ReelThoughts: November 21, 2010

"e-life"

Commentary by James Berardinelli


Recently, circumstances caused me to muse how much the advances in technology have impacted every aspect of my life over the course of the last three decades. When you think about it, it's amazing how things have changed, and all in the most subtle and gradual ways. Technology can be like that. Sometimes, it literally explodes like an atom bomb. Other times, it advances with the inexorable pace of an inchworm. I think I'd like being a kid today more than I did in the '70s. The environment out there is more geek-friendly. There are toys I would have salivated over. And the video games on offer beat the hell out of Pong, Breakout, and Space Invaders. Even the games on my iPhone trump those games (although, to be fair, one of the games on my iPhone is from that trio).

For me, the biggest device to arrive in stores during the past 30+ years has been the VCR (R.I.P.). Its consumer life span lasted about twenty years (early '80s through early '00s), or 25 if you really stretch it. I first heard about it when I was nine or ten years old (that would have been 1977) but, at that time, it was too expensive to be widely available for residential use. '70s VCRs were typically found in businesses and schools, and Beta was the preferred format. What they offered struck me as futuristic - the ability to make a copy of both the video and audio of any TV program and play it back at will. Plus, movies were becoming commercially available. Ultimately, that's what caused a seismic shift in Hollywood that re-configured the industry into what it is today.

Confession time. I was a pirate long before anyone used that word for someone other than a villain who roamed the high seas. Back around 1980, if you loved a movie, your choices for enjoying it were limited. Once it finished its theatrical run, it landed in a strange purgatory of neglect, where the film canisters sat around and gathered dust. Popular titles, such as the Disney animated classics, were periodically re-released. Star Wars came out three summers in a row - 1977, 1978, and 1979. A successful film might show up on a pay movie channel (HBO, for example) a year after its theatrical release, then make it to network TV another year or two later. Network TV premieres of big movies were special events. When Dino De Laurentiis' King Kong came to NBC in September 1978, it was aired over two nights and included many deleted scenes. The inclusion of deleted scenes was a common practice for TV showings of movies, especially when they were spread over multiple evenings. Some TV edits, like the one for Superman have become almost mythical for the lost material presented. Others, like the one for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, have since become the "standard" version.

At any rate, once a movie left theaters, opportunities to revisit it were slim, especially for someone who didn't have HBO. The film might show twice on a network over a five-year period before being consigned to late-late showings on UHF channels. True fans had to make do with soundtrack albums, novelizations, comic book adaptations, and (in rare cases) photonovels. Sometimes, there were 8mm "shorts" - five to ten minutes of highlights and clips from a movie, often without sound. The downside of these was that, in order to watch them, you had to own a home movie projector and, worse, you had to lug it out of the closet and set it up. What a drag! For me, none of this was quite enough, so that led to my becoming a pirate.

Piracy in the late 1970s and early 1980s was a different animal than what it is today. It was a matter of capturing a copy of the soundtrack - no video was involved. I snuck a standard cassette recorder and a bunch of 90-minute tapes with me into the theater. The term "snuck" is misleading since no one on the theater staff cared and, as a result, no sleight of hand was needed. Although I was unaware of it at the time, making an audio recording of a movie is technically illegal (copyright infringement) - just as illegal as making a camcorder copy - but it wasn't a big deal. No one in the movie industry considered a crappy, fan-made cassette tape to be a revenue threat. The ushers who saw the tape recorder smirked and snickered that anyone could be so obsessive, but no one ever told me to put it away or turn it off.

