AT VARIETY, OUR COMPUTER SYSTEM has recently been upgraded. This means we no longer have some of the glitches in the system we used to have; we now have a whole new set of glitches. All the kinks will no doubt be ironed out just in time for our next upgrade.
At home, I got an upgrade to digital cable on AT&T Broadband. In the antiquated cable system, I used to be able to set my TV so that HBO automatically popped up Sundays at 9 p.m., ensuring that I never missed “The Sopranos.” Can’t do that anymore. I used to be able to tape one movie at 3 a.m. on AMC, and another at 5 a.m. on Showtime. Can’t do that anymore, either.
“But look at how great the picture is,” said the cable installer. “And you get more channels.”
Mmm-hmm. In other words, things are not getting better, they’re just getting different.
WHEN I STARTED WORK AT VARIETY, in the Olden Times (i.e., in the last century, when Woody Allen comedies were still funny), there were few fax machines, cell phones or emails. All of these are supposed to make our lives easier.
But do you know many people who feel their jobs are easier than they used to be? Do you know anyone who is working fewer hours than they did 10-15 years ago?
Well, do you? I’m waiting for an answer.
Movies have made a similar “progress,” thanks to CGI.
But we’ve also lost something. For decades, 1962’s “Lawrence of Arabia” induced gasps for its stunning desert vistas. Now audiences would just assume the sand was computer-generated. The scene of Scarlett wandering among the war-wounded in the 1939 “Gone With the Wind,” the crowd scenes in the 1963 “Cleopatra” or the helicopter attack in the 1979 “Apocalypse Now” — unforgettable images.
Always there was amazement: How did they get that shot?
But no longer. CGI opens up endless possibility to filmmakers (provided they have a big enough budget), but it also undercuts them. Early on in “Vanilla Sky,” Tom Cruise wanders through Times Square, which is completely deserted. I assumed the effect was achieved via computer. I later found out it was filmed on location, the streets were genuinely deserted, and it must have been a logistical nightmare.
But there was no wondering how they got that shot. We’ve lost the awe. Awwww.
The challenge is to rev up the awe again.
IN MOVIES LIKE THE ORIGINAL “Jurassic Park,” it didn’t matter that the plot made no sense. The technology was enough to ensure it was a hit. Now, a few years later, the sequel-makers have to contend with the fact that filmgoers are quickly jaded: Yeah, we’ve seen jaw-dropping dinosaurs, what else have you got?
Last summer’s “Final Fantasy” proved that providing a technological breakthrough just ain’t enough for audiences.
On the plus side, filmmakers can create images, from “The Mummy Returns” to “Shrek,” that were unthinkable a decade ago. And in the hands of an artist, like Peter Jackson with “The Lord of the Rings” or Baz Luhrmann with “Moulin Rouge,” the technology and storytelling are astounding.
I’m not longing for the good old days. Maybe it’s the word “upgrade” that’s bothersome. It gives the promise of improvement. “Downgrade” is too harsh. Maybe if we call technological advances “sidegrades.”