Friday, December 30, 2005
Camera Obscura - Final Friday
Here at the final Friday of 2005, we return to the topic that has had me writing non-stop for over 27 years now - movies. What they are, what they mean, what's new and what's old. Also too, since I was asked by someone, a definition and/or explanation of why I call my posts about movies Camera Obscura.
There is a pretty long history of the use of a Camera Obscura, which you can read here, starting with a reference to a Camera Obscura from the Chinese philosopher Mo-Ti in the 5th century. And there is a simple law of optics involved with this concept - rays of light pass through a small opening, with or without a lens, and an upside-down image of what's outside will appear on a surface opposite the opening. For many years, it was a tool for artists and astronomers, a way for them to trace a drawing of an image or a planet. It is part of the art world today, and likely will always be. Given the nature of human perception, it seemed to me a fine way to describe the act of viewing a movie (another optical trick) and the act of writing about what I see.
Literally, the phrase is Latin, and means Dark Chamber - and as Merriam's Dictionary defines it:
"a darkened enclosure having an aperture usually provided with a lens through which light from external objects enters to form an image of the objects on the opposite surface."
When I wrote my first movie column in the mid-1980s under the banner Camera Obscura, I had no idea there were already numerous film journals and columns that used the same title and when I found out there were, I still used it for a simple reason - I like the word and the image the concept made in the dark chambers of my own mind, a reflection of what I see.
Audiences in a movie theatre all participate in these flickering moments, as they have for years, but each person still leaves the event with deeply personal memories which makes for both shared and private encounters. Thanks to rapidly changing technologies, I can watch them endlessly now in my own home whether on dozens of movie channels or on stacks of DVDs or VHS tapes. From the first movies made up to illegal bootlegs of movies not yet released, it's all at my fingertips.
But that isn't the same as being in a theatre - which were once palaces then became dull shoe-box shaped mall multiplexes and now are events with stadium seating in rocking chairs which may include digital sound named after a 70s sci-fi movie, THX-1138. And even though the Drive-In is disappearing, there was nothing like watching a movie outside as you sat in your car on in a lawn chair. I can usually recall the theatre and perhaps the cities where I've seen most movies, a memory that is far different from viewing a film for the first time on television.
When it was cheaper to see them, I went more often, and when I was paid to see them and review them I went even more. The sound of a projector is music, a sprocket hole is a doorway to infinity and illusion.
I am constantly amazed by old favorites and new discoveries. This week again watched two truly American classics, the first was "Two Lane Blacktop" from director Monte Hellman. James Taylor (yes, the singer) and Mike Wilson (once a Beach Boy) drive endlessly in a grey primered '55 Chevy and don't talk much. Warren Oates drives a GTO and wants to race and spins endless versions of his life story to anyone who will listen. The movie is so empty and silent in places, or sometimes is overwhelmed by roaring engine, and it also does something I like in many movies - it captures a specific time and place in history. Here, its the post-60s and early 70s mundane and morose qualities of America. Hellman's style and editing may bore most viewers but if you let the movie just run it's course, it leaves an emotional wallop.
Another oldie this week was "The Hustler" by Robert Rossen and starring Paul Newman as Fast Eddie Felsen who lives and dies in pool halls. A sequel, "The Color Of Money" is also fine, but this original story is like bebop jazz and whiskey soda - cool and biting. Here too, are little moments of time, 1960 America. The lunch counter at the bus station is a real place, and the spare but loaded pick-up dialog between Newman and Laurie Piper is as real as the forlorn bus stop.
Not everyone wants some Big Idea when they watch a movie - they just want to be entertained for a while, to laugh or to be thrilled. But even then, what we watch and how we react, its all part of the same process of perception and participation.
OK, enough of what was - what's ahead for 2006?
A vast amount of movie trailers for upcoming releases can be found here, and that's a good place to start pondering the next year of movies and good place for me to stop today. I will add however that one of the behind the scenes details on the site mentioned above is the production of Frank Miller's "300", based on his graphic novel about Spartan warriors. It nicely blends the artwork of Miller, history and the new ways technology is making movie magic.