The Gutenberg Revolution Redux

Be it a paperweight or a doorstop or a fount of insight and new knowledge, a book by any other name is still a book. It's countless permutations are all familiar: black ink on white paper, pages glued and bound, assembled with page numbers, table of contents, quotation marks, footnotes and indices, all ancillary inventions and all uniform. It's as revolutionary and startling as a timepiece or a sextant and far more significant considering its ultimate use and impact.

Some 500 years ago books as described above did not exist. To be sure there were books, but they were painstakingly crafted by hand on heavy parchment, primarily by the church, and treasured like rare jewels. In 1439, however, Johan Gutenberg developed a method of printing using metal movable type With his press, using his own oil-based ink and vellum paper, he transformed the dissemination of information and the ripples were felt throughout Europe. Within 60 years, the entire classical canon had been reprinted and shared in vernacular languages common to regions instead of Latin. It was revolutionary. Astonishing. Some regard the book as the greatest invention in 1,000 years.

And yet, here we are in the first decade of the 21st century and living through a revolution that mirrors Gutenberg. Because we are part of it, absorbing it incrementally every day, we are less inclined to step back and view this period for what it is: a profound global change in how we produce and receive information and entertainment. The computer and the Internet are, taken together, a synergistic event which, like Gutenberg's press, will transform everything.

Kevin Kelly, writing in the New York Times Magazine, argues that with Gutenberg we in the West became people of the book. For centuries, the printed page trumped all. But now, inextricably, we are becoming people of the screen. "Everywhere we look," writes Kelly, "we see screens. The other day I watched clips from a movie as I pumped gas into my car. The other night I saw a movie on the back-seat of a plane. We will watch anywhere. We are headed toward screen ubiquity." Invention, writes Kelly, is "again overthrowing the dominant media. A new distribution-and-display technology is nudging the book aside and catapulting images and especially moving images to the center of the culture. We are now in the middle of a second Gutenberg shift — from book fluency to screen fluency, from literacy to visuality."

Kelly then proffers an interesting argument regarding the big screen and filmmaking. He acknowledges that while Hollywood blockbusters — those major motion pictures involving a million person hours to produce and only two hours to consume — will not disappear. However, "if we want to see the future of motion pictures, we need to study the swarming food chain below," meaning YouTube, indie film, TV serials and insect-scale, lip-synch mashups. "The bottom is where the action is, and where screen literacy originates." All of it is enmeshed in cutting-edge, digital technology involving computers and state-of-the art moviemaking software. "An image," writes Kelly, "stored on a memory disc instead of celluloid film has a plasticity that allows it to be manipulated as if the picture were words rather than a photo."

But screen ubiquity begs two questions involving what some might regard as two anachronistic mediums: black print on white paper and Hollywood-produced 35 mm celluloid films.

Books are fairly easy, though the explanation may seem the precursor to nostalgia. Despite the tsunami of information brought to us on screens, there is something organic and wonderful about holding a book, turning its pages, smelling the ink, feeling the heft of it, running a thumb along the binding. Books almost seem to exhale when opened. Walk into a bookstore and breathe in the eau de book; there is nothing that can replicate it. Small screens are cool. Books are hot. Tactile. Even seductive.

Major studio filmmaking, meaning moving images photographed on 35 mm film stock, is a bit harder to evaluate; for while all of us have thumbed a book, read our own words on a page, printed letters since we were young, few of us have ever given much thought to, or had contact with, the hands-on process of moviemaking. And likely we've given little thought to the experience of sitting in a large, darkened theater while communally watching images projected (16 or more frames per second) through 35 mm celluloid, all larger than life, onto an enormous white screen.

There is, however, a push to abandon the cumbersome, more labor-intensive 35mm celluloid format and go digital.

In fact, for those working in the mashup zone mentioned by Kelly, or wielding the now ubiquitous camcorders, it's no longer even a question. Digital rules. But for large screen films this is crossroads moment. As critic David Denby writes in the New Yorker, studios are struggling with the decision whether to defend the 35 mm film or embrace the digital memory disc. Denby points out, "Loaded into cans, movies weigh between 50 and 80 pounds; have to be flown to regional depositories, and then trucked to theaters. But once the theaters convert to digital projection — a change now in its beginning stages — the studios could bounce movies to theatres off satellites or send them on portable hard drives."

It sounds oh so cutting edge and high-tech. But what will be lost in the translation from celluloid to digital? Perhaps more than is acknowledged as we confuse newer with better. First, digital entertainment, which audience have now been watching on television for decades, can indeed be hyper-realistic, the images crisp and precise and, in truth, flat. Yet it's what audiences are used to.

But visually, filmmakers using 35 mm celluloid insist that the art of filmmaking is the intersection of careful lighting, deliberate focus, creating an illusion of 3-dimensionality, all merged with sound. Celluloid can be grainy, clear or obscure, depending on how the scene is shot. Clarity is not always the default setting for celluloid; rather, it's a choice made by the cinematographer and the director. And then there's the actual film being pulled through the projector by pins and sprocket holes, creating a subtle movement that the eye records, though the audience may never be fully cognizant of its effect.

Denby writes, "I like the way color blends on film: the image is painterly and atmospheric; more poetic, perhaps, than a digital image; lyrical rather than analytic." To arrive at a film print, the image has to go through at least four stages, from negative to positive, back and forth, and by then there is minor softening and darkening of color. In other words, filmmaking is not just point and shoot with high-tech gear, but it's the creation of a composition, an orchestrated visual treat that is purposefully nuanced, created with illusion and magic, and not just hard edges and defined colors.

Shooting 35 mm requires a method to filmmaking that transcends digital and therein is the art. Digital, in fact, is another medium entirely, one that can be layered and manipulated after having been shot in front of a blue screen. Or assembled on computers in mashups, splicing and trimming in that baseline world where it often takes an online village. Entertainment to be sure. Who would say that YouTube isn't? Just not narrative filmmaking as it has evolved over the last 100 years, meant to be watched on large screens with an anonymous crowd, often a subjective and enthralling experience unlike any other. In other words, movies, like books, are hot.

Of course, to argue strenuously for 35mm filmmaking can begin to sound like the buggy maker resisting the advent of the Model T. But perhaps that is a poor analogy. More relevant might be painting on canvas with acrylic paints compared to enhancing and creating images with computer software. They are two very different modes of expression. One should not obviate the other. Digital and 35mm can and should exist side by side; not one to the exclusion of the other.

Though we have become people of the screen, ever eager to adopt the technology that increasingly propels information and entertainment forward (iPhones, iPods, Blackberries, touch screen, texting, editing, downloading, massive HD/plasma screens, video conferencing, digital platforms), we remain, still, people of the book and people enamoured of celluloid. Hopefully, this second revolution will continue to be a pastiche of mediums and not a reflexive acceptance of just that which is McLuhanesque cool.

Prediction? Books and celluloid may, in the end, be trumped by technology and bookmakers and filmmakers may well find themselves standing with the buggy maker. But we're not there yet.

Share This Story