Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Keyholed: Notes on C.S. Tashiro's "Videophilia"


"I am here to destroy classical cinema."

On page 353, buried in the bulk of the 1999 anniversary anthology Film Quarterly: Forty Years - A Selection, sits Charles Shiro Tashiro's essay "Videophilia; What Happens When You Wait for It on Video", nestled into a subsection devoted to articles on "Technologies." The Film Quarterly book itself is best picked through at whim, a big cinderblock-sized carton of gems and pits; Tashiro's piece is a bit of both. I turn my frustrations on this 16-year-old article because it is always instructive to see how technology is written about in its own era; which Prophets of Doom or Deliverance must have shuffled off whistling in embarrassment, and which problems remain with us.

"Videophilia" is an exegesis on the inherent limitations of home video circa 1991 (when the piece was published), the ideological devilry at play in the medium and a lament on the changing relationship between viewer and film text. There are innumerable places one could turn for explanation of the sound and image reproduction limitations of video, the loss of resolution and presence of projected film on home monitors, and the more artistically-inclined lament that the viewer's engulfment in the massive sails of the cinema screen are an intrinsic part of the movie watching voyage. However, "Videophilia" is alternately sweet, shrill and confused for several other assumptions Tashiro makes. The medium under examination is mostly laserdiscs, and, annoyingly, Tashiro insists on calling them "videodiscs" throughout (and continues to do so?), though in common parlance "videodisc" can refer to anything from laserdiscs to the stylus-read CED SelectVision headaches to VHD. Surely I'm being grumpy or nitpicking here, but it was 1991, and Tashiro was a disc producer for Voyager/Criterion. Many of the complaints about the physical realities of laserdisc viewing are, of course, now resolved by DVD. Tashiro is particularly perturbed by side-breaks, and blows a gasket over a break in the middle of a dissolve in Lawrence of Arabia (a disc he produced!): "It can be ignored, but it cannot be overcome. The jolt created by the side breaks becomes an integral part of the text." Point well taken. Such gripes look quaint in retrospect, but I suppose if no one makes them, they are never resolved.

Speaking of resolution, a goodly portion of "Videophilia" is given over to breaking down what happens to a film's sound and image when it becomes video. Tashiro neatly outlines the exact image components that are degraded / must be balanced by a video transfer. He is so suspicious of the word "transfer" that he proposes "translation" is a more forthright term. Again, a number of his concerns have been rectified or improved since 1991, but to illustrate issues with contrast, resolution and color, Tashiro invents a complicated movie scene about a baby chasing a butterfly as her parents break up in the background. To further complicate his example, he invents the term "videobility", defined as the "ease of translating a particular film to video", given its in-film image qualities. I have not had to supervise a film's transfer to video, but understand Tashiro's intention to demonstrate that someone somewhere has to make color balance, brightness and contrast choices during the transfer. However, the scene Tashiro fabricates is designed as impossible to properly "translate". No matter what adjustments his fictional equipment operator makes, he's screwed. It's a telecine jockey Kobayashi Maru. I've heard the intimate gory details of a lotta DVD transfers, but nothing as nightmarish as Tashiro's invented baby-scene videodisc translation. This is not to pooh-pooh questions of fidelity, both of image quality and to the filmmaker's vision, it just seems a gratuitous tactic, when the author could presumably have found anecdotal examples from his own career experience.

Ultimately, like much of the essay, with the confident vision of hindsight it is easy to discount much of the panic given of in this section of "Videophilia"; a brief trip to any internet DVD discussion forum demonstrates a major shift in the savvy of the home video audience. The problems of transfers and/or unsatisfactory DVD production choices are now the first questions on the lips of consumers, and the mark of a good video reviewer is attention to these qualities. Tashiro perhaps could not have predicted this upshift in public awareness, the change in videophile discourse largely the legacy of Video Watchdog magazine. Tashiro's fatal assumption is that consumers would accept the shortcomings of home video as a matter of course, and his lack of faith the ability of technology to substantially improve its resolution capabilities is simply shortsighted. Personally, I find this cynicism the most tiresome thing about "Videophilia".

The piece not only lacks hope and imagination that the future might improve (and people will stop buying laserdiscs), but Tashiro projects his own bizarre personal viewing habits and limitations onto an invisible public at large. For example, he's writing in a period when the merits of letterboxing a video are widely understood, at least by "Film Quarterly" readers. He approves of letterboxing in principal, but in practice "this interest has bred the fallacious notion that there is a singe 'correct' aspect ratio." His explanations of why this is a problem and how to fix it are mostly baffling. Asking the cinematographer or director is no good, for it "perpetuates the auteurist mystique while assuming that the filmmaker knows best how a film should be watched." The only time I'm aware of this causing trouble is those Kubrick discs that say "director approved!"

