Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Book Review: “The Wrong House: The Architecture of Alfred Hitchcock.”

The cityscape for Fritz Lang's Metropolis, under construction. (Click to enlarge.)

Before Alfred Hitchcock was a director, he was a set designer in Britain’s silent film industry. While yet an underling, he directed from behind, building sets that could only be filmed his way. “I was quite dogmatic,” he said. “I would build a set and say to the director, ‘here’s where it’s shot from.’” Even as an apprentice, he knew too much.

Unlike live theater, which can take place on a street corner or an empty stage, cinema relies heavily on its locations to carry the storytelling weight. That’s the lesson Hitch learned while running around with Weimar directors like Fritz Lang and F. W. Murnau. From the furtive environs of a gas station john to the stone-faced mugs of Mt. Rushmore, Hitch’s settings defined his characters. They were the story. He worked his sets as hard as he did any of his human talent.

In his book, “The Wrong House: The Architecture of Alfred Hitchcock,”[1] art historian Steven Jacobs looks intently at Hitch’s preoccupation with man-made spaces. Focusing on the point where cinema and architecture intersect, he takes readers on a film-by-film architectural tour—complete with floor plans copied from both surviving documents (sketchy) and a painstaking study of the films themselves (laborious).

Jacobs’ wealth of knowledge about architecture delivers numerous insights into a relatively unstudied aspect of Hitchcock’s—or anyone’s—films. Then he interprets what he sees. While most writers offer only the what, Jacobs offers the illuminating why.

His bias is endearing. The book “starts from the absurd premise that all the important buildings in [Hitchcock’s] films are designed by one and the same architect whose oeuvre includes a modernist villa in South Dakota, a London apartment, a suburban house in a Californian small town.” It’s a novel concept, not one that would likely come from the often-hermetic mind of a film studies professor.[2]


Filling an entire soundstage, this model of Manderley was one of the largest miniatures ever built up till that time. Later, Hitch's skyline for Rope consisted of a 12,000 square cyclorama (the largest ever built, so he claimed), and the courtyard in Rear Window remains one of the largest indoor sets ever built. (Click to enlarge.) 

Manderley, Frankenstein-on-Cornwall
Jacobs devotes about 20 pages to Manderley, the colossal estate that looms so heavily in Rebecca. One of those rambling mansions that was enlarged over the centuries, its labyrinthine floor plan, forbidden rooms and chambers built to accommodate the complicated servants’ hierarchy accommodated a social life that ranged from solitary gloom to ballroom shenanigans. It suited the film’s Gothic plot perfectly. The sets' ample floor space also gave Hitch the opportunity to mess around with prolonged tracking shots.

Jacobs notes that, while parts of the house seem to date to late medieval times, other features, such as the bay windows, would have been built in the Victorian era. Still other parts are Georgian. It was an architectural Frankenstein (another character who mourned, and then avenged, his continued existence).

It’s hard to pinpoint when Manderley came to dominate the lives of its masters and servants, yet that narrative is embedded in its endless walls and vast ceilings. They’re a visual correlative to Maxim De Winter’s history—recent and ancient—which, like Laurence Olivier’s eyebrows, never stays put. In Rebecca, the past keeps insinuating itself into the present. You can never go back to Manderley; it keeps following you. No wonder Maxim was always so touchy.

Hitch’s collaboration with art directors
Ironically, there was no real-life Manderley. Just a soundstage-sized miniature, along with a few other models and partial walls all knit together with editing and special effects. Though it was based on photos and sketches made during Hitch’s scouting trips to the English countryside, Jacobs reminds us that it was designed and built by the great art director Lyle Wheeler (who, incidentally, also designed the plantation house "Tara" in Gone with the Wind a year earlier).

In fact, Jacobs includes a list of art directors,[3] set decorators and others at the beginning of each chapter, giving them each a bit of overdue credit—and making it that much easier for students and scholars to pick up where he left off. (Wheeler’s work included Hitchcock's The Paradine Case, as  well as A Portrait of Jennie and Laura. Apparently, he was a go-to art director for atmospheric gothic tales.[4]) 

These unsung heroes contributed more than you’d think. Until the 1960s, studios kept all these professionals on payroll, which gace each studio its own look and style. Thus, while much has been written about the “Hitchcock look,” Jacobs sees it from the opposite end: “The look of a Universal Hitchcock film, such as Shadow of a Doubt, differs considerably from an RKO Hitchcock film, such as Suspicion, made two years later. Unmistakably, this difference is due to the influence of… each studio’s supervising art director.” As a result, you can geek out on the style of one art director just as you can one actor, director, writer or composer. Who knows? If this Hitchcock Geek thing doesn’t pan out for me, I might become an Edward Haworth Geek.

Hitch was.

(Not really, but it’s a nice segue.)

Who?

Haworth, an art director, recalled that on the set of Strangers on a Train, if Hitch needed time to think a scene through while shooting, “He would say, ‘everybody get lost for a few minutes,’ and [he’d] chase everybody body out of the room—but never the art director.’” Then the two might consider the best way to approach the scene.

Hitchcock himself acknowledged the role of such unsung heroes. “When I’m sitting there with a writer and we’re designing a scene, I’ll say, ‘I wonder what we can do with that. What sort of setting should we write this for?’ We bring in the production designer while the script is being written.” Such collaboration contributed to the richness and re-watchability of Hitchcock’s films. Really, all members of the team are—or should be—storytellers: the writer tells the story on paper; the art director and others tell the story using the tools they work with. That’s the way Hitch saw it.

