The virtualization of collective experience during this COVID lockdown era has created some anomalies in audience behavior that may result in some profound mutations in the way culture is consumed for the foreseeable future.
In the past, the defining zeitgeist of the age more often than not was based on one thing- curation. Either through the demonstration of political power, as was the case of the great ducal patrons of the renaissance, or the personality cults of the new celebrities of the publishing boom of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, or the advent in the twentieth century of new corporate giants recruiting large numbers of artists and musicians as part of the new advertising-based economy, or the theater chains and TV networks, the palette of artworks available has been curated by some authority.
This is not only historical fact, but is even built into our behavior, as if part of some genetic programming.
With the advent of internet and smartphone, hard as they may try, suddenly curation becomes less and less possible for the powers that be. What this means for the viewer is that they are less likely to stick to one source for their media, since all their friends and family are now creators, as are everyone else’s friends and family.
A theatrical movie is more and more an anachronistic rarity in the diet of the typical consumer. Drama requires a static audience, without the option of clicking away to interact in a chat, or a game or any of the myriad interruptions clamoring for your attention. It takes a retrained mind to navigate the realms of interaction, which is creating a new, more restless collective consciousness for which the static absorption of a linear movie is more and more an anachronism.
Reading novels and listening to symphonies was a uniquely nineteenth century phenomenon; the perfect storm of the publishing explosion, a literate, yet static middle class that included women, and a social infrastructure that facilitated the incubation of the calm, analytical state of mind that is a natural audience for that kind of thoughtful material.
By the advent of the twentieth century and its technological marvels, cars, radio and the like, the ingredient of urgency became infused in the media soup as though it were spiked with methamphetamine. Urgency and capitalistic monetization of content created a new curatorial class, the class that controlled the proverbial means of production.
This centralization of culture that benefited from the economies of scale defined the structure of media. But now the backwash of decentralization brings with it the collapse of curation. The various streaming services (of which emerge new ones daily) attempt to curate their content based on some kind of algorithmic attempt at audience analysis.
But eventually, the audience is largely gathered by public awareness, which in the decentralized world is still only achieved by expensive, large scale advertising and media campaigns. This at the same time as collecting revenues becomes more and more of a challenge, since 90% of content is available for free on the same delivery devices. It’s as if in the movie theater days, a four-plex would have three of their theatres playing free movies, and only one that you had to pay for. Not possible because of the inherent expense of running a physical theater.
The largest audiences today are not drawn by major movies or TV shows, but by content produced by individuals in social media and platforms like Tik Tok and YouTube, for almost nothing. These have the immediacy of real life, and relevance in the zeitgeist of the moment. Although I have paid subscriptions to numerous curated content platforms, I find myself spending more and more time hunting and gathering content in the vast un-curated cosmos that our connected world now makes possible. A TV show or movie is now a conscious choice to abdicate interactive freedom in favor of old-style curation; static, passive, and anachronistic.
These new voices attract their audiences by showing up regularly, interacting in a predictable way, and providing an experience that’s much more tribe-like than movies or TV was ever able to do. A YouTuber can ask their audience directly what they want to see. The feeling of newness is maintained in the vlog-o-sphere, Snapchat, Tik Tok and the like, due to the characteristics of the platforms themselves. We came to expect curation, but now the algorithm provides it, and we respond to it as if it were still there, like an amputee responds to a phantom limb.
The atmospherics of full scale movie and TV production diminishes in contrast to, on the one hand, the new and ever-changing world of the streamers and memers, and on the other hand, dwarfed by the grandiosity of gaming aesthetics, with their armies of designers and animators. A movie is often enough watched casually in a p-in-p window, while a gamer is accumulating wizard points in some fantasy game.
This puts a whole new world of burdens on those who aspire to cinema. If one wants to do a reality based, character drama with the full range of natural human interaction, one finds oneself blocked on all sides by the collapse of theatrical exhibition, the narrow curation of the few top streaming platforms, and the ocean of compelling content available for free.