He complains, of course, that letterboxing cannot actually duplicate the effect of CinemaScope. This is true insofar as we're talking monitor-vs-screen-size, but Tashiro takes a different tack that I can only describe as "weird" or "dumb": the problem is the presence of black bars taking up chunks of the visual field, enclosing the 'Scope frame. Tashiro insists, cause a viewer to wonder "what is behind those black bars?" as they remind a viewer that film is the dominant, superior medium. Perhaps I'm just used to it, but after my first letterbox viewing, I ceased to perceive the "bars" as part of the image field: I'm looking at the illuminated rectangle floating in a black sea. In effect, there are no bars, any more than I am confused or irritated by the curtains on either side of the movie palace screen. This, too, will be a moot point once we can all afford proper widescreen televisions... or will it!!! Tashiro has the foresight to kinda-sorta imagine that "even if an HDTV standard is introduced that produces a ratio wide enough to accommodate Panavision and CinemaScope, there will still be a need for vertical masking of films (and videos?) shot in the 1.33 ratio." Again, true; again, unless you're a dog or something and don't understand what you're supposed to be looking at when you see a TV, this hasn't proven a problem. Having had this great and terrifying vision of black bars violating the sides of old movies and "Andy Griffith Show"s, Tashiro adds "May I propose we call this vertical matting 'keyholing'?"

Sorry, buddy. We call it "windowboxing".

The above are mostly temporary complaints with an obsolete technology; it was not silly to voice much of this at the time (I particularly like hounding laserdisc over the side-breaks). Now's the silly part. Would that Tashiro had remained a videodisc producer; he oversaw some fine VDs, among them West Side Story and The Wizard of Oz. The altered relationship the viewer enjoys with a film text in the video medium is a worthy subject, but Tashiro mistakes his own experiences and prejudices for ideologies inherent to the medium. He couches it all in diffident language to indicate he is merely exposing the ideological assumptions of video viewing, but plainly finds them automatically at odds with and inferior to those of the theatrical viewing experience. His closing conclusion is that videodiscs engender "the destruction of classical cinema." Make of that what you will.

First, he complains of the lack of audio manipulation capabilities of consumer viewing devices: we cannot hear sped-up audio to accompany the fast-forward function, which he feels subjugates the role of sound, negates the sound-image relationship. The practical reality (besides that some DVD players now do provide fast-forward sound samples) is that, arguably few consumers use the fast-forward function to study anything about a film, instead using it to locate scenes of interest to replay at normal speed or simply pick up where they left off. Likewise, Tashiro's laments about chapter divisions. Some of the trends he has identified are no longer de rigeur -- he says "most discs are still produced without chapters" and that these chapters rarely correspond with logical scene divisions so badly that "there is no single pattern or rationale for their placement" -- though his finer point that the film has been ideologically aligned to evoke books or CDs in the chaptering process is well taken. However, Tashiro and those directors who do not cotton to the rupturing of a film's continual flow on disc (David Lynch refuses chaptering on discs over which he has control, and Roman Polanski disabled the search functions on Criterion's Knife in the Water) are bucking against the medium in vein, with a fundamental misreading of the purpose of chaptering and fast-forward. I have heard anecdotes that Lynch's first DVD production meeting included a producer demonstrating that with the miracle of chapter marks we can now "skip the boring parts" of the Wachowski brothers' Bound. Tashiro fears "Chapter stops run like a mine field under the linear development of classical narrative. Fans of a film no longer have to sit through the parts they don't like", without pausing to wonder if the fear plays out in practice. My experience is that it does not. Again, I only use chapter marks to hunt for frame grabs or to resume viewing a familiar film where I left off last night. The major exception is pornography, but our viewing relationships with that genre have always complicated spectatorial assumptions.

Tashiro imagines "How different an experience it would be to enter a movie theater and be able to skip the tedious parts or scramble the order of the reels... Isn't one of the consequences of the repeated viewings encouraged by home video boredom?" No, and no, to answer the rhetorical questions. As to scene-order scrambling, we might look to the Surrealist afternoon pass-time of wandering in and out of films-in-progress to invent new, mysterious and incoherent narratives, a practice which the moviegoer and videophile are welcome to continue, but which, er, they mostly do not. The first CDs to toy with the scramble/ repeat functions are The Residents' 1980 Commercial Album, which suggested listeners program each 30-second track to repeat three times to construct traditional pop songs, and They Might Be Giants' 1992 Apollo 18, which encouraged randomizing its 38 tracks into a sound collage. Even these avant-garde explorations of the medium are just that: rarified exceptions, not seminal reconfigurations of how we listen to music. The iPod Shuffle, mp3 revolution and related movements have simply moved a music audience back to the pop-single culture that predates a focus on albums, not really shattered forever all familiar modes of music experience. LD and DVD chaptering has not even caused a similar minor shift in feature film viewing or construction by artists. As long as anecdotal evidence is the order of the day, I'd hazard I most often chapter-skip to avoid watching TV show theme songs, which hardly disrupts the text, since they were designed to be disrupted by commercial-breaks in the first place. For network television shows, DVD creates a new and false (sometimes funny) unity in a text previously structured around programmed interruption.