As best I can recall, I made a total of eight movie soundtrack tapes: Star Wars, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, The Empire Strikes Back, Conan the Barbarian, The Wrath of Khan, Return of the Jedi, The Search for Spock, The Voyage Home. Each endeavor required two trips. The first time, I would let the tapes run to the end, then flip them over or change them. This involved two interruptions per movie (at the 45-minute and 90-minute marks). The second time, I'd prematurely flip the first tape at the 40 minute mark, giving me interruptions at 40 minutes, 80 minutes and, for a long movie, 125 minutes. Combining the two recording sessions, I'd have a complete copy of the soundtrack, which I could assemble into a "master tape" via dubbing. Of course, there was nothing I could do about crowd noise. I typically made two copies of each soundtrack - one for me and one for a friend. I would listen to them incessantly. I saw The Wrath of Khan about a dozen times in theaters but probably listened to the soundtrack 100 times or more. It's no wonder I still have almost all of the dialogue memorized.

I also audio recorded TV shows, and amassed a vast library of titles. At one point, I had every episode of Star Trek recorded, alongside all available Doctor Who episodes and a bunch of other things. There was a time, probably in 1980 or 1981, when I was consuming six 45-minute cassettes per week and had a collection of close to 1000. Those tapes have long since degraded and been thrown out, but I poured a lot of money into them. The strange thing is, aside from the movies, I almost never listened to them. Having the tapes was enough.

The advent of the VCR changed everything. Audio became obsolete. The first TV show I recorded on a VHS cassette was the Doctor Who story, "Planet of Spiders." I was amazed. I began recording video with the same zeal I had applied to audio and almost immediately went out and bought a few select pre-recorded movies. Of course, the VCR eventually gave way to the DVD player (and now to the Blu-Ray player), but the ability to own complete copies of movies at home is what revolutionized the movie industry. Instead of destroying profits, as was initially feared, it created a secondary market. People did not stop going to movies. As business at rental stores boomed in the '80s, single-screen theaters expanded into multiplexes. The VCR revitalized the theatrical market. The concept of the "lost movie" vanished. As more and more titles became available, viewers discovered films they had not seen in years or decades. Laserdiscs, DVDs, and dueling hi-def formats brought greater quality to the home viewing experience, but it was the videotape that paved the way.

For most of the time when I was growing up, our family TV was a 27" color console set. There were two other TVs in the house - an 18" color model in my parents' bedroom and a 12" black-and-white one in the kitchen (so my mother could watch TV while cooking). In the evening, if I wanted to watch the same program as my parents, I could see it on the 27" set. Otherwise, I had to move to one of the other rooms. I got to watch most of my monster movies in 27" glory because they were on Saturday afternoons when no one else was interested in watching TV. (My father frequently told me, "Stop watching TV and go outside," but never enforced that edict by turning off the set.)

The TV industry kept pace with the home video market. When VHS was cutting-edge, the need for a large screen was minimal. In fact, given the quality limitations of the video tape, movies often looked sharper on smaller sets. The advent of laserdiscs and especially DVDs made larger screens desirable. Initial big, widescreen sets were often heavy and bulky. From 2000 until 2007, I had a 65" monster that was 2 feet deep and weighed 600 pounds. I got a lot of use out of it but left it behind when I moved. My current stable of TVs includes a 52" LCD, a 42" LCD, and a 32" LCD. All are 1080p. My "tiny" bedroom TV is bigger and has a substantially better picture than the living room set of my youth.

Another arena in which there have been major changes is telephony. In the 1970s, my family had a single line with three phones - two rotaries and one push-button. When my sisters got a line of their own, it seemed a remarkable thing. As a child, I never had a phone (or a TV) in my bedroom. Didn't want or need one. In my first year of college, I didn't have a phone in my room (nor was the dorm equipped with a hall unit, as was typical during those years). When I wanted to make a call (which wasn't often), I had to exit the building and go to a phone booth on Locust St. Most of my calls were collect because the machine ate quarters at an alarming rate. In the 1990s, the cell phone provided an added element of freedom and security to phone usage. Now, it was possible to reach someone on a trip without having to worry about pay phones or hotel usage charges. And it was nice to have the phone when driving back and forth to Philadelphia for movie screenings - in case of a breakdown or flat tire, I wouldn't have to sit on the side of the Interstate and wait for a police car. Still, phones were just phones, whether land lines or portable.

