Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Medium is, Again, the Message

Courtesy of

It’s becoming clear to me that with movies these days, to borrow a 20th Century chestnut, the medium is the message.

I stress to my students that in cinematic storytelling, the formal elements (shot, editing, sound and production design) are in the service of constructing character, conveying mood, creating space, manipulating time, and/or articulating theme.

When I was a film student, I was mesmerized by the zoom lens, and my first few films could have made one nauseated from the constant in-out camera movement. Worse, it served no purpose; I was just enamoured of the technology.

As it turns out, I’m not really a visual special effects guy. Not that good SFX don’t often contribute to a movie’s entertainment value; my problem is that too often they obscure what is only a mediocre story with underdeveloped characters just because the technology is there.

So to me, Avatar and the most recent King Kong were visually pleasing and thematically interesting. Just ... boring. When special effects are the movie, I’m underwhelmed.

Which is why I surprised myself by liking Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. And I know why I liked it: the medium—the special effects—was the message. But in this case the message was not that technology is nifty but rather it reflects how a generation exists in its world, reflecting its natural integration of information and entertainment both into their lives as well as an expression of their lives.

I see it in practice every day. As I log-on to our family computer, my teenage daughters have been using simultaneously several Word documents, Facebook (logged out, of course), Skype (no one available at the moment), two web sites, iTunes, Hulu and G-mail (also logged out).  

For 15 minutes this summer, my traveling family all reached back to me at once: a daughter in Michigan was speaking to me on the phone (so 20th Century), another in Spain was IM’g me on Facebook, another at summer camp was texting me, and my wife was e-mailing. For 15 minutes this summer, my entire universe existed on the screen of my iPhone. To me—now pressing the upper boundaries of middle-age—it was an astounding moment.

It reminded me of a feature film I saw at this year’s Maryland Film Festival: Os and 1s (Eugene Kotlyarenko), described in the film guide as “a comic and relentlessly energetic story of the search for a lost computer, told on a laptop screen that explodes with chat sessions, virus warnings, and live-video feeds.” As was the case with my family’s communication, the story wasn’t what was so interesting as much as how I was getting the stories.

In both Scott Pilgrim and Os and 1s, characters are thin, plots are thinner, but the medium, through special effects, is clearly the message. And I was thoroughly entertained, which surprised me.

And isn’t that what we hope a movie will do?

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