1980 is not a bellweather year. Hostage crisis, inflation, campaign between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, these are the faint associative chimes that ring out for the American goof. But it was quietly decisive in one way for the arts, for that was the year in which the VCR entered the American consciousness as more than just a hobbyists item mentioned in Popular Photography. True, Betamax had come out in 1975, and there were expensive alternatives on the market, but it was roughly around 1980 that a critical mass had been achieved. Meaning that you didn’t have to explain what a VCR was. In 1981, Jack Valenti, stooge of the movie industry, said: "I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone." It is the ritual of technological dissemination that the corporations it seems to threaten throw their lobbyists at it, and then they figure out how to capture it and use it for themselves. Money money money.
What was decisive, it seems to me, was the ability not so much to record film, but to stop it.
This is reflected in the way film was written about. Before the VCR, film exhibition was generally a public thing that the writer on film had to experience like everybody else – that is, as a continuous, forward moving reel. A reel that you could not stop and rewind. In this sense, it fulfilled that cliché about the book whose pages “you can’t stop reading” – except that this magic book would, indeed, have become something unheimlich if you really couldn’t stop reading it, if the pages refused to turn back or to stop.
The VCR put an end to that for the masses.
Jean Epstein, writing in the 1920s, had a prevision that film had yet to be understood in its true metaphysical and lexical glory – the words had to be invented for it, and so did the concepts:
“The Bell-Howell is a brain in a standardized, factory made, commercially distributed metal box, which transforms world exterior to it into art. The Bell-Howell is an artist and only behind it are there other artists: the director and the operator. Finally, you can buy a sensibility and you can find it in the marketplace and pay a tax on it as you do for coffee or an Oriental rug. The gramophone is, from this point of view, a failure – or simply remains undiscovered. We must find what it deforms or where it choses. Have we registered on a disc the sound of the street, of motors, of railroad stations? Some day perhaps we will see that the gramophone is made for music like the cinema is made for theater – that is, not at all, and that it has its proper way. For we must use this unhoped for discovery of a subject which is an object, without a conscience, that is without hesitation nor scruples, without venality, no smugness, nor possible error, an entirely honest artist, exclusively art, the artist type.”
Epstein was an imaginative film writer and maker, like many in the 20s. What he gives us is a machine that is an artist in as much as it transforms the world exterior to it. But what he doesn’t give us is the crucial moment when that machine stops. It stops, and the subject and object fall apart again. Or… perhaps not. Certainly they don’t fall apart again in the traditional way, where reason is the differand – not stopping. We don't have a metaphysics of stopping even now.
I have not had the infinite amount of time necessary to research my thesis, but it seems to me that reading, say, the excellent Gaby Wood article on “In a Lonely Place” in the current LRB, one is not struck with the way she goes into the scene in which Gloria Gayner, playing Laurel Gray, is brought down to the police station to give testimony about Humphrey Bogart, playing Dix Steele, her neighbor. Wood goes “around” that scene, so to speak. She quotes it, she goes into the placement of the characters, the raised eyebrow of Gloria, Bogart with his back to her – it is as if the entire scene were freeze framed, and the method used was the kind of iconographic analysis one expects from, say, Meyer Schapiro. But nobody looks at a Renaissance painting of the crucifixion and thinks of Jesus as an actor, whose personal life infiltrates the picture. The difference between the film and shot cannot be surmounted – they exist in different aesthetic worlds, go on ‘different paths”, to use Epstein’s phrase. But there is a difference in seeing the film in a way that makes its stoppable for the average viewer. It is a possibility in the movies that Epstein, for all his imagination, did not see. Film has becomereadable in another way. And I wonder – if we were in the pre-VCR age, wouldthis be written differently?
“In one of the best seduction scenes in cinema, an interrogation becomes a flirtation: third-person, no eye contact, refracted through the cops’ questions. The setting is the office of Captain Lochner in Beverly Hills police station. The language is the language of evidence. Dix Steele, a Hollywood screenwriter, has been called in over the murder of Mildred Atkinson, a girl he was with the previous evening. We’ve already seen Bogart-as-Dix take little interest in Mildred, whose job was to tell him the plot of a terrible novel he’d bleakly agreed to adapt, and here he takes no interest in her murder either. Lochner sees Dix’s indifference as incriminating – his response to the news, the policeman says, is ‘just petulance. A couple of feeble jokes.’ Dix doesn’t let up. ‘I grant you, the jokes could have been better, but I don’t see why the rest should worry you.’
Enter his alibi: Laurel Gray, a neighbour who saw him come home with Atkinson. At the threshold of the captain’s office she raises an eyebrow, just slightly, and over the next few moments it becomes clear that, for the purposes of irascible romance, Dix and she are the same person: unintimidated, less than ingratiating, sarcastic. She sits down, peers into a near-empty cup of coffee, looks up. Words are unnecessary: she’s nobody’s suspect; men have no manners.
‘Miss Gray, do you know this gentleman?’
‘Did you ever see him before?’
‘Yes, a few times.’
‘At the patio apartments. We both live there.’
‘Do you know who he is?’
Her back is to Bogart. He has one foot up on the leather sofa, arm resting nonchalantly on his knee. Though he’s sitting behind her, the depth of field is at a maximum, so that they are in almost equal focus. The implication of the framing is clear: throughout this scene, though they say nothing to each other directly, the dialogue is between them.”