“You can speed progress or you can slow it, but you cannot stop it.”
Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC
The other night I caught a screening of Michael Curtiz’s 1940 pirate spectacular, The Seahawk. Photographed in luminous black and white by Sol Polito, ASC, it’s one of those great studio productions that were so common at the time, carefully crafted and lovingly mounted. This may sound odd, but afterward it dawned on me that change – as frightening and disruptive as it can sometimes be – is our greatest friend.
Our technology has always been a forward-marching one; The Seahawk is proof that movies have never looked the same for very long. What appeared as cutting-edge to Polito’s audience in 1940 would have been beyond their imagination in 1930. By 1950, his silvery display would have seemed outdated to those same people. This principle has always been in effect, though it’s not without its flaws. New doesn’t always equate with better. There’s also a tendency nowadays to confuse our tools with the results they deliver. Nonetheless, our track record for sorting things out is pretty good. Just compare that primitive TV of a few years back to the huge flat screen on the wall right now. Embrace the change while you can because the nature of what we do will soon render that device old fashioned, too.
Imagine how boring cinematography would become if it always stayed the same. Sure, there are a few who’ll defend that to the death, but they’ll end up buried in wooden caskets. Change keeps us sharp and makes things fresh; like kids choosing up sides for a game, we don’t want to miss the excitement. Cinematographers are also fortunate to have an extra round in the chamber. When new technologies appear they’re often maligned for their absence of heart or humanity. But we know that their emotional resonance – and ultimate acceptance – comes only when the right context is introduced through our hands, the hands of the artists.
Then, to quote the great ballplayer Yogi Berra, “It’s déjà vu all over again.” A new technology drops and we adjust. We infuse it with our history, traditions and feelings. More important, a fresh generation will mature with our standard and take it to a new place. They’ll bend it, break it and perfect it in ways we couldn’t have anticipated. Then, just as they think they’ve achieved the ultimate solution, something else will come along to move the game even further up the field (no doubt causing some stress in the process).
Resistance is futile. Become intimate with change. Movies don’t look as they did at the time of The Seahawk in 1940. Hell, they don’t look the way they used to in 2010. And 2030 will bring wonders we can’t yet anticipate!
It’s funny about movie stars, though. Nobody looks like Errol Flynn anymore, but you never hear any angst about that.