Photo: Stanley Baker and Michael Caine in the 1964 film Zulu
In concept, a Classic Film has, by merit, endured through the ages unshaken by the winds of fashion. Classic Films bubble to the surface and only improve with additional viewings, continually adding to modern conversations. This is why I was so disturbed when recently I tried to watch the classic film Zulu on my father’s new television set and found it corrupted by technology.
The new LG TV is substantial, 47 inches diagonally. The remote control is equally substantial with a myriad of buttons and a LED screen that leads to more options—yet it alone is not enough. It requires a little buddy remote, slender and deceptively simple to operate the AppleTv, a cultured little box with a blinking light that allows me to escape the confines of mere cable and into the heavens of streaming content. With this system I should be able to insulate myself from any glimpse of life’s boredom.
I hit the green ON button and something inside the TV tinkles but nothing happens. I mash it this time and a dialog box appears telling me components can’t be found. I look at the LED screen and select AppleTV and push the ON button again. Changes occur but they do not lead to entertainment. I try the coy little AppleTV remote. Nothing. I try different sequences of buttons to trick the TV and somehow finally coerce it to wake up. Then I navigate through a string of options until I find and initiate the playing of Zulu.
I nestle in as the golden title cards emblaze the screen amid tribal drumbeats. The film opens with red-coated dead soldiers draped and dying along an African savannah. The camera pans left and everything seems suddenly very wrong— not wrong in the sense that war is hell, but wrong in the sense that the TV is screwing up the image somehow. It looks, in fact, not so hellish, but like a bunch of extras pretending to look dead. A group of Zulu warriors clamor in from the left seeming as though they are arriving to claim their prize on a game show.
I expected to see the depiction of a culture clash between Imperial British forces and the Zulu nation and instead I experienced a culture class between art and technology. If you’ve watched a recently manufactured TV you might have also experienced the “Soap Opera Effect” wherein a film looks like it had been shot on cheap video. The culprit is a feature known as “motion smoothing” added to most new sets that try to accommodate for the motion blur that can accompany high definition technology. This favors content that seeks a so-called realism and slights the craft of film.
We are compelled by ambition and a market economy to constantly improve and upgrade technology. The quality of our senses fades as we age; sounds and images are not so clear as we experienced in youth. So it is an alluring enterprise to develop technology that aims to turn back the clock by making things sharper. Mankind will always yearn for immortality even at the expense of quality of life. Digital media have created the same compromise, extending the possibilities for the senses to rejuvenate but at a great cost. It doesn’t matter if a picture is HD or 3d or 4d if the content is no good, and it doesn’t matter if the content is good if the picture has been adulterated. But the appetite is for what’s new rather than what’s good. This is not just true of film and TV but is the case for music and even painting.
When I teach painting from observation I emphasize how important squinting is as a tool. Squinting reduces the resolution of your vision and blurs the edges of shapes. This has a great unifying effect on the subject as smaller differences are discarded in favor of larger relationships and makes it easier to translate into the language of paint. The opposite desire to see things sharply and clearly fractures the sense of an immersive space. Compare the experience of a crisp clear autumn day and a foggy winter evening. The former feels understandable, the later is knowable—the difference between an intellectual connection and an emotional one. The element of mystery is invaluable because it is much harder to manufacture.
There is an expression that “too sharp makes dull” referring to a blade sharpened to the extent that the angle of the edge is weakened and quickly becomes dull. This maxim can apply as metaphor and it also translates to notions of realism. In the quest for more real-feeling virtual experiences, judgment has been damaged, and it becomes harder to see the forest for the trees. What good is a big sleek new TV with all the digital bells and whistles if Zulu looks like garbage?