Sunday, June 23, 2013

"A new kind of cine-love"

TLS June 7 2013

from John Ridpath's review of Jonathan Sterne's MP3: The meaning of a format, Gabriele Pedulla's In Broad Daylight: Movies and spectators after the cinema, and J. Hoberman's Film After Film: or, what became of 21st century cinema:

AT&T's groundbreaking psychoacoustic research was designed with a commercial imperative in mind: to maximize bandwidth on telephone lines. By only reproducing sounds that were audible to human hearing, the company managed to quadruple its capacity by 1920s. As the twentieth century progressed, various psychoacoustic researchers turned their attention to exploiting gaps within the audible spectrum, such as those caused when one sound is rendered inaudible by a similar one that is louder (a phenomenon known as masking). 
Such research contributed directly to the creation of "perceptual coders": algorithms designed to compress audio by removing inaudible sounds. As part of a drive by ISO and IEC to create standards for audio and video compression, the Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG) was established in 1988. In order to overcome political differences between members the MPEG Phase 1 standard defined three protocols (or "layers") for defining audio. Of those layers the third only rose to prominence when the Fraunhofer Institute, who had led the technology's development, branded it the "MP3" and released its encoding software. By 1997, MP3 had become the most popular format for online file sharing, cementing its notoriety but ultimately leading to its prominent place in the legitimate digital audio market. Today, MP3 remains the most common format in which recorded sound circulates. 
MPEG's standard was developed from listening tests that saw a panel of "experts" rank compressed recordings alongside CD-quality counterparts. Each version was judged on a fifty-point scale that hinged, somewhat curiously, on the listener's stated level of irritation: very annoying; annoying; slightly annoying; perceptible, but not annoying; imperceptible. From these deeply subjective tests, fascinating qustions emerge. Are we to assume that the CD, another digital format, provides the "ideal" of audio quality? Who is held to be an "expert listener"? What genres or audio recording are tested? As Sterne puts it, "a whole praxeology of listening was written into the cord of an MP3, where particular kinds of listening subjects and orientation towards listening shaped the format". 
. . . In "The Myth of Total Cinema", the French film critic Andre Bazin identified the art form's desire to recreate "the world in its own image"--borne out in each technological development to the medium, such as full colour, synchronous sound and 3D. For Hoberman, digital photographic techniques--from Photoshop to CGI--negate the necessity of having the world before a camera, or even having a camera at all: "With the advent of CGI, the history of motion pictures was now, in effect, the history of animation". The technology launched a wave of "cyborg cinema", stretching back to Disney's Tron (1982), continuing during the 1990s with works such as Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park (1993), and culminating in 1999 with The Matrix. For Hoberman, "in the universe of The Matrix, Bazin's dream arrived as a nightmare, in the form of a virtual cyber existence. Total Cinemas as a total disassociation from reality". 
After 9/11, the director Robert Altman told the press that the terrorists "have copied the movies. . . . I just believed we created this atmosphere and taught them how to do it". Hoberman believes that the event was taken by some filmmakers as "a challenge to the notion of the movies as a medium with a privileged relationship to the real", and encouraged a "New Realness" among certain directors. Spielberg has said that his War of the Worlds (2005) deliberately allegorized 9/11 and was "as ultra-realistic as I've ever attempted to make a movie". Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (2004), meanwhile, seemingly stands opposed to all entertainment values, with a crucifixion sequence that depicts near continuous violence with shocking realness.

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