Has the way we think about and appreciate cinematography lost its context?
Until the mid-1990s, the highest standard was universally recognized as originating on 35mm negative, projected optically on a big screen in a venue that required the viewer’s attendance. Now, outstanding work can be viewed anywhere and anytime across a variety of high quality, easily accessible platforms – some of them smaller than an index card. Added to that, we’re overwhelmed with waves of other moving images on those devices, many of them technically superb and aesthetically pleasing.
There’s a lot of pleasure to be derived from such convenience but this overabundance of competence actually seems to have lowered standards. In a world where so much is polished and impressive, how do we determine what really counts? I often become numb to the volume of what passes before me each day, and that’s not a good thing. Worse, if technology has reached the point where the rankest amateur can effortlessly deliver professional results, where does that leave us? Context has shifted so that study, experience, dedication and flawless execution – excellence – is on shaky ground. It has become an era of “anyone can” and unfortunately, too often they do.
Acknowledged or not, standards still exist. The automated functions on digital cameras haven’t brought us a new Roger Deakins anymore than the ubiquity of laptops has birthed a new Hemingway. But what does that matter if most don’t know or care about the differences between layman and expert?
Because this new context is an imperfect and unfinished one, our chance for continuing relevance lies in the renewal of discernment. Those of us working at the highest levels need to step back and re-sensitize ourselves to the images we’re looking at as we’re looking at them. We then need to call them for what they are and not be shy about doing so. Going along with the crowd so as to avoid conflict or to seem contemporary or cool does no one any good, least of all the young generation that’s maturing in this strange environment.
I recall having good-natured arguments with older relatives when I was a teenager. Who was better, Benny Goodman or Jimmy Page? There’s no real answer to that, though you can imagine which side I was on. Today I’m much more conciliatory. Both were enormously gifted, and, regardless of where you stand, there’s no denying that each knew their way around their instruments.
Those of us who “know our way around our instruments” need to spread the word that good taste is also an important part of this issue. Though it’s impossible to legislate, there’s always hope that a refinement of such will insure that the best of our images remain on a plain all their own.