Blog Post

Cinematic Obsolescence: A Parallax View on the Digital Transition

One way of thinking about obsolescence is as a condition, a final state in which some thing, most often technological, is on the precipice of disappearing—if not already long gone. A related and more productive way of thinking about obsolescence is not as a state or condition, but rather as a process. We might think of this process as one in which more and more stuff appears, accumulating here, there: actually, everywhere. We might also think of this process as a negative version of historical change, more specifically, an economic dynamic of technological transition in which, say, cinema shifts from occupying a historically dominant location to a residual position in the mediascape as a result of the rise of a competitor (television, for instance). This is, of course, precisely what happened in the United States between 1945 and 1970.

During this twenty-five year period, cinema, especially Hollywood cinema, can be said to have entered a period of obsolescence that had not only economic and technological dimensions, but also aesthetic effects. This period gave rise to what we might think of as a transitional mode in movies. My working examples of this transitional mode are Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and The Last Picture Show (1971), films that bookend the period of cinematic obsolescence I have in mind here. In Singin’ in the Rain, cinematic obsolescence seems to act as a material force on the film, a technoeconomic “unconscious” that underwrites the narrative, generic, and visual choices the filmmakers made. In The Last Picture Show, cinematic obsolescence seems to be more of a resource for the filmmakers, providing them with a metaphor, a narrative mode, and a visual style. The former responds to cinematic obsolescence by updating the medium of film, the other by distressing it.

Interesting in and of itself, cinematic obsolescence also warrants our attention because it may just give us a historically-informed means of reflecting on the digital transition to “new media” that has preoccupied scholarly and commercial publics alike for the past twenty years. Singin’ in the Rain and The Last Picture Show provide us with something like a parallax view on the digital transition. In opening up that view here I hope to allow the “new media” form of the blog to enrich a longer work-in-progress on the topic of cinematic obsolescence of which this piece is an early version through dialogue at Arcade.

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The period of cinematic obsolescence that the U.S. film industry underwent in the postwar era was correlated heavily with the rise of television. There are, so to speak, “symptoms” of this rise in a number of films from the period itself: the figuration of the television in both Douglas Sirk’s All that Heaven Allows (1955) and Nicholas Ray’s Rebel without a Cause (1955) is hardly positive, a critical figuration that will animate Hollywood cinema all the way to the present (think of The Truman Show [1998] or The Ring [2002]). More striking—or at least more empirical—evidence for the postwar period of cinematic obsolescence comes from the U.S. Bureau of Census, which in 1963 reported that 12 percent of households in 1950 owned one or more television sets, but by 1960 87 percent owned one or more television sets. While television ownership was exploding in the U.S., moviegoing was undergoing a significant decline. In the fifteen years after the end of World War II, admissions at movie theaters fell from 82 million per week in 1946 to 40 million per week in 1960 (Kindem 322; Belton 70).

Nor did things really look up between 1960 and the early 1970s. Suburbanization continued to contribute to a downward spiral for the film industry, in large part because the studios were barred from owning theaters due to federal antitrust decisions; these decisions meant that the construction of new theaters in the suburbs, where television was popular already, hinged on other entrepreneurs, while old theaters were located in urban areas increasingly abandoned by suburbanites at night (Monaco 42). The film industry faced a vanishing audience in the postwar period, an audience on which Hollywood could not depend to consume a regular flow of movies as it once had during the height of the studio era in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. The invention of the “blockbuster” in the 1970s would solve the problem of audience by turning film into an event—but not before a particularly powerful industry recession between 1969 and 1971: “For the American film industry, the 1970s began in a state of dislocation matched only by the coming of sound….By October 1969, the industry had declared a production moratorium and stood on the brink of a four-year period of retrenchment….and during 1969-1970 the number of feature films released by the majors dropped by nearly 34 percent, causing widespread unemployment” (Cook 9).

No matter how many classic films may have been released between 1945 and 1970, then, it seems to me quite reasonable to think of this period as one of cinematic obsolescence. Not only did the film industry, if not film as such, feel like it was on the brink of collapse. But as Hollywood in particular faced that abyss, the industry also kept producing more and more cinematic stuff, especially just prior to the 1969-1970 recession, which witnessed the overproduction of any number of flops and losses (Cook 9). Most clear, however, is that cinema had lost its predominance in the U.S. mediascape as a result of an economic dynamic of technological transition in which television played a major role. The steady flow of programming on television in the home had supplanted the steady flow of movies in the theater, effectively superannuating the studio-era production model such that a new kind of film was called for. By the early 1970s, Hollywood looked like a dinosaur lumbering along in the postwar U.S. mediascape.