Hitch was such a good self-promoter that it’s easy to forget what his day-to-day was like. He respected those members of the team who brought more to the table than a good day’s work, and they got to have a hand in helping shape some of cinema’s finest moments.[5]


For a treat, and to illustrate what we're talking about below, watch this stunning Rear Window Timelapse from Jeff Desom.

Rear Window, Modern Panopticon
A tsunami of paper has been devoted to endlessly recycled studies of Rear Window as a metaphor for: the cinema, the sexually arrested male gaze, the director-as-voyeur, the isolation of modern urban life, you name it. Finally, Jacobs offer a fresh perspective—one that could only be supplied by someone whose life extends beyond film school. He starts out by observing (as have others) that all those apartments that L. B. Jefferies (James Stewart) peeks in on make up, collectively, a specific form of urban theater: the 18th century panopticon. From the darkened center of this semicircular building, someone—a prison warden, let’s say— could look in on all the open rooms surrounding it. He writes:
“Whereas the theater [(and cinema, I’d add)] directs the gaze of many onlookers to the single focal point of the stage, the panopticon inverts this logic.... The space of Rear Window adopts the imaginary form of a cone whose apex is constituted by Jeffries’ living room.”

"General Idea of a Penitentiary Panopticon," Jeremy Bentham, 1791. (Click to enlarge.)

Jacobs adds the connection, also made previously by Walter Metz,[6] that Michel Foucault seized upon the idea of the panopticon as: 
“an allegory of the process of normalization and discipline of modernity,... [for] ‘every cage [in the panopticon] is a small theater in which the actor is alone, perfectly individualized and permanently visible.’... Foucault noted that, consequently, the visual logic of the spectacle is turned upside down. Instead of exposing some individual bodies to a community [as in traditional theater], the panoptic courtyard of Rear Window provides the lonely surveyor [Jeffries, in this case, but anyone, really] with an overview of many separated individuals.” 
As such, Jefferies assumes the position of almost god-like omniscience, which he clearly relishes and uses to his advantage to try to ensnare the killer Thorwald.

But here's where it gets interesting. Jacobs goes on to observe that Jefferies' courtyard is actually a neighborhood of other rear windows. He writes: "Rear Window clearly deals with the contrast between formal and representative facade and informal backside, which is one of the essential characteristics of modernity." 

With its messy yards and ad hoc living arrangements, this space presumably contrasts with the view from its front windows, which are probably much cleaner and more formal. More public. (It's hard to imagine that couple sleeping on a street-side fire escape.) In the semi-privacy of these rear windows, however, the inhabitants take more casual liberties with their shades open than they probably would in their front rooms. Writes Jacobs, “It is a delicate social balance based on the collective use of spaces and on implicit rules of conduct between neighbors.” Thus, Miss Torso changes her clothes in full view of her neighbors, but turns her back so that no one sees the front of her bra come off. Her behavior is the perfect bookend to Hitch’s observation regarding voyeurism: “Everybody is doing it. It's a known fact, providing you don't make it too vulgar, keeping it to a point of curiosity.”

Jacobs sees a thriving neighborhood of folks who’ve moved to the city precisely because of its “relative isolation and lack of interference in the everyday life of others.” The film isn’t merely a “commentary on the alienation of modern life” as John Fawell puts it.[7] This imperfect, sloppy neighborhood has a heart. It is very much a community. Jacobs concludes, “It announces a postmodern urban space, the boundaries of which are no longer defined by architectural structures but by the screen and the lens.” He nails what I like so much about urban living. This movie also foreshadows life in a digitally-mediated world.  

You can see why I like the guy so much. He does for Hitchcock and architecture what I’ve been trying to do for Hitchcock and art.

It’s hard to imagine that insights like this could be supplied by a film studies academic. (For  one thing, the writing would be more abstruse. Jacobs keeps it simple.) This topic demands expertise that’s usually outside of their professional scope. Jacobs’ resume is a bit different. He’s an art historian first, specializing in “photographic and cinematic representations of architecture, cities and landscapes.” As such, he was ready-made to write this book.

Obviously, there’s a place for theoretical film scholarship. But movies are made by a diverse range of people, from crafters and tradespeople to philosophers and artists—not to mention legions of expert “story consultants.” It only stands to reason that they can’t really be explained without critical contributions from a diversity of voices. Unfortunately, it's the film studies professors' work that dominates this field, and for obvious reasons: as a whole, they're writing more; I also think that publishers see them as a safe bet. We need to hear more from the geeks.

At 342 pages, Jacobs’ book only scratches the surface of possible examinations of Hitchcock’s architecture—not to mention that of other directors. In breaking open a new topic, it paves the way for others to pitch in with their own discoveries. I hope to see more books just like it. Do your part to make that happen. Buy it.  



[1] nai010 publishers; 2nd Revised edition; April 30, 2014

[2] Originally, the art director was simply in charge of designing and building the sets and left the set “the moment it’s painted” (Hitchcock). But the job has evolved and is often synonymous with that of the production designer, who’s charged with overseeing the overall look of the film, including setting, set design and set decoration.

[3] Some of the most original—and useful—ideas about Hitchcock’s films have come from people for whom film study is a secondary interest: Tania Modleski (“The Women Who Knew Too Much”) is an English professor with an emphasis on gender studies; Camille Paglia (“The Birds”) is a generalist cultural critic. Many fantastic books have come from individuals who work outside of academia—fans and geeks.

