Morris Wolfe - Essays, New & Selected

WATCHING BIG BROTHER (continued)

Douglas Trumbull, who worked on special effects for George Lucas, has himself directed such high JPM films as Brainstorm. But Trumbull has wearied of traditional filmmaking; he’s looking for new ways to intensify the film-viewing experience. He’s developed a process for projecting films at sixty frames per second rather than at the present twenty-four. Viewers respond (as measured physiologically) at a rate five times faster than their response when the same material is projected at twenty-four frames. The experience is so intense that viewers estimate the length of a ten-minute film as being considerably longer. Trumbull predicts the development of “the microfeature, a high-impact sensory experience, compressed in time.”

But isn’t that what a rock video is, a kind of ultra high JPM microfeature whose visuals frequently have nothing to do with the music and seem thrown in for shock value? It’s not surprising to discover that many successful filmmakers — Tobe Hooper of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and William Friedkin — are now directing rock videos, and that rock video directors are being invited to make feature films.

Advertisers are moving to the fifteen-second commercial. Just over ten years ago the sixty-second spot was the standard length; thirty-second spots were regarded as unacceptable. Les Brown of Channels of Communication magazine doesn’t rule out “the possibility of the radically speeded-up five-second spot... that would get to you almost on the subliminal level.” Ad agencies such as Vision Systems want to go even further. They want to display product information on video screens in stores and windows. Vision Systems has developed Videofile, a giant screen — two and a half feet by five feet — which, combined with a repeating video cassette recorder, presents advertising designed “to stop people in their tracks.” In Al Razutis’s experimental film America, billboards have all become huge video screens. In the city of the future in Blade Runner, the Goodyear blimp becomes huge floating video screen at night.

Not just film and television are speeding up. Serious books and magazines have more and more difficulty getting published. Bookstore shelves are increasingly filled with non-books — books for people who really don’t like reading: self-help guides, books by and about celebrities, thrillers, instant books — books, as American writer William Gass puts it, that stand to literature as fast food does to eating. A lot of writers, says Gass, “are writing for the fast mind that speeds over the text like those noisy bastards in motorboats.” I know good writers who have been rejected by publishers on the grounds that they write prose that requires concentration; one was told that it’s impossible to read him and watch TV at the same time. (Some years ago TV Guide asked me to write an article outlining my JPM theory. I did so in the style you’ve been reading. TV Guide’s editor thought my prose too “slow” for his readers. He rewrote the piece. The revised version began, “Every September, the three U.S. television networks sit down to their high stakes poker game.” I asked to have my name taken off the article.)

Marshall McLuhan argued that people had stopped reading books in the early-to-mid-1960s. They’d begun to sample them instead. “The unread book,” he said, “is the normal thing of our world... I have only a few minutes in which to look at any of the books I have around here. I have to sample quickly and take them back to the library. Every day five or six new books come in that I can only sample, I can’t read. But that’s normal. The book is no longer something for reading.” Pay-TV now allows me to sample current movies the same way.

Oo what’s to be done? Nothing, says Jerry Mander in Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television; the medium of television can no more be reformed than can guns. The only real solution, Mander believes, is the total abolition of TV. Otherwise we’re doomed. Obviously, that’s not going to happen.

Censorship isn’t the answer either, although even the BBC has tried it. (It banned the Rolling Stones’ video “Under Cover of the Night” because of its images of blood, torture and violent death in Central America.) Certainly, none of what I’ve said to this point should be read as an argument for censorship. As a member of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, I am opposed to censorship of any kind. I believe it does more harm than good. But that’s not to say I think TV has no effect. I’m sure it does — for good and for ill. In 1980, for example, during the week after the Fonz took out a library card on an episode of Happy Days, the number of young people applying for membership in libraries across the U.S. increased by five hundred per cent. That’s no coincidence. It seems safe to assume that the Fonz’s behaviour caused the increase.

Television undoubtedly causes other things too. There are numerous cases on record of people who have seen a crime committed on TV and who have gone out and committed the same crime. Rowell Huesmann, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois, has been following 800 viewers since they were in grade three. It appears, says Huesmann, that “high television viewers and high violence viewers are more likely to be convicted of more serious crimes.” “If you believe,” Irving Kristol wrote long before he became a famous neoconservative, “that no one was ever corrupted by a book, you have also to believe that no one was ever improved by a book (or a play or a movie). You have to believe, in other words, that all art is morally trivial.”

A character in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome says at one point, “The battle for the mind will be fought in the video arena.” Will be? The battle for the mind is being fought in the video arena. And the mind is losing. Television has become Aldous Huxley’s soma; it’s ingested visually instead of orally. And Huxley, not Orwell, it turns out, was right. Big Brother isn’t watching us. It’s far more subtle than that. We’re watching Big Brother.

— Jolts, Implications, 1985

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