Say What?

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on audiovisual and literary translation, subtitling, and the French & American film industries

VR: The New Talkies

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Like some indestructible colossus, structured narrative has triumphed over all other storytelling vehicles and methods as never before.  The real heart of stories—themes, ideas, emotions, imagery— its genuine “content,” has been jackbooted into submissive obscurity by an over-glorification of the predictability, safety, and feats of its engineering.  After the world recovered from the last global conflict, bold, adventurous filmmakers, many of who acquired their chops during the conflict, rigorously and unrelentingly pushed their medium’s inherent bounds and limitations  As “story”‘s  gospel seems to wane, an upstart medium is literally waiting in the wings.

Though its tech is nascent, VR seems destined to become the 21st century artform bar none.  Content’s resurgence and reaction against form’s constrictions seems to be inevitable.  The smackdown between artificial frames—produced by expert professionals—and experience—produced with seeming novices/laypersons—began at the turn of the last century, as reality TV sounded the death knell of scripted content.  The latter clearly rebounded, but among the wonders of any new artform is its parentage.  VR’s promise—and perils—explode rectangular confines to plunge participants, no longer passive “viewers,” headlong into experience itself, that literally messes with their heads.  Makers’ powers are exponentially greater and more dangerous.  The option of looking away or shielding one’s eyes is impossible.

What’s more is the remarkableness of VR’s déjà vu factorStereoscopes and kinetoscopes were once solitary and somewhat klunky, yet nevertheless popular solo pastimes. Shortly before the first talkie appeared, film executives balked at sound’s inevitability and the value of adjusting their infrastructure to accommodate it.  Once talkies broke though, silents were almost immediately consigned to history’s archives, to be glimpsed fleetingly by enthusiasts and historians alone.

VR is currently at a juncture similar to those nascent sound films, with little if any headway within or saturation among either the general public or the audiovisual industry itself.  But concurrently, the cinema seems bound for that same fate as the small frame has mostly trounced the large one.  The current standoff between the two hinges almost entirely on the debt-fueled frenzy of the so-called “content providers” to outproduce one another.  When, not if, that house of cards collapses, anything goes and the future will be up for grabs . . .

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Is Online Killing Movies?

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. . . Those who read own the world, and those who watch television lose it.
— Werner Herzog

From all appearances, the opposite of the above seems to have come to pass.  What was once “programming,” now morphed into “content,” has rapaciously proliferated like whatever your preferred metaphor might be.  Now I readily admit, as “A Writer who Translates,” that I’ve immersed myself in “must-see TV” stories that submerged its audiences into fantasies or history to brilliantly illuminate the present.

But on some level, whether it’s a pendulum swing or some type of karmatic comeuppance, a shift is underway.  So-called “content’s” accumulation via multiple “platforms” etc. seems to have reached a breaking point. Did we actually ask for all of this . . . information/story worship/making?

In olden times, i.e. pre-2007, there was some separation of media artistic appraisal/criticism and business analysis on all things audiovisual. Now, the critical pile on of praise and worshipful adoration is contextualized by what exactly?  That, save for narrative features reduced to two genres and precious few exceptions, there’s absolutely nothing else out there?  The past, i.e., a prior half century of utter TV dreck in terms of “content” antecedents, and a century of cinema?

The cheerleading justifies “more,” but of what exactly?  The absolutist publisher/”content provider,” instead of curating or nurturing individual voices, has created a self-mirroring kingdom where the business model is all, and the actual story or project is a trivial, detailed afterthought.  This devout, holy cynicism, in which “creatives” fully participate, pollutes the entire landscape, snuffing out and stifling actual trailblazing and risk-taking.

How much more can we take without cultural indigestion or worse? Like some ridiculous sedative, we have become anesthetized by stories where the ultimate goal is simply to get lost. Are we hastening our extinction by bending our heads in prayer like to our screens, ignoring not only the manifold and manifest problems around us but one another? There’s no hint of catharsis, much less a desire to be more awake or alive afterwards. Instead, we’re venturing further off trail from our own lives and any semblance of bonding or deeper connection with those around us and those far beyond.  Of course, there’s endless virtual “watercooler” activity, but whose existence merely perpetrates the content-saturated ecosystem itself.

In all of this submergence, we’re fast losing something critical: the cinema. Almost undetectably, while we were asleep in front of our devices, the business of movies has disappeared. And possibly the most frightening thing about online’s algae-like monopolization is its dominion and domination over all dramatic forms.

So what if or when the dam bursts, and the theaters simply are gone, how will we come together for entertainment?  Never before, to my knowledge as someone with a theatre background, has humanity shirked collective aesthetic gatherings. What’s ultimately at stake is the one mass cultural enterprise where everyone comes together—the masses, the elite, and everyone in between.

Like any bubble or “sure thing,” push eventually comes to shove, and “reality,” in this case something more measured, retrospective, or completely different, asserts its dominion. But what exactly that will look, sound, and feel like is anyone’s guess  . . .

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