[4] Now to mention the first 60 episodes of Perry Mason and about 350 additional movies! Wheeler is a forgotten name by most, but among those in the know, he's called the Dean of Art Directors. 

[5] They also got called back to work with him again. In the 50s and 60s, Hitch’s team of regulars variously included Robert Boyle (art director and production designer), Bernard Herrmann (music), Robert Burks (cameraman), George Tomasini (editor), Edith Head (costumes), Peggy Robertson (script supervisor) and others. Their fingerprints are all over some of Hitchcock’s—and Hollywood’s—greatest movies.

[6] Published in “After Hitchcock: Influence, Imitation and Intertextuality,” 2006.

[7] Published in "Hitchcock's Rear Window," 2000

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Book Review: "The San Francisco of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo"


Screening Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo for first-time viewers makes me edgy. The stakes are personal: if my guests like the movie, I feel flattered, but if they don’t, I’m miffed. I don't think I'm alone in feeling this way. In fact, its intrinsic merits aside, I believe this is why so much has been written about the film: Vertigo admirers often feel entitled—if not obligated—to put their two cents in.

That’s the feeling I got reading the eclectic collection of essays in “The San Francisco of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo: Place, Pilgrimage and Commemoration,” edited by Douglas A. Cunningham.

People might enjoy To Catch a Thief or North by Northwest for the Technicolor thrills, but when it comes Madeleine’s beautiful, phony trances at Podesta Baldocchi and points beyond, this time it’s personal, maybe even religious. In the book, Miguel Pendás recalls the time he spent as a tour guide driving Vertigo-philes around on their “pilgrimage to all the film’s locations” in the Bay area. Meanwhile, Cunningham writes about those sojourners’ rites as categorically different from the “casual ogling of curious film buffs; after all, the cinephilic pilgrimage [(there's that word again!)] is born of love (for the diegetic world of the film),” along with “loss (the apparent absence of that diegetic world within the realm of the real)” and a desire to briefly inhabit that world. 1  

As with Jerusalem and Mecca (and Dyersville, Iowa), a cottage industry has sprung up in the Bay area, geared to help the faithful get the most the most from their visit. It’s astonishing how close many of Hitchcock’s most famous movie locales are to each other: Shadow of a Doubt’s Santa Rosa and The Birds’ Bodega Bay are just an hour or so away, while places all over the city itself provided the setting for several other Hitchcock films. Contributors Jeff Kraft and Aaron Leventhal, who also wrote a great companion to this book, note that there are frequent and “ongoing events celebrating Hitchcock’s filmmaking in San Francisco.”

But if those other locations are holy sites, San Francisco of Vertigo is the Dome of the Rock. Want to see for yourself? You can even stay at Hotel Vertigo, formerly the movie’s Empire Hotel, and push your way into Judy’s old room—if you’ve got some nerve. For my money, I’d rather blow a paycheck on a room at the Fairmont, Hitch’s roadhouse of choice, where Scottie took Judy dancing; be sure to get a room with a view of Madeleine’s Brocklebank apartments across the street. Cunningham devotes five full chapters to the consideration of what it means to take the Vertigo city tour.

Hitch's Missionary Position
The book is at its most thought provoking when it turns its attention to the film’s specific locales. Riffing on a fascinating history of the California Mission Revival of the late 19th century, Martin Kevorkian and Stanley Orr quote Phoebe S. Kropp’s observation that the movement romanticized the less savory aspects of California’s Hispanic origins, smoothing out the facts of “conquest, genocide and war as well as race, class and religious conflict.” The writers draw a direct line from such revisionism to Hollywood’s incompetent Indians and pious Franciscan priests, such as those portrayed in Douglas Fairbanks’ Zorro movies.

Leave it to Hitch to put the wrinkles back in the Revivalists’ story. Say the writers: “Through parodic allusion and quotation, Hitchcock exposes the… California Mission Revival and its complicity with American empire building.” Key scenes take place at Mission Dolores—California's oldest surviving mission—and Mission San Juan Bautista, whose tower was lost in a fire, but which Hitch restored using trick photography. The Mephistophelian industrialist Gavin Elster stands in for the dark side of American Manifest Destiny, while the “ghost” of the scorned Carlotta Valdez represents the Hispanics and Native Americans who footed the bill for it. The authors quote Robert J. Corber, who notes, “In repeating Carlotta’s story to Scottie and Midge, [bookseller Pop Liebel] indicates the importance of recovering the history of Hispanics in the American West for constructing a more accurate narrative of the nation’s past.”

Hitch’s own attitude on the topic manifests itself in the movie’s first frames. The authors note that the opening chase is pursued across clay-tiled mission-style rooftops, and that the script called for an “Italian type, with rough features.” In other words, the movie opens on the image of an immigrant, minority “other” running for his life. From the start, Scottie’s (and, therefore, our) place in and grasp on history are shown to be literally flimsy.

In a field where so many ideas get regurgitated ad nauseum, it’s refreshing to read original writing on Hitchcockian topics! This chapter alone makes the book worth the purchase price, highlighting Vertigo as a key antecedent to the intimations of Native American genocidal guilt that seep through in The Shining and Poltergeist and of the profligacy of American imperialism hinted at in Eyes Wide Shut.


From Vertigo's opening, Hitch disrupts his audience's expectations: the opening title sequence starts out in black and white—a motif that's also played out in scenes inside staircases and the bell tower. 

