The Church of the Masses

I have come a long way now.  People really don't know the story anymore.  With a group of twenty-somethings not long ago, I threw out an introductory comment, "Well, you all know the covenant with Abraham..."  They just looked at me.  I said, "You know, the sacrifice of Abraham..."  This was a group of twenty-somethings did not know what I was talking about.

It's amazing how the stories can be lost in one generation.  But I think they have been.  So we have an obligation to make sure that the stories of salvation history are handed on.  And the screen is the preferred method of receiving stories among the people of our time.  So somebody had better be telling our stories so they are not lost.

But I was more interested in telling a kind of story that would leave a lot of work to the viewer, so the reader would be prodded into thinking about uncomfortable realities.  I guess you would say a more prophetic kind of storytelling is what I am interested in.  I'm always reminded of Plato, when he speaks of man as a thoroughbred who needs a stinging fly to get him galloping across the field, so that he can realize he is a thoroughbred.

The technology of storytelling is changing, as we see with Avatar.  How do you perceive the potential positives and negatives that might come out of increasing our ability to immerse the audience in imaginary worlds?

Virginia Woolf said that you could never have a pure cinema criticism, because it's an art form tied to technology, where the technology is always outstripping the artistic achievements of the artists using it.  It's an interesting suggestion.  It's almost impossible to compare fairly John Ford with Steven Spielberg, because Spielberg has an entirely different palette available to him.

And now we see with this new "depth" aspect, which is really the hallmark of the new 3D.  The old 3D was about things popping out at you in an artificial way.  The new 3D is about the screen going backward, so that you feel like there is a whole wide world deeper than the screen. 

What does it mean for storytelling?  I'm not really sure.  For Avatar, it meant that everyone had to see that movie because it was new and it was working.  There have always been gimmicks tried in cinema, through the years.  But this one, immediately everyone knew that this was not merely a gimmick.  So it did that amazing thing that everybody wants, where it became the thing that everyone had to see. 

As far as what this new technology will mean, maybe I'll be able to tell you after Alice in Wonderland opens.  This movie, which features Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, is also done in 3D.  We'll see if people start demanding that every movie be done this way, because we love it -- or if it was just a fluky experiment.

I happen to be a big fan of the new 3D technology.  Avatar is a one-dimensional story told beautifully in three dimensions.  The script was lame, the characterizations were cliché and stereotypical.  Having said that, there were many moments when I grinned at the screen because it was so lovely to look at.  That's a part of movies, and the arts, period.  A part of their job is to make people go, "That's lovely."  Avatar did that.  The question is whether people will grow weary of it.  Will they say, "I've seen eight hundred incredibly astoundingly beautiful images, and now I'm done."  Right now, at least for the next decade, I think people will want to go see it. 

From an ethical standpoint, filmmakers should consider: Are we so beautifully creating an artificial world that young people will prefer it to the real world? 

That's not something to be laughed away and lightly dismissed.  I asked my undergraduate students last semester what would be a perfect day for them.  One raised his hand and said, "I would have a stack of pizzas, I would spend the whole day playing computer games and everyone would leave me alone."  The other guys nodded their heads.  That was the sentiment almost universally among the young men in the class. 

That's important, and it's interesting.  When I look at my 8-year-old nephew watching Avatar, is the impact on him going to be "This is not like any world out there that I can see with my eyes, but I like it better"?  I don't know.  I don't know. 

You have a quotation standing above your blog, from a 1930s film critic, that says: "Theaters are the new Church of the Masses -- where people sit huddled in the dark listening to people in the light tell them what it is to be human."  What does that quotation mean to you?

3/2/2010 5:00:00 AM
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