Monday, August 27, 2012

The Mime and the Cannibal

Tonight I had dinner at my favorite neighborhood place, The Cannibal. They really know their beer, to the point that I get a bigger hangover looking into the depths of their beer fridges imagining the complexity of the map of all the breweries that they get their lagers, stouts, ipas and other strange elixirs than I do from actually drinking their beers.

Recently I've noticed how on top of things they are, in addition to their beer selection. Sure they have their iPad POS system, and they package their own Beef Jerky and they stream Netflix over two TVs at the bar using Google TV and a logitech keyboard. Yeah, that's a bit overkill, Roku would do the trick but I appreciate the effort at a bar.

In the past I nodded in approval of the Cannibal's Netflix viewing selection, which consisted of cheesy 80s novelties like Rad or Miami Vice, but tonight for the first time I saw something I could watch Metropolis. When I say something I could watch, I mean literally something that I could watch end to end and understand fully. Before NYC I lived in Chicago and one thing I hated was that Lincoln park's bars were all filled with flatscreens showing sports and unlike when I lived in Somerville, MA, I had no place to bring a book and study in public. I also noticed that it was pretty strange that I was getting very little information from these TVs in sports bars. Over the years ESPN has done a great job of keeping screens filled with text and icons for information, but you can't do that with most TV or films. But tonight was different; you see Metropolis is a silent movie from 1927.
Ironically the movie is about the struggle between man and machine, and the explicit message is that the head and the hand can only be mediated by the heart. In my case the ear can only be assuaged by the text on the screen and the physical acting style of silent films which makes it ok to watch while eating dinner at a bar while they are playing a consistent rotation of the Ramones and Johnny Cash. I asked one of the bartenders that I see regularly in there how people were taking to silent movies. "We usually put on sports or Netflix, but this is one of the first times we've done silent films, actually there's a ton of Buster Keaton in the instant queue and those are really enjoyable."

I kept ordering food and dessert even though I was still shivering and sniffling from my frigid LIRR train ride from East Hampton and could easily have headed home. There was something even more intriguing than even watching physical comedy with this film, Metropolis. I really felt like I was able to catch most of the point of this movie even though it was not clear at all times, and I enjoyed trying my best to keep pace even though I noticed I was straying a little to my phone and then when that died to my iPad. What was interesting was that it was more difficult than watching movies with sound and every time I lost what was going on that actually kept me from looking at my iPhone and iPad, which is generally pretty tough for me to do for 2 hours. When movies have sound I can cheat, I remember being so bored watching Gone with the Wind growing up that I actually only listened and drew in my sketchpad the entire time and never actually looked at the screen.

It helps when silent movies are done well. I really liked the Artist this past year because it felt fast paced. Metropolis was not fast paced but it was a groundbreaking film in it's day, and I can actually see a little of Blade Runner's inspiration coming from this movie if I'm correct. Apart from the brilliantly crafted sets, the voices in Metropolis are better represented visually than any I've seen. The visual effects in Metropolis even bled into the text cards that are slotted after spoken words to catch the audience up when it is absolutely necessary to use language. During a dream sequence, light spots were used to blur and wobble the text to create a feeling of dementia. What shocked me was that I had just watched Mission Impossible 4 and thought that the one clever thing done in that movie was when Tom Cruise, after barely surviving an explosion, listens to Russian TV and the English subtitles on the movie screen flip into place over the course of a few seconds to show him struggle to regain his comprehension.

In fact, I think we've lost a lot of the creative visual techniques from early films because technology has gotten too good and we have had whole generations of creators who did not need to solve for sound. However, much of our busy mobile, desktop and tablet world does not enable sound. Fortunately we can now watch a lot of these movies instantly and see the visual tricks used to make viewer feel that the movie is actually happening to them. It's also likely that all conceivable tricks were done back then in silent movies and we can get the hang of them quickly, just like they say that all possible guitar riffs were likely done by Chuck Berry at one point or another and there's no need to spend a lot of time experimenting to figure them out, just listen to the classics.

I did struggle a little trying to figure out how I would share this silent media with others. Metropolis might be an anomaly because you can see from these pretty much random photos I took of the screen at the bar that even if you don't get a sense of the movie, it's always visually stunning and may be timeless in its appeal. It's clear that the director, Fritz Lang did do a lot of work experimenting with the UI of the silver screen to fit as many social elements possible onscreen at any one time to create the feeling that an entire city was in front of you. That reminds me of a lot of the way we try to ape the real world when we show people what's going on in our pictures on photo-sharing apps like Instagram. There are tons of new apps out there like picframe, that help you add additional frames to a single photo so that when you share to social networks you get more of a filmstrip of poses and actions, and ones that add text to photos like TinyPost and of course the one that makes me think of our hipster love of the roaring twenties the most with its often eery partial animations

Will more silent techniques find their way into new film and TV?
To me, there's something very interesting about finding the perfect place for silent film viewing, but there could be something more to it than that. It could be that we're finally finding some of our old mojo in the way we use sight and motion to make up for a lack of sound control in public spaces.

If you don't have the heart to ask for the remote to turn up the sound on the TV, notice when text and visual effects are done well how much more those scenes play to your head. Sometimes you might even forget you have other devices in your hands.

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