Digital Schmigital

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Noam Murro, Biscuit Filmworks.
Noam Murro, Biscuit Filmworks.
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"Oh, it will need some small changes here and there as we work," the Doctor said. "But it is a fineschema; coherent and simple for people who can't follow a difficult plot, but with plenty of meaning underneath. An opera has to have a foundation; something big, like unhappy love, or vengeance, or some point of honor. Because people are like that, you know. There they sit, all those stockbrokers and rich surgeons and insurance men, and they look so solemn and quiet as if nothing would rouse them. But underneath they are raging with unhappy love, or vengeance, or some point of honor or ambition — all connected with their professional lives. They go to La Boheme or La Traviata and they remember some early affair that might have been squalid if you weren't living it yourself; or they see Rigoletto and think how the chairman humiliated them at the last board meeting; or they see Macbeth and think how they would like to murder the chairman and get his job. Only they don't think it; very deep down they feel it, and boil it, and suffer it in the primitive underworld of their souls. You wouldn't get them to admit anything, not if you begged. Opera speaks to the heart as no other art does, because it is essentially simple." — Robertson Davies, The Lyre of Orpheus

So I was thinking about what to write, when I was on Alex Ross' site,, and I saw that quote. It got me thinking about opera and how, when it first started, back in the 16th Century, it was probably the cutting edge of culture and technology. I can see the Florentines treating it with the same mix of enthusiasm and skepticism with which we are considering digital technology, at least for the purposes of this column. Opera may be a dying art, but the fact that it's lasted even this long tells me that we still crave meaning. We want to feel. We want to see ourselves in someone else's true love, murderous rage, or human tragedy. We want stories that touch our hearts with their archetypal simplicity.

That's never going to change. Content is content. It is the true revolution. Technology is just evolution. At its best, it's a tool. And, like any tool—any toy—people overuse it, at first. They want to take it for a spin, and see what this baby can do. So they smother a good story in a showcase of visual effects. Or they figure that if they pour enough movie magic onto a non-story, they can make something out of nothing. And that never works.

But digital technology is not the enemy, either. I guess maybe that's how the term digital schmigital came to me. First off, I am a Jew, so 'schm' is my native prefix. But, more to the point, it's my way of saying that technology is just that – technology. If stories are chocolate, then digital technology is a little bit like paraffin wax. It can provide a certain shape, scope, and sculpt-ability, but it can never give us a story. We are all still learning to harness what I think of [as] the cinematic equivalent of nuclear power. I get tempted. I am giving a soul to a robot, a dog, a dinosaur, or an object, and I get the urge to push it. It's like that painting that is perfect, until you ignore your better angels, and give it that one brush stroke that ruins it. The mantra is restraint, which sounds funny, coming from me.

So I guess the real question comes back to content, not form – and technology, form, as just a slave to content. I say this, realizing that the average attention span is shrinking, and so are the viral films that satisfy it. But it's not my place to judge the viewer, just the work, as a viewer, myself. And, at the end of the day, I judge everything—art, books, films, music, opera, ads—with my heart. Do I relate to it? Does it make me feel? Does it move me—to tears, to a smile, to love, to anger, to empathy, or to murder someone? Conceptually, thematically, and emotionally? If yes, then it works. If no, then it won't matter whether the content comes to me via a laptop, a TV, a movie theater, an iPod, as Anna Karenina on my new Kindle II, or as Il Trovatore on stage at the Met—it doesn't.
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