Persistence of vision
by Rob Cowan
I went to film school too many years ago to discuss. At the end of each year they would screen the films made by the various classes in our large lecture hall. In my first year – excited to see all the completed films – I arrived just after they started screening – having entered many times through the large center doors, I realized they were locked (it would let light onto the screen) so I went to the less familiar side doors.
When first entering I realized the room was silent and completely black. Obviously between films. My eyes not adjusted yet, I stood still so I wouldn’t tumble embarrassingly down some unseen stairs. Then I heard a film starting – still couldn’t see a damn thing – I waited – my eyes not adjusting – waited some more – felt like 2 minutes – then thought I would risk the stairs – and took a step forward and walked right into a wall that I had been staring at just inches from my nose.
That was my first life metaphor in the film business. Not just a good personal metaphor – but one for the entire film industry as over its glorious history we’ve all had times of standing inches from an obstacle without knowing it – but after a few bumps we sidestep and move on.
Bringing me to…
A few months back it was sad to hear of the departure of movie critic Patrick Goldstein from the Los Angeles Times (a sign of the times). I was also saddened that he decided to write his last column about how he feels the film business keeps reaching for new lows in material.
He complained that recently all the top 25 grossing films are remakes or based on books and comics. In 1951 when television started to become a threat to the film industry the top grossing films were movies such as “Quo Vadis”, “Streetcar Named Desire” and “Show Boat” – all based on popular books and plays. In 1943 at the height of the Second World War, among the top grossing films were “For Whom The Bell Tolls” and “The Song of Bernadette” – again two very popular books of the time. In 1921 at the birth of the industry the top films were “Four Horseman of the Apocalypse”, “Three Musketeers” and “Little Lord Fauntleroy”. Again, adaptations… you get the point.
The dreaded branding or adapting is not something new to the industry. (Hell “Hamlet” is based on what was a well known Norse legend and Shakespeare did many sequels in his King Henry series – even breaking up Henry VI into three parts just as “The Hobbit” has just done – and “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” before that.)
I feel the industry is certainly in the midst of tough times – not because of its choice of materials but because of a struggling world economy and a rapidly changing digital world. But just as Hollywood has weathered the storms of World Wars, depressions (advent of sound?) and even television – we’ll weather this – altering and changing to fit a new landscape – but improving every step of the way.
Not only is the digital world challenging the industry for “eyeballs” – it is improving and allowing the industry to reach greater heights. Creatively filmmakers are giving us increasingly awe inspiring images – from Cameron’s flying Banshees to Chris Nolan’s folding cities in “Inception”. In a social digital world we have new and innovative ways to reach out to our audiences – even digital cinema delivery will allow audiences greater access to films throughout the year. (Think what a film like “Winter’s Bone” could have done if it could have played in every theater across the country for a fraction of the cost of distributing film.)
With huge leaps and advances in digital cameras we not only have a stunning look at 3D, increased resolution and control in 35mm equivalent digital cameras – but cameras so small and inexpensive that produce feature film quality images that any aspiring filmmaker can make that passion story that could become the latest box office hit. Just as more portable cameras allowed such early gritty street films to be made like Kazan’s “Panic in the Streets” or the more avant garde generation inspiring “Easy Rider”– so too will we see unique voices rising to the top.
No other time in the history of film has there been such great opportunity – for large budgeted films to create the impossible – and young filmmakers working on a borrowed dime to produce original and challenging material. Over the past few years the top films critically and at the box office have included a silent film that won an Academy award – the top grossing film of 2011 being the end of the fantastic “Toy Story” trilogy (remember Shakespeare’s trifecta), a mind bending FX film from Chris Nolan (who by the way took the dreaded comic book world and turned it into high art), a pitch perfect story about the Facebook founder, a fascinating true tale of a King with a stutter, an Academy Award nominated film about an impoverished girl living in the bayou and a haunting franchise shot on a dime store camera in Oren Peli’s own condo.
We are hardly hitting a new low in the history of film. Is every film a gem – no – will the studios at times pander to the audiences to make money – of course – it’s a business. But a business like no other – one with millions of dollars at stake every day – playing high stakes poker and betting on the fickle attentions of audiences worldwide.
So moving forward – someone blindly gave me an opportunity to write.
I’ve always loved the term “Persistence of Vision” – it’s an easy double entendre suggesting a staying power of thoughts and ideas and foresight – and the widely believed film concept that the way we perceive 24 frames of film speeding through a projector as “moving pictures” is by this same ocular phenomena. I even love the acronym that it becomes – POV. Now it can be transferred to Point of View – what our business/art are driven on – having a point of view – we wouldn’t survive without it in our stories and scripts and films.
So this journal wants to use this three pronged POV to have a point of view of our film world – its visions and visionaries past, present and future – and to explore its sidestepping of obstacles – a dogged persistence and ability to project continuous motion to us all – creating films that move people, inspire, challenge and best of all entertain.