Thursday, December 19, 2019

Political journeys

The republication of Isaiah Berlin’s numerous essays, beginning with Four Essays on Liberty (1969) and Vico and Herder (1976), and continuing at an increased pace from 1978 under the general editorship of Henry Hardy, has revealed a central theme of Berlin’s thought: his advocacy of the doctrine of value pluralism. Key to this approach is the idea of incommensurability: the resistance of contrasting world views to any amalgamation via an overarching harmony of principles and intentions.
Since the early 1990s value pluralism has captured the attention of many admirers as Berlin’s "master idea." As such, it ranks as the most discussed, most praised, and most controversial of his findings.
I have long been sympathetic to this view, perhaps because my own political evolution has been so complex and diverse. Discarding the Marxism inculcated by my "progressive" parents, I became a liberal Democrat and something of a Cold Warrior. For considerable periods, though, I have been attracted by both anarchism and libertarianism. Briefly, Neo-Conservatism also engaged my attention. Now I am left with only shards collected in this complex journey: call the result empiricism if you will.
So maybe this eclecticism counts as my master idea. Yet it cannot rank as a harmonious conjunction of diverse views, since only fragments are collected. For example, I still hold with libertarians that in many respects there is too much government regulation. Just so.  Yet in some areas, having to do with pollution and other quality of life issues, we may need MORE regulation.

Sunday, December 01, 2019

Film history

The medium is generally acknowledged as starting in France in 1895.  In retrospect one can distinguish two poles: that of the Lumière brothers (realism) versus that of Georges Méliès (fantasy).

The twenties, the golden age of the silents, witnessed a duel between Germany and the US, though the industry eventually centered in Hollywood.The Germans excelled in dark fantasies such as Nosferatu, The Golem, and Metropolis.  For its part, Hollywood developed a special affinity for comedy, with such stars as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.

In due course silent films yielded to the talkies, originally most of them in black and white.  Early on, Hollywood fostered the star system, where such early idols as Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks were succeeded by favorites like Humphrey Bogart, Marilyn Monroe, and Robert Redford.  A number of major foreign imports achieved renown, including the performers Chaplin, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, and Ingrid Bergman, as well as directors such as Ernst Lubitsch, Michael Curtiz, and Billy Wilder.  

During the early 1930s a perception developed that Hollywood movies were too salacious, requiring corrective action.  The Motion Picture Production Code provided the set of industry moral guidelines that applied to most United States motion pictures released by major studios from 1930 to 1968. It was also popularly known as the Hays Code, after Will H. Hays, who was the president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) from 1922 to 1945. As the country began to experience the sexual revolution in the 1960s these restrictions faded and were ultimately abandoned, except with regard to young people.

Ever in quest of mass audiences, Hollywood developed several distinctive genres, from screwball comedies and Westerns—the latter eventually expanded by a subgenre— i.e. Italian spaghetti Westerns. This development was preceded by a major Italian contribution in the wake of World War II, when Neo-Realism came to be espoused by such directors as Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini.

For a long time in theaters the most common videographic aspect ratios was 4:3 (1.3:1); in other words somewhat broader than high.  Eventually, in order to compete with television and lure back patrons to theaters some videographers began to utilize a wide-screen format, as in the 1953 Western film Shane.  This film was also in color; and this palette increasingly became the norm.

The 1940s and 1950s rank as the "classic period" of American film noir. Films of this genre display a low-key, black-and-white visual style that has roots in German Expressionist cinematography. Many of the prototypical stories and much of the ethos of classic noir stem from the hardboiled school of crime fiction prevalent in the United States during the Great Depression.

Despite the foreign influence and name, noir was homegrown.  That was emphatically not true of another trend, as Rashomon (1950) marked the entrance of Japanese film onto the world stage.  Starring Toshiro Mifune, it was directed by the soon-to-be-famous Akira Kurosawa. Although the film borrows the title from Ryūnosuke Akutagawa's short story “Rashōmon," it is actually  based on Akutagawa's short story of 1922 "In a Grove.”  The film excels in a plot device that involves various characters providing subjective, alternative, self-serving, and contradictory versions of the same incident.

During the 1960s, art-house cinemas, generally featuring intense, adventurous works of European origin, became popular, at least among the intelligentsia.  These films commonly derived from such directors as Federico Felliini, Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman, and Jean-Luc Godard.  This flowering in turn fostered a form of criticism known as the auteur school, demoting the role of the actors in favor of directors and writers.  In the US version, art-house films were typically independently-produced, outside the major studio system. This trend led to what was termed the Indie film, a genre featured in the annual film festival known as Sundance.