The freeze-frame sends Tashiro on further flights of fancy, worth block-quoting:
Freeze frames turn a film into a sequence of stills or paintings. In so doing, they further destroy linear development. A single CAV side contains 54,000 frames. That's 54,000 possible points of fixation, alternative entries into an imagistic imaginary. The film's characters and story can be discarded in favor of new narratives inspired by the images. Just as photographs and paintings arrest our gaze and inspire us to invent, so too the frozen film image, isolated in time, loses its context and crates a new one.

With motion removed, the film image becomes subject to a different critical discourse. No longer is it enough to talk about an image getting us from point A to B (the narrative prejudice). Criticism of the image's frozen form, composition, lighting, color are invited. Individual images can be subjected to the standards of photography and painting. Of course, few film images can withstand such scrutiny, since most are composed in movement.

Freeze-frames can be criticized foolishly as if they are discreet compositions. Quick reality-check tells us they are not. Simply: nobody does this. There is no critical discourse to speak of which discards all narrative concerns and assumption of motion to subject freeze-frames to new, crazy video-centric coding. The practices closest to Tashrio's fabricated New Discourse of Videophilia are the comparative frame-grabs on DVD Beaver (intended only to evaluate video transfers), and the frame-stepping engaged in by animation scholars to isolate drawings for study within a moving composition. Similar to Tashiro's concerns are the obsessive trainspotting of, say, "The Simpsons" fans pointing out blink-or-you'll-miss-it gags, but these are embedded in the text with the authorial intent that they be discovered in just such a fashion, data packets accessible only with new tools but which expand the narrative, not shatter it.

Furthermore, all the hand-wringing is for naught, as all the alternative viewing modes Tashiro outlines already existed in a film audience, always shall, and arguably are positive signs of imaginative, savvy audiences who do not engage art in glaze-eyed torpor. He seems to envision a nation of videophiles slumped on the couch in front of frozen CAV frames, utterly ignoring the glories of classical narrative, lost in a fugue of their own unrelated Jedi adventures, spinning yarns of the other patrons of Rick's nightclub, or dinosaurs chasing Lawrence of Arabia. A videophile game of The Mysteries of Harris Burdick has not, to my knowledge, disrupted the normal tendency to watch a movie on video start to finish. Nevertheless, well before freeze-framing, viewers were familiar with encountering frozen, isolated images from movies: paintings on posters, promotional stills and lobby cards, and textbook frame enlargements, none of which duplicate a film's movement, all of which failed to render it "no longer... enough to talk about an image getting us from point A to B." If the real sinister trump card of freeze-framing is that an audience is encouraged to dream their own "new narratives inspired by the images," I can only shrug and suggest that is a function of all art, moving picture, imagistic, and otherwise. In a quite literal sense, fan fiction, song, and visual art depicting adventures inspired-by but not present in creator sanctioned texts existed long before freeze-frames... long before motion pictures. More to the heart of the matter, if we cannot imagine ourselves smooching Marlene Dietrich, or ponder if Lolita was ever happy in Alaska after the book ends, I'm not sure what art is for. No Pause button necessary. At any rate, an audience's creative, resistant relationship with a text is, in reception studies, equally regarded with optimism and admiration as Tashiro's distaste for the idea.

Similar to the above discussion of chapter-marking and audience’s uneducated acceptance of video transfers as accurate reproductions of the film experience, Tashiro seems concerned that Criterion’s audio commentary tracks, providing “voices outside the text” lead to an inability to freely engage the film. While the marriage of a director’s voice or film scholar’s history and analysis to the image itself is differently coded than a printed interview, article or book, the audio commentary phenomenon has thus far not stopped film critics and amateurs from discussing a film once it has been Officially Audio Commentaried. Audiences frequently resist commentaries with which they do not agree, and Tashiro’s whole tack seems at odds with his assumptions about the ability to manipulate a video text.

Speaking of bizarre assumptions: "Who, after becoming used to the flexibility of home video, has not wanted to fast-forward past bits of a boring or offensive theatrical film? Doesn't this desire suggest a transformation of the cinematic experience by home video?" Tashiro continues in that vein. The answers: me, and no. I may be an exception, but I've never fast-forwarded through a movie because I was bored or offended. I get bored and offended, like anyone. This is not a fundamental change in the film audience experience. I have also never walked out of a movie. I am aware, however, that audiences have, have always had, and will continue to have, the option of walking out of a theater. That one can turn off a video or fast-forward through it is the logical extension of that phenomenon. I could also stop reading Tashiro's essay, should I chose, but it does not suggest a transformation of the literary experience. What all this does suggest, is that Tashiro is projecting his short attention-span and itchy fast-forward finger onto the rest of the world. "Whether we like it or not, home video turns us all into critics... we're able to subject film texts to our whims" he continues, blind to his own ideological assumptions.

There are non-threatening realities being tortured into Tashiro's vague condemnation of home video.

Film texts are, and always have been, subject to our whims.

The subjecting of a text to whim, will, fancy or fantasy is not what makes one a critic.

Happiest of all, in a world gloriously flooded with art, and which allows open civilian discussion of our opinions, we are all already critics.

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