A Dark VistaVision 
Hitchcock dedicated prodigious thought to every aspect of his films’ production. He even thought long and hard about his film stock choices and how they might relate to the themes his stories explored. For instance, when called upon to shoot a film in 3-D—Dial M for Murderhe chose to adapt a stageplay, using that faddish technology to privilege the audience to join the actors onstage. Psycho, a film about the use (and misuse) of eyes, was shot with a 50 mm lens on 35 mm film stock—all the better to implicate the audience in that story’s voyeurism by replicating the natural field of human vision. Vertigo, however, was shot in VistaVision. How does that relate to the story?

Contributor Ana Salzburg offers a few interesting ideas. In the 1950s, studios experimented with a variety of big screen formats, such as Cinemascope and Cinerama. While they emphasized horizontal width, Paramount’s VistaVision allowed for a taller field of view as well. Further, shooting (not just projecting) in VistaVision allowed for greater depth of field—an important attribute, I’d add, in a film whose special effects were designed to bring the dizzying sensation of acrophobia to the screen.

Salzburg meditates on how Hitch may have used the unique attributes of VistaVision as a storytelling device, suggesting that he exploited the technology’s capability to express vertiginousness. While at Mission Delores, Scottie is framed in a low angle medium shot, with the church tower looming overhead, “expressing kindred verticality between Scottie and the mission”—a shot made all the more powerful (if not also possible) by VistaVision. (Click images to enlarge.)


In one of the most sublime and haunting scenes in the film, Scottie and Madeleine are dwarfed by the monumental sequoias at Big Basin Redwoods State Park. “Majestic in their extreme verticality, massive in their breadth, the redwood trees seem to encompass coordinates parallel to those of the VistaVision screen itself.”


The scene at Fort Point combines a full view of the bridge, the bay and Madeleine’s haunted, diminished figure. Likely, such framing couldn’t have been accomplished without VistaVision. This scene is one of the most iconic in all cinema, and the grandeur afforded by VistaVision helped make it so.


Stacks of articles have been written about Vertigo, along with several books, leading with Dan Auiler’s “Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic.” At 334 pages and containing the contributions of 17 authors, “The San Francisco of Hitchcock’s Vertigo” takes its place among them. It offers a sweeping, yet idiosyncratic (in the best sense of the term) view of one of cinema’s most treasured jewels, in one of the world’s most-loved cities. Having helped preserve its memory, some of these writers, like Scottie, might feel responsible for it now. Whatever the case, this book is clearly a personal labor on the part of its contributors and its editor—an apt response to one of Hitch’s most personal works. Only a film as beguiling and beautiful as Vertigo could inspire such a project.

------------
While Cunningham makes a good point, I don't think other film fans should be so quickly dismissed. What about those who fly all the way to Iowa to see the “Ghost Players” emerge onto its Field of Dreams for one more pickup game? Something special is going on there, too. Definitely, more could be written about “cinetourism.” As Phoebe S. Kropp wrote elsewhere: "Why do city and state landmark commissions, California and industry historical societies, and community booster organizations overlook, or worse—dismiss—the importance of Vertigo as an artifact of culture and history?" The question could be asked of cinetourism in general. Why aren't more communities cashing in on it?


Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Mountain Eagle: FOUND!

Hitch (standing) and Alma (seated) on location, filming the The Mountain Eagle.

It’s been called the Holy Grail of classic film—and now it’s been found. Last week, the Pasadena Film Institute contacted me to announce that they’ve verified the discovery of Alfred Hitchcock’s lost classic The Mountain Eagle. Hitch himself would have chuckled: hidden in plain sight, all seven reels had been stored in an antique film case labeled “Bartholomew the Strangler” that an associate of the director (name withheld) was using as a flower stand. The source said, “These spider plants just last forever, you know.”

Until now, the 1926 silent movie has been presumed lost to the ages. But the entire length is intact and, reportedly, it's in excellent condition. In fact, Hitch geeks can already start rewriting the story of his genius: several scenes were shot in color, and Hitch’s traditional cameo is expanded to a speaking role in which he plays the town grocer hawking discounts on a bumper crop of red cabbage. The title card has him shouting, “These heads are priced to roll!”

Even more intriguing, Hitch was already experimenting with the “trombone shot” that he perfected in Vertigo. As the town hermit learns that he is to be accused of murder, the camera dollies back while zooming in, giving the effect of walls closing in around him—the opposite effect of the later film’s dizzying "vertigo" shot. (In a typically Hitchcockian metatextual touch, the character says, “This isn’t quite what I want.”)

I know what you’re thinking. When can we see the movie? Good news! It’s going straight to DVD and Blu-Ray. First, however, the owners need to finalize their exclusive distribution deal with Hollywood Video.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Move aside Gutenberg, the moving image is the world's greatest innovation

 photo Muybridge_race_horse_animated_zps743c62b8.gif




The world's first movie—and it's still getting buzz.  

I’ve got a beef with a few the world’s thought leaders. This year’s annual Technology Issue of The Atlantic Monthly just came out, along with its list of “The 50 Greatest Breakthroughs Since the Wheel.”[1] The airplane glided in at #15, while penicillin took its shot at #28. Personal computers made a hard drive for #16. Nothing startling there. But I was surprised and, frankly, indignant to see that motion pictures had been overlooked!