The economics of such a project looks more and more like the economics of book publishing; works created at little to no cash outlay, with a persistent schedule of small scale PR, with the expectation of modest income, until an author develops a loyal following after several books, or in this case, movies.
As the society becomes more virtual and digital, the world of forms begins to converge. Since all transactions can now be achieved via the smart phone, those transactions, be they shopping for underwear, booking an apartment, finding a date, buying a stock, reading a book or watching a movie have all become essentially the same procedure: Start typing until an algorithm recognizes what you’re after, make your choice from what’s offered, then tap to purchase. Many people’s jobs have become that way as well. Receive an assignment through a team app, make a few decisions in some software and click to deliver your choices, watch while the money appears in your account.
While achieving miracles of efficiency for the commerce model, this is a problematic narrowing of experience. With COVID providing additional pressure toward virtualism, like the soviet machine gunners that prevented the retreat of conscripts in the battles of WWII, virtualism is accelerated under de facto enforcement, and live experience is being waterboarded into acquiescence.
Getting paid for anything is in essence virtualizing the experience; conversion of a real life labor to cash is actually a sublimation into the world of ideas, since money is a mutual fiction; an abstract placeholder of value. But now that the “information superhighway” ( How quaint that sounds now) connects all interactions, value seeks its lowest possible level. Along with shopping for the usual goods, services have fallen under the same “click to compare” interrogation, fine for business, but it now applies as well to every aspect of culture.
Services like Spotify, Amazon Prime, Getty Images, YouTube, Yelp, and countless others create a race to the bottom of value for artists and businesses alike. I was even browsing some 18th century paintings on Ebay, and I should not have been surprised to see, sprinkled in among the offerings at very low prices, new hand-painted (and very good quality, from what I could tell) replicas of 18th century works, painted in oils in old master techniques- from what must be factory operations in China. Two clicks away.
So how then is effort to be valued in a value-dissolving technocracy? The seductive tentacles of virtualization caress the edges of all creative activity, as everything from animation studios, to music production, to design work on Fiverr swoons to the promise of virtual attention- the hope of payment.
I’m afraid the result of this mutation is a return to a more feudalized culture, in which the handful of biggest players skim value from the oceans of effort produced lower down in the hierarchy. While an artist or musician (Now a “content provider”) appears on the menu, they can expect pennies from Spotify, Amazon, YouTube or Adobe Stock, etc., because like medieval barons, the companies that own the pipelines amass all the value for themselves, and go to great lengths to shift the property and privileges of ownership from artist to pipeline.
After all, the traffic goes to the largest aggregators of content, and they want to keep it that way. Unfortunately, this means that they invariably exercise editorial control to make sure that the content always directs the user back to the pipeline. Economy of scale turns into curation by scale. In this way, the editorial authority of our age has abdicated in favor of the algorithm. Uniqueness has become a liability in the absence of human valuation.
The buzz in the production world around the breakthrough in technique and budget employed by Disney’s The Mandalorian is worth contemplating for those concerned with the future of cinema. The new technique of using a wrap-around LED cyclorama combined with a game engine 3D CG set is a quantum leap into another era of movie production.
I remember when I was in film school in the Cretaceous era, and I experimented with the idea of using two TV cameras connected by a motion rig to allow spontaneous camera movement within a green screen set that would exactly match a move on a miniature background. My father the engineer took it upon himself to design and build this rig, but it arrived too late and slightly too imprecise to be used in the production, which was my Columbia puppet thesis project, Banfus and the Search. Instead, I had live sets and theatrical effects which served the purpose well enough for my student thesis needs. But I always had it in the back of my mind that there could be some way of coupling the moves of an active camera with movement in a virtual set.
Fast forward to now where everyone’s phone is capable of perfectly tracking dog ears and flopping tongues to your head movements in real time, trailing hearts and stars, without the need of an army of rotoscopers. Exponential increases in computational power have now made it possible to do this essential feat of movie magic on the cheap.
