lead from the possibilities inherent in the created order. This is akin to learning tech from the Creator himself.

Thomas Edison holds 1,093 patents and invented the incandescent light bulb, the phonograph, the alkaline battery, the X-ray fluoroscope, among many other things. He was a freethinker. More agnostic than believer. But he did believe in nature, and once admitted:

I’ve got no imagination. I never dream. My so-called inventions already existed in the environment — I took them out. I’ve created nothing. Nobody does. There’s no such thing as an idea being brain-born. Everything comes from the outside. The industrious one coaxes it from the environment.

So where do inventions originate if not in the inventor’s head?

As I’ve said previously, God makes lightning bolts (Psalm 135:7). And this act is the genesis of what we now call the digital age. The same is true of farming tech.

Without baptizing every use of technology as good, we can at least affirm that every technology must take its prompt from what is first made possible by the Creator in his created order.

* * *

Source: Edmund Morris, Edison (Random House, 2019), 12.

Six Core Convictions on Media and Technology

Occasionally I get asked to outline the basics of my understanding of technology and media and the Christian life — all topics of great interest to me. There’s much more to develop, and many questions remain for me that I have not figured out. But as best as I can put it right now, in a simplified form, put together this morning in a few free minutes, these are the six convictions for me when it comes to media, technology, and the Christian life.

(1) God is the Innovator, the fountain of every innovation and innovator. Steve Jobs was a sub-creator, and any digital device he envisioned manifests God’s glory in new ways to us all. Technology opens new avenue to see God’s brilliance as technology and media serve as a key source in this world to feed our awe and wonder.

(2) Most of our key innovators are non-Christians. The history of innovation in Scripture manifests a rebellious self-sufficiency from Babel to Babel-on. It will be through rebellious Cain’s linage God will introduce the world to metallurgy and music making (Gen. 4:21–22), innovations to later make Noah’s ark (metal tools) and temple worship (instruments). Innovation introduced to creation via fallen man produces technologies God’s people adopt and adapt in serving God and neighbors, vocationally and spiritually.

(3) Every human invention is made possible by existing natural resources and natural laws. Pre-ordained potentiality is the cause of every human innovation. One hundred lighting bolts hitting earth every second for millennia is the first cause of the digital age. Even our most advanced technologies (medicine, atomic energy) are in some way extracted from creation, the manifestation of potentialities God built inside creation.

(4) Having been the product of natural laws and natural resources, technology remains under the curse, expires, breaks, and fades away. But while operational, our best technologies steward creation, cultivate the earth, preserve nature, foster human community, augment (but not replace) human labor and fruitfulness, and fix broken biological processes.

(5) Scripture warns us explicitly against corrosive media (eye lust); and warns us equally in overindulging of non-sinful media (what the Psalmist calls “worthless things”). Even non-sinful media must be resisted through temperance and temporary fasts to give space for the soul to flourish in joy as it lives to God and neighbor.

(6) In a world of technological marvels and captivating media, Christians are left to discern beyond the potential and possible, to embrace the rare tech and media that can edify, a feedback loop of innovation and adoption (or temperance) that cannot be settled simply, cannot often get legislated, and will become increasingly personal and complexified in the near future.

What have I missed?

Jonathan Edwards on Twitter’s Purpose

Here’s a glimpse into Jonathan Edwards’s expectation for technological advance. Technology will offer us more contemplative margin in our lives. It will also empower communion among the global church as one large fellowship.

This is from miscellany 262, published in Edwards’s works, 13:369:

‘Tis probable that this world shall be more like heaven in the millennium [JE was postmil] in this respect, that contemplative and spiritual employments, and those things that more directly concern the mind and religion, will be more the saints’ ordinary business than now.

There will be so many contrivances and inventions to facilitate and expedite their necessary secular business, that they shall have more time for more noble exercises, and that they will have better contrivances for assisting one another through the whole earth, by a more expedite and easy and safe communication between distant regions than now.

The invention of the mariner’s compass is one thing by God discovered to the world for that end; and how exceedingly has that one thing enlarged and facilitated communication! And who can tell but that God will yet make it more perfect; so that there need not be such a tedious voyage in order to hear from the other hemisphere, and so the countries about the poles need no longer to lie hid to us, but the whole earth may be as one community, one body in Christ.

I love the idea of technology as things “by God discovered to the world.”

So what would Edwards say about Twitter? What would Edwards say about our technology and how it disburdens us for a life more consistent with the “undistracted life” of 1 Corinthians 7? How is his vision for global fellowship beginning to get realized through digital media? And what would Edwards say about the invasiveness and permutation of entertainment into every spare moment of our lives, which then squanders all the margin made techno-possible in the first place?

Do I Need My iPhone?

phone

Smartphones and data plans are expensive, so do I really need them? Or can I get by without?

Since learning that I’ve paddled my way out into an oceanic book project about the smartphone, several people have asked me variations of these questions over the last few months.

Truth be told, I’m not yet working on implications, but I have started a list of questions to ask.

So do I really need a smartphone?