Maybe we’re too close to the subject to realize film’s impact on history, but I believe it's time for a new reassessment of the medium. (By motion pictures, I mean not just film per se, but also its electronic descendant, video.[2]) Movies were a far more important an breakthrough than photography (#29). After all, there’s little that a still camera can catch that an artist can’t. A good painter can recreate a fleeting facial expression; photography is just an easier way to do it. But movies are different. By photographically capturing motion for repeatable playback, they introduced something new to the world.[3] As such, they fulfilled yearnings as old as mankind: the 30,000-year-old Chauvet cave paintings also have images that, when viewed in the light of a flickering torch, might appear to move. (You only have to squint, suspend disbelief and smoke a pipeful of local wacky weeds.)

I predict that motion pictures will come to be viewed as at least as important an invention as Gutenberg’s printing press,[4] which, as it so often does on such lists, scored Atlantic’s #1 position. The printing press’s top spot only makes sense if you hew to the line that goes something like: thanks to printing, literature became available at cheap rates for the masses; thus, anyone who could write had a shot at getting a book published, and anyone who could read could buy it, leading, eventually to a world where Newton’s Arithmetica Universalis could be shelf buddies with Fanny Hill. That's a tidy story, but it’s hindsight talking. As always, the truth is a bit more complicated—and less flattering for the reputation of Gutenberg’s invention.

Let's take a closer look at this, because the first 100 years after the invention of printing mirrors in many ways the first half century of motion pictures. There's a lot to be learned from comparing the two.

The industrial revolution really ought to get credit for the spread of literacy, not Gutenberg’s invention.

Gutenberg's printed books proved to be a tough sell. Potential customers didn't know what to make of the new technology, and they looked askance at his product; in fact, printing's very survival was far from assured. As Daniel Boorstin writes in The Discoverers, “In fifteenth-century Europe innovation itself was an unfamiliar and suspect idea.” How come?

While Gutenberg is thought of as a Renaissance figure, his life actually took place at the tail end of the Medieval Era. Literacy was still a right reserved for the wealthy upper class, and they weren’t exactly a group of early adopters.[5] The print publishers themselves didn’t help. They saw Gutenberg’s invention, not as a key to an information revolution (a concept they probably would have been averse to anyway), but merely as a way to efficiently recreate handwriting: they called their craft ars articialiter scribendi—the art of artificial writing. Gutenberg’s Bible was intended to be art first, a manufactured product second. As such, it was a newfangled concept that horned in on the territory of an army of well-paid, well-connected copyists with a millenniums-long tradition.[6] Boorstein concludes, “In many ways the most interesting period in the history of the printed book is the first century after Gutenberg’s Bible, when we can see the ambivalence of cultivated European readers toward the new technology.” Introducing the printed book in this world would have been somewhat akin to teaching your grandfather how to use Twitter.

The first generation or two of printers went to great lengths to accommodate their customers’ taste for handwritten manuscripts, serving up imitations of the real thing. Intricate hand-drawn illustrations were added after printing, while the text was “distressed” to resemble handwriting. The implications, though, couldn’t be erased: hand-made originals were the superior product and printed books were a knock-off—the pleather of their day.

A few breakthrough opportunities did come the printers' way, but not in the manner you might expect. Clergymen had been instructed to do more preaching from the pulpit, and that called for more Bibles and other writings for them to read and preach from. That demand created an opportunity for the efficiencies of printing. Nevertheless, like their wealthy peers, priests were a conservative lot, not highly motivated to encourage literacy. Thus, Bibles and other religious books remained in the hands of the clergy class.

As printing became more accepted, the technology met with even more negative reactions—not from the educated elite, but from the scribes themselves who were being put out of work. The first book bans were enacted, not on any religious or moral grounds, but to preserve jobs. But it was too little, too late. Books had already come into their own, spreading enlightenment values among the educated class, providing the most courageous among them with intellectual fuel for an age of revolutions. Such gains worked the way they always had: by a small group of enlightened elite acting on behalf of the uneducated masses.

How well did Gutenberg’s press serve the cause of literacy? Printed books were still fantastically expensive and book ownership remained a wealthy person’s prerogative for four more centuries. The world had to wait for mass production to come along in the 19th century before it could have affordable books; in fact, the industrial revolution really ought to get the credit for the spread of literacy, not Gutenberg’s invention.

Even then, printed books and their software—literacy—didn’t penetrate entire continents for centuries. Vast swaths of Africa and South America remain illiterate till today. What about China and Japan? They’d already been printing their own books for hundreds of years and, anyway, their pictographic writing had no use for moveable type. Thus, in Asia, Gutenberg’s invention was disregarded with a transcontinental yawn. His press did change all sorts of social equations—but only in Europe, and only among those at the top of the food chain, and even then it took an awfully long time. Outside that world, not as much happened as we might think.

That’s why I question printing’s number one spot on the Atlantic list. Which brings me to why I think movies deserve more credit than this list (and others) give them. Though separated by five centuries, the similarities between these two eras is telling. These details prove that the moving image—not the printing press—is the greatest breakthrough since the wheel.

As with printing (at first), motion pictures faced skepticism from better-educated people. During the silent era in particular, movies were considered a cheap, less sophisticated alternative to live theater—and, to be honest, the charge was legitimate. (Many, if not most, early movies were soft-core porn.) It wasn’t until film evolved a language of its own—montage, framing, the close-up—that anybody would take it seriously as a visual art form. Even then, perceptions stuck.

