“The Medium is the Message”

This famous Marshall McLuhan quote has been on my mind a lot lately. I first became aware of it many years ago, as an undergraduate, and it was appealing but obscure – I didn’t get it.

It makes a little more sense to me each passing year, as I consider my relationship with media – both what I make and what I consume – and its profound importance, and truth, continues to dawn on me, bit by bit.

As I wrote in a previous post, I believe that the age of cinema (or MacroCinema) has pretty much run its course – that is, the age in which Important Movies about Important People and Events are made by large, industrial film crews and consumed by a mass audience, together, in a movie theater.

Of course I’m not the only one talking about this evolution, or transition, or whatever you want to call it. And of course, this sort of thing doesn’t happen all at once, in a day. I’m sure that far into the future, from time to time somebody will still decide to make a movie about a real president – as opposed to fictional, soap-operatic dramas such as Scandal and House of Cards – but I also feel certain that the age when these are common and popular is winding down. It seems like the 80s and 90s were the heyday of the Historical Epic – there was genuine enthusiasm for movies (and shows, and books) about figures such as Gandhi, Patton, Nixon, etc.. But these days, even Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln doesn’t get much attention.

There is a lot of romance around The Movies, still – childhood memories of the darkened theater, the first time seeing this or that important film. But I doubt that nostalgia will extend into the lives of anyone born after, say, 1990 – who will still go see The Avengers this weekend in the theater, but who more likely watched important films from the 20th Century, if they bother to watch them at all, on a Criterion Netflix DVD, cable tv, or illegally downloaded via bittorrent.

As I’ve said before, the Film Industry is first and foremost an industry, built on a very specific 20th Century model, basically a culture factory with specialized, unionized workers churning out assembly-line content to satisfy consumer demand. The fact that, towards the end of the 20th Century and into the 21st, more and more of that labor has been outsourced to indie-land and to cheaper foreign crews and locations doesn’t change the nature of the medium itself – it’s just an industrial efficiency to maximize profit, like offshoring your customer service to a call center in India.

Far moreso than the content of any individual movie (across genres, including high-end “art films” and mainstream television), the psychological and social impact of cinema (the message) is born out of the formal qualities of the medium itself. Whole books have been written to enumerate those formal qualities, but a couple of key points can be shared relatively easily.

  • MacroCinema is a “shared experience” – consumed publicly in a theater, distributed widely across the country. More specifically, at designated times, a high-powered projector shines a giant image on a screen before hundreds of people in specially designed comfy chairs, accompanied by audio pumped through a very sophisticated and powerful sound system.
  • MacroCinema is a product of the efforts of a large team of experts using expensive, specialized equipment.
  • MacroCinema consists of professional actors giving a dramatic performance of a written screenplay in a context controlled by the professional crew, who have made decisions about the lighting, wardrobe, hair, makeup and sound, in scenes that are edited together from a number of camera angles and “takes” (different attempts to get the shot from the same angle).

…I thought there would be more bullet points than that, but it really boils down to those three. A lot of specialized people making something very carefully controlled and expensive for a lot of people to consume together.

Walter Benjamin, my hero, goes into great detail about the (arguably) inherently fascist nature of cinema – the fact that the audience sits back in comfy seats, passive, and the control of the experience is 100% with the deliverer of the content – in terms of pace, volume, emotional texture, everything. Every time there’s a cut from one shot to another the audience a) doesn’t know it’s coming and b) doesn’t know what they’re going to see next, whether it’s within the same scene or a different day entirely. This series of shocks conditions the audience to passively accept their lack of control over what they will experience at any given moment.

Additionally, there is some very interesting writing about the Cinematic Apparatus by Jean-Louis Baudry that talks in detail about how the Cinema camera, by virtue of editing, exists outside of space and time. When the perspective shifts from one shot to another (in the same scene or another day entirely) it is a frictionless, instantaneous movement – as fast or faster than the speed of light, in the sense that you can cut from Toronto to Tokyo in 1/48th of a second. In a way it’s a god-like perspective, all-seeing, or at least seeing-everything-important/necessary to the narrative experience.

So, the members of the audience, all sitting together in the dark, are at the same time utterly passive and given the illusion of a god-like perspective on events on the screen. The experience is safe in that it has been carefully crafted and vetted to make sense and follow the rules of storytelling, but it’s safe only because of the external control of powerful experts.

IF the medium is the message, then what is the message conveyed by the cultural construct of MacroCinema?

As part of a passive, comfortable and safe audience, we have paid to consume a huge and godlike experience crafted by powerful experts together.

And if the medium is the message, then it doesn’t really matter what specific images appear on the screen – whether the storyline makes us feel inspired or enraged or terrified or hopeful or sad or depressed. The message of the medium of MacroCinema is that Everything is Under Control, that powerful experts are taking care of us and that our passive consumption of the experience is utterly appropriate and morally correct.

Which is why, in my opinion, truly meaningful and interesting cultural change can never, has never and will never come from MacroCinema. A big movie can be art, definitely, and can have an impact on the cultural consciousness of the audience, but it can’t and won’t transcend its medium to ever, in any meaningful way, lead to action in the world. Remember the scene in “Fight Club” where Brad Pitt berates the audience directly? “You are not the car you drive. You are not your fucking khakis…”

Great speech. I love that movie. Did I, or anyone else, go out and burn their Dockers? I doubt it.

When we watch experimental films, either in my classes or at the Cellular Cinema screenings I help curate in Minneapolis, the films and videos we show sometimes makes people uncomfortable and upset. People will get genuinely angry, occasionally, about a four-minute video on a screen, because it “doesn’t make sense” – fails to meet their expectations of passive security as an audience member. Which I find super interesting. And I think the reason why is that we’re messing around with the Medium itself, with the established and safe rules of Narrative MacroCinema. And this is actually threatening because we’re so used to the things we watch following all of the established rules.

I’m not saying, by any means, that Experimental Film is the future of the moving image, that it’s going to be the next big thing – I think it will always probably be an uncomfortable, small, strange and enriching experience to make and share moving images outside of safe zone of Industrial MacroCinema. And it’s not that big movies will go away – soon or ever, really. Most past art forms are still with us in some way, from Bronze Casting to Marble Sculpture to Landscape Painting. But I don’t really lament the waning of MacroCinema, either – it had its moment of cultural ascendancy and primacy, and a lot of really beautiful things were made, and it’s wonderful that we can revisit them, whether via illegal download or Criterion DVD or museum screening retrospective.

The new media (in the sense of mediums, plural) will no doubt be problematic in their own unique ways, and are already in the process of being cleverly adapted as instruments of control by the power structures in place. If a medium is just a way of communicating, and communication has a necessary dimension of influence and thus power, then no medium will ever be truly apart from the dynamics of societal power.

The MacroCinema of the 20th Century will always be a subject of study and nostalgia for those who it served. But we owe it to ourselves, as artists and as citizens, to try to put it in the context of the world in which it developed and flourished, and to consider the full range of its implications on the culture in which it thrived, and to ponder its historical importance as the uses of the moving image continue to evolve.

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