The era also witnessed the popularity of porno films, now free of censorship, normally shown in special theaters.  These locales are now all but extinct, and so the internet serves as the natural conduit for those seeking this material.

The growing popularity of television seemed to pose a threat to cinemas in the 1950s (at least in the U.S. and other western countries), fostering response in the form of efforts to make theatrical films more attractive with technological innovations. New widescreen formats invited filmmakers to create more epic films and spectacles that looked better on a big screen than on television. For their part, 3D films experienced a short golden age from 1952 to 1954. 

Television, at first considered threatening, also opened up a new market for filmmakers, introducing new possibilities that led to new genres, especially in serialized form. One might think of classic film serials such as Tarzan; Flash Gordon; and classic Disney cartoon shorts, paving the way for feature-films like the Indiana Jones trilogy and Pixar animé. As the famous saying goes: “It has all been done before”.

Beginning in the 1950s video emerged as a viable, cheaper alternative to film, forming a more accessible moving-image medium for artists and amateurs to experiment with. This led to video art in the late 1960s, and to more home movies being made.

By the 1980s home video had opened a big market for films that already had had their theatrical run, giving people easier access to titles of their choice in video rental shops - now alas mostly defunct. Direct-to-video (niche) markets usually offered lower quality, cheap productions that were not deemed suitable for the general audiences of television and theatrical releases. Improving over time, digital production methods became more popular during the 1990s, yielding realistic visual effects and feature-length computer animations.

Since the 2000s streaming media platforms like YouTube provided avenues for any persons with access to the internet and cameras (a standard feature of smartphones) to publish their own videos. Also competing with the increasing popularity of video games and other forms of home entertainment, the industry sought to make theatrical releases more attractive with new 3D technologies, while epic films (fantasy and superhero) became a mainstay in cinemas following the record-breaking success of Avatar (2009), most of which works were redesigned into multiplex formats such as 4D, HDX and ADVX. Next will likely be bubble technology. The sad reality is that many of these devices offered little more than new recipes for inferior filmmaking. As such, the box office has seen a dramatic decline in all of these respective formats over the past decade.

The start of the new millennium brought other significant changes. Fantasy film franchises dominated the box office with The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean, the Star Wars prequel trilogy (beginning in 1999), and The Chronicles of Narnia. Comic-book superhero films became blockbusters following the releases of X-Men, Unbreakable, and Spider-Man. The Roman-era Gladiator similarly sparked the revival of epic films, while the Bollywood-inspired Moulin Rouge! did the same for musical films in the Western world, where Indian musicals such as Lagaan and Devdas also gained some mainstream exposure.

In addition, film genres not previously known for their popular appeal in North America became increasingly attractive to filmgoers.  Examples included offerings in foreign languages such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, The Passion of the Christ, and Letters from Iwo Jima.  At the same time documentary films such as An Inconvenient Truth, March of the Penguins, Supersize Me, and Fahrenheit 9/11, enjoyed success.

Animated films in the 2000s displayed an increased use of computer-generated imagery, as in Shrek, Madagascar, and Happy Feet. Anime films gained popularity with the release of Spirited Away, and similarly with stop-motion animation with Chicken Run, and motion-capture animation with The Polar Express and its mapping-technology whereby dots are placed on the live performers to map them into computer-generated imagery, commonly known as CGI, a game-changer in the industry.

The latest trends point towards all things Asian, in particular China, excelling in its ability to push a mainstream film into the stratosphere as a box-office phenomenon. A slew of films came out of China that are self-sustaining due to an internal cultural autonomy reflected by the trend during the last few years for Asian cinema to dispense with other countries as sustainers of their industry. Films such as Ne Zhi; The Wandering Earth; Operation Red Sea, and even sequels to lesser properties such as Wolf Warrior 2 and Detective Chinatown 2 seem to have commanded the zeitgeist, reflecting the increasing popularity of mass-marketing based on North American properties. These films have accumulated well over five billion dollars in their home country alone. 

It is rare for films from America being banned in China going on to achieve record numbers without critical support from elsewhere  The few examples that spring to mind, ironically, are antihero epics The Dark Knight (starring Oscar-winner Heath Ledger) and the polarizing Joker film (with Joaquin Phoenix in the same role) playing characters from the criminal underworld. Both films managed to gross over a billion dollars without playing in China. They were banned there, however, owing to their perceived anti-China politics.