The last half-decade has seen the consolidation of computers and phones. Most people now have far more computing power in the palm of their hands than existed in a mainframe 30 years ago. My first "real" PC (not counting a TI 99 4/A), an IBM XT clone, had specs that today would make even a novice user laugh. The hard drive capacity, for example, was 10 MB. The RAM was 128kB. The processor ran at 4 MHz (although there was a "turbo" mode that boosted the speed). The monitor was monochrome. I used the computer for word processing and a few simple games. At the time, it provided astounding power and capabilities. Today, the iPhone outstrips it in every conceivable way. They're not even in the same league. There are drawbacks to miniaturization, which is why the similar-yet-larger iPad is such a hot seller. That device provides the functionality of an iPhone with a comfortably larger screen. (No voice or camera capabilities, however.)

The electronic age has revolutionized nearly every area of life - not just how we watch movies and TV and what we call phones and computers. Everything is different. Cars are no longer mere electromechanical machines - they are run by computers. People still read books, but many do so on e-readers rather than in hardcover or paperback form. In the music industry, 8-tracks, albums, and cassettes are obsolete, and the CD is headed down the same path. Now, it's all about downloadable tunes at $1 a pop. Instant gratification. If I want a song, I can have it in under a minute. And I play the music on my computer, not on a record player or via a stand-alone CD player. Appliances have changed as well. Many of them are electronically controlled. Even lights are different, with incandescent bulbs increasingly being replaced by CFL equivalents.

There's a dark side to this, however, and I would be remiss not to at least touch upon it. Some would argue that our reliance on computers and electronics has become an overreliance. Y2K was an example of crying wolf, but there are legitimate reasons for concern as we become increasingly plugged in. As recently as 15 years ago, things like banking, the power grid, and many other basic aspects of living in the 20th century existed in relative security. Using the Internet to integrate them has resulted in greater efficiencies but has also created vulnerabilities where none existed. In 1995, an attack on the Internet would have had mild consequences - some minor disruptions and a lot of inconvenience. Today, it could be disastrous, plunging countries into darkness, wiping out people's savings, and wreaking havoc on every aspect of life.

We can't go back to where we were. In moving forward, we have eschewed past-looking redundancies. That's the cheap way to do it but not necessarily the smart way. It's the same reason why we can't go to the Moon in 2010 when we were able to do it in 1969. If the Internet was "turned off" today, things wouldn't go back to where they were in the mid-'80s. They would go back to where they were in the pre-electric era. Admittedly, a complete failure of the Internet is unlikely, but there are scenarios in which it could happen. Never before has mankind been so tethered to technology.

Projecting where we might be in 20, 30, or 50 years is a pointless (albeit fun) exercise. We're not where people guessed we would be when they made projections in 1960, 1980, or 1990. There are, as yet, no flying cars or vehicles that drive themselves. Solar power and windmills have not universally replaced fossil fuels. We are not readying rocket ships to explore the outer bounds of the Solar System. The 40-hour workweek has not become a thing of the past. (In the 1960s, many were predicting that weekends would become three days.) Technology has advanced but not always in expected ways.

When I finish writing this, I will go outside and rake leaves. That's one of the few "old school" things I will do today. It involves nothing more than a rake and a receptacle into which to put the leaves. Nothing about the process has changed since I did it at age 10. After that, I'll browse the Internet, watch a football game on my 42" HDTV, read a book on my Kindle, check e-mail via my iPhone, and play music for my son on my computer while he rolls around on his low-tech activity mat. Given time, I may watch a movie tonight on my Blu-Ray player.

30 years ago, I could have never imagined the life I'm living now. If I'm still around in 2040, no doubt I will look back on today with the same sense of wonder about how things have advanced. Seen "in the moment," technology often seems static, with advances being slow and incremental. But viewed froma wider perspective, the leaps forward are vast. Gazing through the mists of time to today, an 18th century citizen would believe we have harnessed magic. Now we must hope that, as we refine our spells, none of them backfire.


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