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If a new kind of film was called for, then the blockbuster was to be it in the mid-1970s, offering studios a new model of aesthetic production with which we are now entirely familiar. But what about the time prior to this new model? Were there other aesthetic responses to the period of cinematic obsolescence? Singin’ in the Rain and The Last Picture Show, which stand at the beginning and end of this period of cinematic obsolescence for the U.S. film industry, suggest the answer is yes. In aesthetically responding to the conditions of their time and place, they both develop a transitional mode.

This mode is most immediately obvious in the stories of transition that the two films tell. Singin’ in the Rain narrates the transition from silent to sound film, a story with a happy ending. In this the film optimistically embraces historical allegory, a generic choice the “unconscious” of which is arguably anxieties about the arrival of television. Put differently, Singin’ in the Rain narrates the shift to talking pictures as a means of negotiating fears about a newer and nower medium. But it is debatable how true a claim about anxiety is, in part since the songs in Singin’ in the Rain were written in the 1920s and 1930s, though the film’s story was not concocted until the postwar period. More important, however, is the comic energy of the film, the way in which it constantly makes fun of the gap between reality and fantasy in Hollywood itself. One of the major gaps is in fact the story of the main character’s rise to cinematic stardom: the story he tells is all about how illustrious his road to stardom was, which the film counterpoints with images of how lowly and even vaguely desperate his path to fame was. Similarly, the film pokes fun of how studios and stars initially dismiss talkies as a vulgar fad. Singin’ in the Rain is a comedy of historical change, one that almost seems to be saying that whatever anxieties were beginning to percolate in the 1950s about TV ought to be laughed off as so much Hollywood self-importance about its dominant position in the U.S. mediascape. Anxious, funny, or both, the film still feels like an allegory of its own moment, a story of transition figuratively about the changes the film industry was facing in the early 1950s.

The Last Picture Show is also a story of transition, though one far more melancholic than the comically upbeat one that Singin’ in the Rain tells. Set in the early 1950s, the film is about three teenagers—Duane, Sonny, and Jacy—coming of age in a small Texas town, a setting that the film figures as a dead end, a place without a future. The movie opens and closes with shots of the titular movie theater, which in the course of the film shuts down as a result of the rise of television. As a visual framing device, the “last picture show” functions as a metaphor for both the experience of bildung that the teenagers are undergoing, and the slow death that the town is suffering. It is a transitional figure for the (at best, it would seem) uncertain futures of youth and town alike. But it seems also to be a transitional figure for the film industry, a metaphor born of the period of cinematic obsolescence in much the way historical allegory was, perhaps, “unconsciously” motivated in Singin’ in the Rain. It’s hard not to see the figure of the closing movie theater as a figuration of the crisis Hollywood was undergoing in the two years prior to The Last Picture Show’s release, itself part of the more extended crisis that I have been calling the period of cinematic obsolescence in which, much like the futures of Duane, Sonny, and Jacy, the future of film looked at best uncertain, at worst a death sentence.

In fact, the stories of Duane, Sonny, and Jacy actually seem like an extended narrative figuration of the immediate cinematic moment of the film and the more extended cinematic period of 1945-1970. The causal logic of the film is key here. As film scholar Patrick Keating once said to me, the causal logic of classical Hollywood cinema can be, especially for heuristic purposes, boiled down to narratives in which someone wants something badly and is having trouble getting it. This lends a futurity to the narrative model of classical Hollywood cinema, a model in which cause-and-effect leads inexorably towards the goal of some protagonist. The Last Picture Show troubles but does not abandon this mode of narrative causality. Duane and Sonny, for instance, both want Jacy, but in getting her, little is resolved in the film’s story itself; instead, it moves on to some other causal sequence. The movie is episodic, if that is the right word—a series of moments, each of which possesses a causal logic in and of itself, but just what the future horizon of those moments is never fully materializes. We might call this postclassical causality: still using the old models of narration, but unsure of their direction in the new historical situation in which film finds itself. And given that the film ends with the image of the now closed movie theater in this dead-end Texas town, it’s almost as if the causal logic is a narrative figuration of the transitional moment of cinematic obsolescence that Hollywood and the film industry were undergoing in the early 1970s.

