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The big world of the small screen

March 26, 2006|Thomas de Zengotita | THOMAS DE ZENGOTITA, a contributing editor at Harper's Magazine, is the author of "Mediated."

THE REAL STORY coming out of the 2006 Academy Awards wasn't gay cowboys, proudly out-of-touch celebrities, message movies or even sagging ratings. Did you notice how presenters were defending the "big-screen experience" itself -- that is, the very idea of a movie?

Jake Gyllenhaal's little pitch was perhaps the most obviously scripted. Introducing a sequence of clips drawn from "epic" movies of yore, he concluded with, "You can't properly watch these on a television set, and good luck trying to enjoy them on a portable DVD." He couldn't control himself after reciting that one, but his embarrassed little laugh was met with sympathetic chuckles from an understanding audience.

OK, the decision to parade the industry's vulnerability in that way was clumsy -- but its vulnerability is real. The movie business is threatened not so much by red-state reactionaries as by the proliferation of consumer-controlled venues -- a development symbolized by the small screen, with all its connotations of privacy and autonomy.

The substance of the threat is most evident in the special intensity you see on the face of a stranger in a public place leaning over her small screen, utterly absorbed, scrolling smoothly through her options or watching the latest homemade video clip she's downloaded from the Internet onto the smallest and most potent of all small screens -- the one on her cellphone. That's the screen that lets her take pictures as well as view them. Hence the glow of intimate connection on her face. This one's all for her.

She's a virtual revolutionary, and that small screen is her most potent resource.

It's still about the means of production, you see -- but in the overdeveloped world, at least, it's not about the production of goods and services anymore. Today's virtual revolutionary is happy to leave all that to capitalists. The virtual revolutionary wants to control the production of meaning -- representations of herself and her world as she wants them to seem. Or be. Or whatever.

That's all she asks.

Or, rather, takes.

The aesthetic of traditional movie lovers, the conviction that nothing can compare with the experience of a hushed audience, united in darkness and immersed in the same deluge of motion and sound on a scale justifying comparison with primordial mythologies -- that whole aesthetic is grounded in an age now passing. The Age of Broadcast. The Age of Stars. The Age of Mass. That's what the "big-screen experience" really stands for. Mass-mediated monoculture.

But it's over.

Or, more precisely, mostly over. There will still be room, in the age of individual control in virtual environments, for the occasional big-screen experience -- an occasional "Lord of the Rings," an occasional Death of Di or Lewinskygate. That's because, in the new age, there will be room for everything.

Which explains the special-effects-comic-book genre that emerged as the age of the big-screen experience began to decline. From early "Star Wars" to the X-Men franchise, the lesson was this: The mass might still be preserved on the level of sheer sensation, on the one hand, and childlike simplicity of character and plot, on the other. The combination of these two dimensions might do the trick, at least for a while. World-weary intellectuals, kidz from the hip-hop nation and families who pray together around the dinner table -- they all might come out to the movie theater and root for good old Spidey once again.

On a historical scale, then, the original fear of the small screen that swept Hollywood in the 1950s may not have been misguided as much as premature. It took a few decades for the technology to catch up with the implication of the small screen -- that is, to provide individuals with personalized venues that the original TV screen only promised. It wasn't until the platforms allowed not merely consumption of content but production of content that the big-screen experience finally met its match.

That's because the big-screen experience was always about more than the experience itself. It was powerful, but not as powerful as its social setting. The few people who made movies were, in effect, running one of a very few attention monopolies. Those monopolies defined the terms everyone lived by. There was no way to exist publicly other than through those venues. If you're going to be known, you had to be on one of the networks or in Time or Life magazine -- or in the movies. The anonymous mass of spectators had to live derived lives, imitative lives, if they were to exist publicly at all.

No more. The virtual revolutionaries have this to say to whoever imposed that squirmy moment on poor Gyllenhaal: The screens may be small, pal, but they're ours.

That's an experience that's going to be hard to beat.

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