The fledgling film industry itself harbored no great illusions about the sophistication of its product: young wolf Alfred Hitchcock met with fierce resistance from film distributor C. M. Woolf, who regarded his films as too pretentiously “arty”: the distributor initially refused to handle Hitch’s first masterpiece, The Lodger, on those grounds—a move that could have ended his directorial career on the spot. (Fortunately, he relented, but only after Ivor Montagu helped re-edit the film to the distributor’s taste.) Throughout his career, Hitch was dogged by what he saw as a lack of appreciation for the artistic merits of his films and, perhaps, for film in general.

How did theater owners compensate for their movies’ lightweight content? As if taking a cue from those sumptuously illustrated early printed books, by the 1920s they were lavishing enormous sums on opulent movie palaces that recreated faux-Venetian palazzos, Greek temples, Babylonian gardens and Egyptian vaults.[7] The sheer luxury of these halls shamed the best that Broadway had to offer, making a night at the movies more fantastical than a night at the opera;[8] in these bedazzled caverns, the Keystone Kops would never again have it so good.

Like those early books, film was perceived as a low-brow invention. Nevertheless, film had—and continues to have—power that books don’t. In fact, though barely a century old, film has already had a greater impact than books on the world and on the individual.

Within 25 years of Edison’s first commercial exhibition in 1894, just about everyone on earth had seen a movie.

Impact on the world
Very unlike Gutenberg’s books, motion pictures were practically an overnight, ‘round the world phenomenon. Movies were easy to duplicate and exhibiting machinery—one-person, hand-cranked peep shows at first; motorized, large screen projectors later—could be quickly built and then operated by a child. Yet, the spectacle of film was so enthralling that even the barest of stories—or even no story—could pull in audiences lined up around the block to see movies in whatever makeshift room could hold them. Never before had such a simple innovation yielded such a sensation.

Film’s unique visual properties also made it easy for quick dispersal. Lacking audio, they could easily communicate with audiences in any country.  A simple trade-out of dialogue or title cards was all that was needed, making it a simple matter to localize a movie for any language.

At the same time, creative control over the final cut wasn’t nearly as centralized as it is today; local presenters had enormous latitude to cut scenes or otherwise manipulate the film to suit local customs and sensibilities. One of Hitchcock’s many pioneering achievements was to popularize the idea of the director as author of the film who has the last word on the final cut. But that started in the 1930s. Before he came along, there was far less control over what shape the film would take as it went around the world; as long as ticket sales held up, nobody really cared. Like the blogosphere, whose success is due, in part, to lax interpretation of copyright laws, this Wild West era of cinematic distribution contributed to the speedy adoption of movie entertainment among diverse cultures.

Thus, within 25 years of Edison’s first commercial exhibition in 1894, just about everyone on earth had seen a movie. Global fandom—and the distribution systems needed to serve it—was a reality.[9] Up till then, no other innovation had made such a huge impact so quickly.

From that global trade emerged a new product: personality. It didn’t take long to realize that the actors who starred in these movies wielded enormous power on a worldwide stage. By the 1920s, movies were sold, not on the basis of a story, but for their star appeal that was central to a “massive industrial enterprise” that “…peddled a new intangible—fame.” Actors like Rudolph Valentino and Mary Pickford could promise a sell-out show anywhere in the world, and this influence led to hyperinflation in stars’ salaries; by 1926 Charlie Chaplin was making $30,000 a week—just over $400,000 in today’s money.

And it wasn’t all entertainment. The first Pathé Newsreel was shown in 1908, and soon news-only theater opened in cities the world over. From then on, audiences had their choice of viewing entertainment mixed with newsreels, or they could walk down the street to a cinema that was basically a prototype of CNN. Newsreels never put newspapers out of business, but they did lay the groundwork for TV news to come later.

Early on, Berlin, Rome and Hollywood were roughly neck and neck in the international movie trade. But World War I devastated those industries in Europe, and the United States thus became the world’s center of movie production. Who could have predicted that American culture and values (for better and worse) would become one of our country’s chief export products?

If my Facebook friends can conceive of the universe as a giant hologram, who should they thank, Immanuel Kant or Captain Kirk? 

Impact on the individual
At least in the Western world, printed books led to great scientific advancements and aided the Protestant Reformation and the Renaissance. But, as mentioned, for centuries, those advances were celebrated mainly among a wealthy few.

Literacy created a new caste system even as it dismantled old ones. Basic literacy—the ability to read a job application or mortgage agreement—was no guarantee of success. It merely assured one's survival. Those who could tout having what E. D. Hirsch calls cultural literacy—familiarity with a set of texts that granted one credibility among better-educated classes—tended to be concentrated among the upper classes. Thus, for many years, it wasn’t that you could read but, instead, what you’d read that was a measure of your upward mobility.

Thanks largely to film and video, that class system is being demolished. Reading, alone, no longer cuts it. In fact, it can be a handicap, causing a person to be labeled as nebbish or backward. Increasingly, and possibly even more important to successful integration and advancement in society, is one’s knowledge of pop culture—and this knowledge is obtained almost entirely through motion pictures (film and TV), along with music—media that operate outside of the printed word.