Add to this the phenomenon of COVID forcing Zoom interactions on everyone from first-graders to international celebrities in a universal convention of Zoom filters and home green-screen set-ups, and suddenly we are all participating in a massive virtual production experience. A politician appears in a televised Zoom meeting as a lip-synced cat- and he can’t turn it off! Virtual effects not only made cheap, but not even requested!
So as remarkable as the technique of the Mandalorian is, it is somehow less spectacular as it merges with the virtual lives we are already living. When Star Wars appeared in 1977, the shock was to see things that could only have been created with laborious feats of miniature sculpture and precision clockwork; the awareness that every frame was labored over infused those frames with meaning and purpose. Now having the ability to simply turn on the “Unreal Engine” (actually the software brand name), we are now allowed the spontaneous rambling around in a virtual world, whether or not it has meaning.
The end result is that fantasy can be had on the cheap. Where this takes us, I’m not sure, but I have a hunch that as world creation is becoming ubiquitous, it’s value diminishes, and the public sensitivity for true novelty evaporates as well.
The pandora’s box of these techniques is currently knocking about in search of uses. Museums create virtual experience like the Van Gogh exhibit in which spectators walk around in a multi-projected world of what some designers think life would be like inside of an impressionist painting, and makeup counters feature try on makeup on a virtual screen rather than on a customer’s real cheek. I don’t know if we’re really so tired of the IRL world that the accumulation of these endeavors is really an improvement. A better illusion is no more real than a worse one, ultimately it all relies on the suspension of disbelief.
I think we are beginning to see some of the effects of monopoly in the very successful new work of the megalithic streaming platforms, namely Netflix, HBO and Amazon. With such offerings as The Crown, The Widow, True Detective, etc., we are now in an aesthetic era somewhere between feature filmmaking and serialized TV.
Serialized TV has had a long history in the era of advertising based entertainment through the network era, then the cable era, and now this new milieu of entertainment that earns it’s keep not by pleasing advertisers, or individual cinema ticket buyers, but a new animal entirely; namely the permanent subscription based service that takes as it’s sign of achievement the capturing of an audience that will commit to hours and hours of loyal watching.
This brings about a new aesthetic. Not needing to please advertisers kicks it into a the territory of risqué sensationalism to differentiate it from the code of ad based broadcasters, and on the other hand, since the object is long term commitment, easy to understand and traditional cinematic storytelling; templated production style and technique adjusted for the long haul.
What seems to be fading is the tolerance for creative, one-off filmmaking, in which risks are taken for that one unique experience that will have no sequel, no loyal repeat audience, but that has the chance to reach the heavens in a moment of singular inspiration.
HBO, being the longest player in the subscription game cut its teeth in the era of cinema and from the start was attempting to live up to it’s name, “Home Box Office,” emerging at a time when theatrical cinema was the gold standard, and they wanted to differentiate themselves from the networks, so their aesthetic still has resonance with the earlier form. It was TV in imitation of cinema.
While watching The Crown the other night, I was struck by how cinematic and movie-like the production was, but then episode after episode, the very professionalism of the creators begins to dilute itself in the imagination as the same qualities are repeated predictably scene after scene. High marks for professionalism, but diminishing returns for the art of cinema.
Which brings us back to the constant threat looming in the background of professionalism vs. art; that thing that the late Anthony Bourdain expressed his disdain for, competence vs. authenticity.
As this realm of entertainment becomes saturated with the financially viable, templated big-budget series, perhaps audiences will eventually begin to seek out more unique forms- already YouTube is gathering a larger and larger percentage of online viewing; so that tells me that there is a need for the uncurated. The question will be how a decentralized viewing menu will work logistically for a curious public. Perhaps some technological infrastructure will emerge to connect the curious and eclectic viewer with unique one-off content in a model that can make true cinematic films commercially viable in the new streaming world.