HeldenFiles: When is entertainment technology too much?

By Rich Heldenfels
Beacon Journal popular culture writer

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Sandra Bullock as Ryan Stone in Gravity. (Warner Bros. Pictures)

Technological advances in movies and television have led to some dazzling experiences for some audiences — and nightmares for others.

Take Gravity, the blockbuster danger-in-space film starring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock. One of its selling points has been its fabulous use of 3-D, and its box-office returns — more than $200 million so far — were overwhelmingly from showings in the premium-priced format and the even fancier, and higher-priced, IMAX 3-D version. In fact, more than one movie analyst believed that Gravity may have saved 3-D.

Earlier in the summer, Gary Susman wrote in Rolling Stone, “audiences routinely ignored 3-D screenings if 2-D screenings were available. ... Industry observers were wondering: had the 3-D fad run its course?”

Then Gravity came along and said there was life in the form, And I think it’s the rare 3-D movie worth the extra ticket price, But, for some audiences, it has problems, and not just because a movie ticket is more than expensive enough before you add on the 3-D price.

If you wear glasses, as I do, then a 3-D movie can consist of intermittent adjusting of the way the 3-D glasses are perched on top of your regular specs. And some people have vision problems that, glasses or not, make 3-D unwatchable.

Nor is that the only place where changes in filmmaking can make life difficult for audiences. The tight, rapid editing in something like the Matt Damon Bourne films made some viewers nauseous.

And television has faced some similar problems. For close to a decade, as home-theater audio has become more widely used, I have been getting letters from people miffed about the prominence of music making it more difficult to hear dialogue. Sometimes the audio on the TV can be adjusted to make it better. But ears used to the simpler, earlier sound on television cannot always adjust to the contemporary mix. (Ear-busting sound in movies can cause similar problems.)

Similarly, when TV producers began to embrace more cinematic lighting, scenes often appeared too dark in contrast to the brighter, old-school lighting — unless you turned off all the lights in your living room and pretended it really was Saturday night at the movies.

And classic movies, when digitized and remastered for high-definition TVs and Blu-ray releases, often lose something in the transition. Hollywood fakery is more obvious.

The sharpness of individual detail — the scuff on a shoe, or a minor facial blemish — might not have been noticeable even on a big screen in one of those ’50s or ’60s cinema palaces when the movies were still on film; suddenly, it is distracting from the intended effect of the scene as a whole.

Yet technology has its merits. Gravity, again, works in 3-D. The fourth Mission: Impossible movie was an IMAX marvel. Only in both those cases the films accompanied their effects with good storytelling and acting. There was a reason to see the movie other than the elaborate trickery. Technology fails most when it is the only thing a movie or TV show has to offer — when the audience is left wishing there had been something more substantial to store in the memory banks.

Now, look. I love some of the changes. I like widescreen, HD, fancy sound and in some cases 3-D or IMAX. But I also try to remember that I’m lucky to have those things and to be able to afford them. But I also look at productions that were seared into my brain in a more basic form decades ago and feel a little lost because the spruced-up version just is not the same.

Every time an entertainment medium makes a tech leap, it risks leaving behind people who either cannot adjust to it or simply cannot afford it. Come see the handwritten or typed letters I receive almost every day from people who do not have email — and who, when told a show is online or for sale via a website, feel abandoned by technology. Talk to folks who want a movie on DVD, not on Netflix. Or who do not want to put down big bucks for a new TV or home-theater system just because the sound is bad on their still-working but older TV sets. Try to explain why their TV screen is partly filled by black bars next to a show’s image — or what image they do get is missing the edge. Try to tell them that a song they’ve sought is available only as a digital download.

Then tell those folks that things are getting better.

Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online blog, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twtiter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or rheldenfels@thebeaconjournal.com.

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