In the old literacy paradigm, big changes in thinking and worldview took place in academia and then trickled down to the illiterate masses over time. At least, that was the hope. The process could take years—if it was really completed at all. And now things, apparently, have gotten worse. The biggest complaint that cultural literacy proponents have about “kids these days” is that they don’t have any. Read Bernard Schweizer (and other mostly white and male writers) and you’ll conclude that our cultural literacy is in the crapper. Schweizer, a college lit professor, assigned an essay by environmentalist Bill McKibben to a group of freshmen. Few, if any, of his students were able to pick up on the nuances of McKibben’s highly allusive language.[10] Moans Schweizer:
“Obviously, without continuous and rather pedantic explanations from me, my students can grasp only the surface meaning of McKibben’s essay.… Take all the (un-footnoted) references to Gandhi, Hemingway, Miguel de Cervantes, Orwell, Thoreau, and the Bible out of McKibben’s essay, remove all the idiomatic expressions and cut the literary allusions, and you end up with a deflated text that looks as if it had been gone over by a censor’s pen in some weird dystopia. Little do we know that a large proportion of our young students are already inhabiting such a world.”[11]
So much for the trickle-down of ideas. We’re back where we started: there are forms of literacy that still separate that haves from the have nots. As Schweizer states:
“But that does not mean that this kind of cultural literacy has ceased to be relevant. Indeed, I believe it is still alive and well, but that it is now cultivated only in a narrow circle of the privileged classes. The reason I don’t see much evidence of this shared knowledge in my own classroom is that I do not, as a rule, encounter the products of the country’s elite preparatory school systems. What I’m saying, then, is that the issue of cultural literacy is socio-economically coded.”
Wow. That sounds bleak. Unfortunately, Schweizer is only telling part of the story. It’s true that such literacy is fast disappearing, but it is only one kind of literacy—and it’s of the same flavor that caused previous generations to mourn the loss of Latin as a required subject. Having been steeped myself in the canonical texts Schweizer describes, I’m witnessing my own dinosaurification. While I’m sad to see such literacy go—and I do think something important is lost in its passing—it’s hardly anything new. 

Conservative thinkers such as Hirsch and Allan Bloom are our modern prophets of doom. But they are wrong, and their lamentations ensconce them in the past. The changes they identify don’t automatically imply that people are getting any dumber than their previous generation or that they are less-equipped to take on the daunting challenges we now face.[12] In fact, new forms of literacy—led by the moving image—are stepping up to become the cultural currency ideally suited for a new generation and the challenges and opportunities it faces. 

Reading for reading’s sake is declining—especially when it comes to the classics. It’s getting its ass beat by film and video. But that doesn’t mean the important messages are getting lost.

In a matter of months, one film can accomplish what it formerly took a book years to do. For example, except for a few philosophy nerds, few people have actually read Nietzsche. But the runaway success of Groundhog Day—Danny Rubin’s adaptation of Nietzsche’s The Gay Science—brought the old Immoralist’s particular brand of fatalism to the world in less than a year. Ever since, millions have used this movie as a catchphrase to describe the existential grind of their careers and dead-end relationships.

Even fewer people have heard of the 19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, but all you really need to know about his classic book that examines the nature of reality—The World as Will and Representation—is right there in The Matrix.[13] If you’re just starting a new job, it’s likely that a coworker will soon come over to your desk and offer you “the red pill or the blue pill,” that is, to show you the “reality” of your office politics. Between the two of you, you’ll know what he means—and it will be understood that this is an ironic bastardization of the original concept—and it will conjur up a whole set of ideas about experience and reality and so on that originated in Schopenhauer (actually, Kant, if you want to get technical) but that you got from a Hollywood blockbuster.[14] Then, on your coffee break, you might free-associate your way from there over to Brian Greene’s TED talk on string theory and the multiverse, a topic you might never seek out in a book. 

It could be argued that some of the nuance of the original thought is lost in translation[15] to the 90-minute format and glitzy graphics of film. That’s true, as far as it goes. But the impact of these movies goes deep and they do invite repeated watching, which in turn, encourages deeper reflection on these heady ideas. (Christopher Nolan’s movies have to be seen at least twice before you can even make sense of the damn things. And they’re popular, which is proof enough for me that moviegoers are indeed an evolving cohort.) And that flashy CGI imagery? In the hands of the best practitioners, it can be used to wordlessly impart philosophies and meaning that formerly took tens of thousands of words. I don’t have any figures to back this up, but I suspect that more people are stopping to think about the nature of reality in philosophical terms as a result of The Matrix than most college students who've slogged their way through Shopenhauer’s labyrinthine syntax (and then promptly forgot it). If my Facebook friends can conceive of the universe as a giant hologram, who should they thank, Immanuel Kant or Captain Kirk? 

The fact that a film can go about all this business in just a couple of hours is kind of a miracle. This type of cinematic literacy has yet to fully accounted for. Such is the impact of motion pictures on the individual.

Because of its power to persuade, early Soviet and Nazi leaders seized on film as their prime tool to unify their peoples under their specialized brands of socialism. Sure, these are cautionary tales, but the real lesson is that if you’re looking to spread ideas quickly, look to motion pictures, not books. Other more positive changes have also come about a result of the moving image. Film footage brought back from the Vietnam forever changed our attitude towards war as a solution to international problems. In Oregon, the TV documentary "Pollution in Paradise" kick-started the state's environmental movement; its policies remain among the most progressive in the world.

While Michael Pollan's books have had a huge influence on our attitude toward the Big Business of food, it took the documentary film Super Size Me to nudge fast food chains to offer healthier menu choices.

When it comes to social mobility, even in the upper echelons of society your ability to quote Thoreau may or may not win you any points. But if you don't know the origin of the phrase "May the Force be with you," you're screwed. 