Both films also feel transitional in the visual styles that they adopt. Singin’ in the Rain, for example, relies heavily on mise-en-abyme in a variety of forms, almost all of which draw the 1950s audience into the transition from silent to sound films within the terms of postwar cinema. Perhaps the key “term” here is color. Thus when the newly enabled genre of musical takes off within Singin’ in the Rain’s fictional world, the novelty of that shift is telegraphed to the viewer through vividly saturated colors, brilliantly bedecked women in a musical number organized around a fashion show (which actually, and significantly, evokes George Cukor’s 1939 film The Women). Color comes to be a means of “updating” film visually, providing Hollywood with a technological innovation that distinguished it from television. Where Singin’ in the Rain updates, The Last Picture Show distresses the medium by shooting in black-and-white, for all intents and purposes an obsolete mode of cinematography in Hollywood by the 1970s. Visually dating, rather than updating, film in the process, The Last Picture Show also relies on Orson Welles-influenced strategies of deep focus. This dated style often produces the effect of tarnished glamour, especially in shots of Cybill Sheppard, who plays the town coquette, Jacy. More broadly, it contributes to an overall aesthetics of transition—to borrow a term from David Thorburn and Henry Jenkins—in the film, visually reinforcing the feeling that the future is uncertain here for cinema. 

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So in what sense does all of this add up to a parallax view on the digital transition we are currently undergoing? In beginning to explore the transitional mode I am suggesting both Singin’ in the Rain and The Last Picture Show develop in response to the postwar period of cinematic obsolescence, the parallax view emerges in considering the contemporary from the perspective of the historical—in looking at the digital transition not from the angle of the present, but from the angle of the past. What is arguably strange about such an angle is that it takes as its line of sight a transition in which a medium, or at least an industry, was fading out rather than taking over. The latter, of course, is what the digital transition is supposedly all about. To use some grandiose language, I am glancing at a digital revolution from the perspective of a cinematic devolution.

This disanalogous perspective is what is so productively parallax here, I think. David Thorburn and Henry Jenkins have persuasively argued that media transitions are hardly ever revolutionary, but “gradual, accretive process[es]” in which “established and infant systems may co-exist for an extended period or in which older media may develop new functions and find new audiences as the emerging technology begins to occupy the cultural space of its ancestors” (2). This view is part of a larger corrective ongoing in media studies that historicizes “new media,” and discusses how “old media” find a place within the "new" mediascape, coming to creative compromises in what Henry Jenkins calls a “convergence culture.” What emerges far more fully in looking at the digital transition with the postwar period of cinematic obsolescence in mind is precisely the old. Too often, media studies moves from the new to the old. After all, as Wendy Hui Kyong Chun puts it, "to call something new is to ensure that it will one day be old" (148). But in calling so many things new--even in talking about how old media were once new--we let newness be the driving force of whatever transition is at stake, the ever-shifting (because always aging) agent that engenders technological transformations, cultural sea-changes, and aesthetic innovations.

What I have been experimenting with in the above is how the old--or, rather, how obsolescence--is a driving force in postwar cinema, a dynamic of historical change shaping cinematic production. This is not the only story we could tell, nor is it the sole dynamic by which we might periodize film between 1945 and 1970. Indeed, nor is it the only way we could talk about obsolescence. Elsewhere, I talk about the appearance and the accumulation of obsolete stuff in the contemporary period from 1945 to the present as a way in which late twentieth and early twenty-first century novelists and filmmakers mark the passage of historical time, accessing pasts that embody forgotten futures and alternative modernities. Here I am talking about obsolescence in the sense of a medium and an industry that experiences a negative process of historical change that gives rise to an aesthetics of transition, that in losing economic ground to a technological descendant cinema gains something like a residual poetics in the postwar U.S. mediascape. Thus what the postwar period of cinematic obsolescence shows within media studies today, especially for those trying to work comparatively (across media, across time), is that the old can be generative--not in some entirely autonomous way from the new, but in a manner that is less caught up with newness than the binary old/new invites. We ultimately get a parallax view on the digital transition by looking at it from the angle of Singin' in the Rain and The Last Picture Show because those films remind us of all the stuff that is currently being left behind in the digital transition--and, as a result, becoming the site of enormous creativity, creativity rooted within the very obsolescence (which is, remember, a process, not a condition) that "new media" have engendered for all the media we now call old.

Joel Burges's picture
Starting in September 2011, Joel Burges will begin teaching at the University of Rochester as Assistant Professor of Media Studies in the Department of English and the Film and Media Studies Program. He is currently Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he is affiliated with Literature and Comparative Media Studies. He is working on a book entitled Turning back the Clock: Technological Obsolescence and Historical Time in Contemporary Culture. He has recently published an essay on filmmaker Douglas Sirk in the 2010 collection Trash Culture: Objects and Obsolescence in Cultural Perspective, edited by Gillian Pye; has another essay related to his book, "Adorno's Mimeograph: The Uses of Obsolescence in Minima Moralia," forthcoming in New German Critique in 2011; and will be publishing a "riposte" to MIT Press's collection Third Person at the electronic book review in 2011 as well.