  1. What does my smartphone cost me per year in the price of the device, insurance protection, covers and cases, and of course the monthly service? Is it worth it?
  2. Do I need mobile web access to fulfill my calling in vocation or ministry? Do I need mobile web access to legitimately serve others?
  3. Do you travel a lot? I think people who do travel extensively will ever need a smartphone for work and for navigating. Are there other ways to navigate?
  4. If you use your smartphone to hold your shopping e-coupons, how much money would you save without a smartphone data plan?
  5. Can my web access wait? Is my need for smartphone functionality replaceable with structured time at a laptop or desktop computer?
  6. Can I get along with a dumbphone with calling and texting features?
  7. Can I get along with wifi and an iPod or tablet? What would I lose?
  8. Can I just as easily listen to audio and podcasts in other ways? Through an iPod for example.
  9. Am I simply addicted to my phone? If so, can the problem be solved with moderation, or do I need to just cut it off?
  10. Do I want my kids to see me gazing at a handheld screen so much as they grow up?

If you answer yes, and the smartphone is a necessity in your life, then think about certain ways that you limit your time. Have you considered:

  1. Turning off all non-essential push notifications.
  2. Getting accountability from others.
  3. Telling your kids and spouse and friends to watch how your phone prohibits life and interactions.
  4. Asking for feedback based on what they see you posting online.
  5. And consider deleting your most time wasting apps (social media, games, etc).

But the surface has only been scratched. We all use our phones in different ways and I presume there are many more questions to be asked. Here’s where I need your help (and everyone asking these questions needs your help).

Tell us in the comments:

(A) What questions you would add to this list about whether or not to ditch the smartphone?

(B) What other scenarios in life would make a smartphone and data plan essential?

(C) For those who do legitimately need a smartphone, what other safeguards would you suggest or have found to be helpful?

Thanks for your input!

Tony

Technological Wonderers and Wanderers

As time passes, the phrase “technological wonder” becomes a stale cliché. Eventually, our technological wonders no longer win over our admiration. So wrote G. K. Chesterton in his essay, “About the Telephone.” Thus, he asks, what really is the aim of our technological advances, if we lose our awe?

Man is born for trouble as the electric sparks fly upward, or wherever the electric sparks may fly; it is even hinted, though perhaps mystically and indirectly, that a life of peace, perfect peace, would be one in which the telephone ceased from troubling and the subscribers were at rest. But the truth goes deeper than any incidental irritations that might arise from the mismanagement of the instrument; it implies some degree of indifference even in the management of it.

We are incessantly told, indeed, that the modern scientific appliances, even those like the telephone, which are now universally applied, are the miracles of man, and the marvels of science, and the wonders of the new world. But though the inventions are talked of in this way, they are not treated in this way.

Or, rather, if they are so talked of in theory, they are not so talked of in practice.

There has certainly been a rush of discovery, a rapid series of inventions; and, in one sense, the activity is marvelous and the rapidity might well look like magic. But it has been a rapidity in things going stale; a rush downhill to the flat and dreary world of the prosaic; a haste of marvelous things to lose their marvelous character; a deluge of wonders to destroy wonder. This may be the improvement of machinery, but it cannot possibly be the improvement of man.

And since it is not the improvement of man, it cannot possibly be progress. Man is the creature that progress professes to improve; it is not a race of wheels against wheels, or a wrestling match of engines against engines. Improvement implies all that is commonly called education; and education implies enlargement; and especially enlargement of the imagination. It implies exactly that imaginative intensity of appreciation which does not permit anything that might be vivid or significant to become trivial or vulgar. If we have vulgarized electricity on the earth, it is no answer to boast that, in a few years more, we can vulgarize the stars in the sky.

Tell me that the bustling business man is struck rigid in prayer at the mere sound of the telephone-bell, like the peasants of Millet at the Angelus; tell me that he bows in reverence as he approaches the shrine of the telephone-box; tell me even that he hails it with Pagan rather than with Christian ritual, that he gives his ear to the receiver as to an Oracle of Delphi, or thinks of the young lady on an office-stool at the Exchange [the operator] as of a priestess seated upon a tripod in a distant temple; tell me even that he has an ordinary poetical appreciation of the idea of that human voice coming across hills and valleys — as much appreciation as men had about the horn of Roland or the shout of Achilles — tell me that these scenes of adoration or agitation are common in the commercial office on the receipt of a telephone call, and then (upon the preliminary presumption that I believe a word you say), then indeed I will follow your bustling business man and your bold, scientific inventor to the conquest of new worlds and to the scaling of the stars.

For then I shall know that they really do find what they want and understand what they find; I shall know that they do add new experiences to our life and new powers and passions to our souls; that they are like men finding new languages, or new arts, or new schools of architecture. But all they can say, in the sort of passage I quoted, is that they can invent things which are generally commonplace conveniences, but very often commonplace inconveniences. And all that they can boast, in answer to any intelligent criticism, is that they may yet learn how to make the sun and moon and the everlasting heavens equally commonplace, and probably equally inconvenient.

Let it be noted that this is not, as is always loosely imagined, a reaction against material science; or a regret for mechanical invention; or a depreciation of telephones or telescopes or anything else. It is exactly the other way. I am not depreciating telephones; I am complaining that they are not appreciated. I am not attacking inventions; I am attacking indifference to inventions. I only remark that it is the same people who brag about them who are really indifferent to them. I am not objecting to the statement that the science of the modern world is wonderful; I am only objecting to the modern world because it does not wonder at it.