The strength of reading literacy is that the reader has more control over the content. He or she can easily pause to reflect, re-read portions to savor them or, increasingly, link to related content for a more in-depth understanding of the material. Video doesn't really allow for that all too easily. That is, the moving image has a flow that desires not to be interrupted. But this freedom is also reading's limitation: reading is generally a single-user situation. Typically, we read alone. 

That problem was solved by film. Initially, like books and magazines, films were exhibited in a single-user format too: think of those “peep shows” you can still see at amusement parks and old-timey pizza parlors. Those machines went away because it was quickly determined that more money could be made (and the spectacle enhanced) by projecting the moving image onto a large screen. Enter the age of the storefront nickelodeon followed by the aforementioned movie palaces. After that, TV came into the home and by the 1950s, motion pictures were serving everyone from large public crowds to solitary shut-ins. Books could never hope to compete. Lately the circle has closed: with the advent of smart phones and other mobile devices, movies are increasingly being viewed on devices that, like those peep shows, are designed for an audience of one. And it's a point of doctrine in the social media world that if you want your message to go viral, use video, not text. Unlike writing, the moving image is all things to all people. 

Gutenberg's press, combined with efficiencies created by the industrial revolution, brought 5,000 years of written literacy to its logical conclusion. Motion pictures brought an end to that and ushered in a new era of post-reading literacy based on the moving image. Thanks to its astonishingly fast penetration of and acceptance in the global marketplace, motion picture technology—both film and video—has brought ideas large and small to all nations and language groups. It has also been the key to reshaping global society on a scale and with a whiplash rapidity never before seen. In short, the moving image has brought the entire human race closer together than any other technological development. That's why it's the greatest innovation since the wheel. Here’s to the next 5,000 years.      


[1] Weighing in was a panel of 12 scientists, historians and technologists, along with Atlantic Monthly’s own senior editor, Alexis Madrigal, who evidently pulled rank to make the panel contributed to the list.

[2] I’m also distinguishing film and video from their exhibitionary components—the projector and the television (#45)—both of whose utility depends on the former’s existence.

[3] Remember why old Muybridge did it? He needed to settle an age-old dispute about whether or not a galloping horse’s four legs ever leave the ground all at once. (They do.) Thus, from its beginnings, film has been used to show us realities that we can’t perceive with the naked eye.

[4] Specifically, the suite of reusable movable-type technology that Gutenberg developed.

[5] Just for perspective, Galileo’s heresy went to trial nearly 200 years after Gutenberg printed his Bible.

[6] Even today, original art is esteemed more highly than quality prints. Only through original art can you literally remain in touch with the artist behind it.

In the Middle Ages, the written word was revered in a way that’s quite foreign to our Information Age. Possession of a handwritten book invoked a special relationship to the personality behind the content, be it a work of philosophy or erotica. In this relationship, the scribe held a priestly role, intermediating between the two. The scribe’s handwriting served to enhance that relationship: subtle changes in his script were like commentary that could emphasize important details or signal the presence of humor.

[7] They could well afford to do so: at the time, studio heads owned the theater chains, distribution and, of course, actors, directors and writers (under contract) and could name their price for tickets. Ticket prices tripled in America in 1920s, going from $.50 at the beginning of the decade to as much as $1.65, which adjusted for inflation, would be the equivalent of $22.50, making today’s first run prices a bargain. That’s why studio heads were called moguls. That’s also why their vertical oligopolies were broken up in 1948 when the U.S. Supreme Court decided they’d been violating antitrust laws (United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc.). (In Vertigo, various characters’ talk of the old days, when men had “the power and the freedom,” might also be a nod to that studio system for whose abuses the movie is a metaphor.)

[8] Maybe the contrast between Hollywood schlock and these exquisite movie palaces was the real joke behind the Marx Brothers’ high-comedy slapstick extravaganza A Night at the Opera.

[9] The recent discovery of Hitch’s assistant directorial effort, The White Shadow, (1924) reveals a lot about the international scope of British films at that time, not to speak of the much more powerful American and German film industries. As silent films were passed from one theater to the next in their international travels, they would come to rest in far-flung lands like Argentina or Czechoslovakia; New Zealand’s North Island town of Hastings was the last stop for The White Shadow. Because the films would have been rather worn out by then and shipping was expensive, there they would stay. The silent film industry was truly global.

[10] This makes me wonder whether the problem wasn’t with those students but with McKibben’s presumably brilliant and well-reasoned essay. In fact, the assumption Scweizer makes—blaming the audience for the failure of the writer to connect with it —pretty much sums up why environmental writers like McKibben—sexy though they and their cause may be—have difficulty convincing anyone outside their circle jerk of fellow believers.

[11] "Cultural Literacy: Is It Time to Revisit the Debate?" Thought & Action 25 (Fall 2009)

[12] Generation Y may not know its Thoreau from a hole in the ground, but as pointed out in a recent article in the New York Times by Emily Esfahani Smith and Jennifer L. Aaker, they’re much sharper than we give them credit for. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/01/opinion/sunday/millennial-searchers.html?_r=0
Recent surveys show that they are repudiating the materialistic excesses of previous generations and that “meaningful work was among the three most important factors defining career success.”

[13] The film’s co-directors, the Wachovski brothers, assigned this book to Keanu Reeves as preparation for his role as Neo.

[14] And what is Monsters, Inc., but Schopenhauer for tots?

[15] Another great example of bringing existential ennui to the masses.