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POSSIBILITIES (from the exhibition Aspect Ratio at IFFR) slow criticism | Alone together in the big black room

Size matters! Undoubtedly going beyond stating the obvious, the International Film Festival Rotterdam asks whether the size of the screen determines how we watch film. For this edition huge outdoor screens will represent the top of the cinematic experience food chain. But are they? Six screens and the way we use them.

Camera obscura
It was the magic that made this baby fly and not the size of the screen. The device captures light through a small hole and reflects the image from outside onto a parallel surface. Upside down that is. The smaller the hole, the clearer the picture. Though the principle dates back to the fifth century BC, it was perfected with the eighteenth century 'camera obscura' (Latin for dark room). And the people, well, they stood in awe. Not because of the size of the screen, but because of the principle of reflection of moving images.

The big screen
But let's not postpone the inevitable: the big screen is the sacrilegious altar of cinema. Critics tend to jump of cliffs to prove this point. But where does that passion come from? Is it because the big screen is the only white spot in a horribly grey and muddy world? Is it a desire for innocence? Or is it — the answer is yes — because in those black and empty seconds just before the film starts, every single person in the room can feel her life starting all over again? And it is also clear why every single person in that same room feels a sort of dread and disappointment the second the story is established: when the lines and the waypoints are set you know you'll never be the character on the screen.
Still, the big screen is the only screen where the viewer can submerge in time and images. The real difference between cinema and television — first described by French critic Serge Daney — is not one of screen size but one between projection and broadcasting. A difference where the projection is also — Daney again — the projection of the viewer onto the screen. The crucial ingredient here being the relationship between viewer and screen. In the darkness of the room every member of the audience will think this story, this film, this world, this universe is there solely for himself and he will project himself onto the screen. But it works both ways: the viewer 'becomes' the film and the film 'becomes' the viewer: Le cinéma, c'est moi.
So whereas the man in front of his television switches to another reality whenever he pleases, the cinema viewer is subjected 'and' objected to the movement of time and light. In one word: bliss. This is why people causing disturbances in cinemas should be shot: because it's the only place in the world where this is possible.
And there's something else. The editing. The television crowd thinks it knows that the only way they can engage you, the viewer, is by continuous stimulation. That's why modern day television is often edited in such a seizure inducing pace that it becomes laughable to the point of self parody. But the thing is, something gets lost. And it has nothing to do with the size of the screen. What gets lost is time. Time as it goes along. The time it takes for things to happen. And while film truly is manipulation, the big screen is also the only medium for which a lot of work is still being made in something resembling 'real' time. Why is that important? Because the hidden face of things only reveals itself, not because we want it to, but with the passing of time.

The gargantuous screen
So if the big screen does all that then the ultimate experience of the gargantuous outdoor screen sets you on fire yes? No. It doesn't. Why not? Because it's a tourist attraction. There's no submerging anything when a thousand people sit tightly together on plastic chairs trying to survive the cold and wondering out loud where they can get a hot drink. But climatic issues aside, a screen this big takes away one crucial ingredient: your anonymity. The images you see before you will be directed at anyone and nobody in particular. The story is there for entertainment, not for you. You will be one of many and the characters on the screen will seem to be behind a glass plate, out of reach from your eager hands and feelings.

Television, in point of fact, shoves its load into the wide open mouths of its viewers, as is well known and enjoyed throughout the world. A billion channels offer everything from six hour long steady cam street scenes to five minute long amphetamine enhanced game shows. If you don't find pleasure in one channel, you just ever so lightly touch the remote and switch to another channel. And why not? But the quintessential question bugging generations of moviegoers is this: does television kill off film? Does something meant for the big screen get brutally sodomized when broadcasted? Because of the medium's image — junk — many critics declared it dead before they ever made a decent analysis of it. Not so the aforementioned French critic Serge Daney, who concluded — apparently the time was right for bold statements — that it all depends on what you're watching.
And what is it that you're watching? Shots. That's what you're watching. And angles. Quick shots and low angles usually. And millisecond dialogue. Everything constructed to fully and utterly engage the mind. Seen any detective series lately? With story developments verbalized by a bunch of detectives crisscrossing each other in their office meanwhile making case statements no human brain can keep up with? That's essential television: it steals the mind and does the thinking for you. And that of course is because it has no soul of its own, to paraphrase Joyce on dogs.
Mind you, nothing wrong with that on cold winter evenings when you just want to relax and obliterate yourself. But what you're missing when watching television is the long shot and the — oh let's call it — the angle of amazement. Last year in Rotterdam I spoke to Béla Tarr and afterwards I accidentally erased the interview. This year I hope to talk to Lisandro Alonso and not erase the interview. Both, and there are of course more, use the long shot to talk, to show. The long shot fully and utterly places the film in your head. It takes nothing, it just gives. It's the opposite of television. So it's all a question of shots and angles. Of what you want and what you're willing to give.

The computer screen
If you're not into downloading 4.4 GB DVD-files to burn to DVD and cowardly confine yourself to 700MB avi's, then you're stuck with the computer screen (I know, avi's can be screened on television but let's leave that aside). The computer screen is fine of course. Nice resolution etc. The works. But. Ask yourself about your relationship with this screen. It's both your work and pleasure terminal is it not? And, think harder, what devious thing, what all consuming software lives in both universes? That's right: your email. Your relationship with the computer screen consists of you constantly switching between programs and desktops. How's my new film downloading? How's that new software installing? Is my own film finally rendered? But above all: 'is there any new message' in my inbox? In a word: total and utter distraction. In terms of getting 'into' a film, there's no such thing on a computer screen. Because you're always into several things at the same time. The damn pause button is even nearer than the television remote. So let's not fool ourselves: the experience of film on a computer screen is totally in accordance with every other pattern of mass consumption: take a bite and throw it away. It's death to any acquired taste.
And to illustrate something else lacking here. A recent initiative in Amsterdam — Upload Cinema — brings web films to the cinema screen. YouTube clips and whatever else is scattered all over the web. Everyone can make suggestions beforehand on what is to be shown. Clips people can also watch and in many cases probably did watch, in the comfort of there own home. Still, each month the screening room is packed. Why? People want to be surprised. And they want to be surprised 'together'. They want to sit alone together in the big black room.

The Ipod
Again taking the viewers relationship with the screen as my guiding light, the question is this: is there any possibility whatsoever of an emotional experience with this thing? I don't think so. Film on the handheld is for warding off time. It's for the train, the station, the waiting room. Ready to be cut off at any moment when the doctor opens the door, or the trains arrives at the station. We are indeed back at Ciotat where it all began. Furthermore, where do you put the screen? After half an hour juggling with these devices you're bound to get some sort of muscular objection to the whole thing. Anyway, to quote Daney again: 'It depends.' zack and miri make a porno makes exquisite iPod viewing. werckmeister hármóniak doesn't.

Ronald Rovers

Ronald Rovers is contributing editor of de Filmkrant.