Convenience Does Not Equal Better
by Josh Becker
Technology will never make you any better of an artist than you already are. If you can’t write a decent paragraph with a pencil and paper, no computer or software will ever help you.
For half of my life I’ve had to listen to this utter folderol that not only will digital technology make filmmaking easier, it will also, inevitably, make it better. As I’ve heard far too many times, “Now any kid can make a movie.”
So what? Any kid could make a movie when I was a kid; analog technology wasn’t standing in the way. Super-8 was an extremely easy format to work with, and included: zoom lenses, the ability to shoot in low-light, automatic light meters, the ability to dissolve or fade. The only thing standing in anyone’s way from making a good movie then was the drive, ambition and talent to do it. Digital filmmaking has been around for a long time now and it certainly hasn’t improved the quality of movies—movies suck worse than they ever have, and I have no reason to believe they getting any better. And technology won’t help.
Advances in technology do not improve art; they just make the process more convenient in certain ways. And I’ve come to suspect that convenience in and of itself may be the enemy of right thinking. Convenience doesn’t equal better; but it may equal worse.
Recently, I spoke with a young man in his early twenties who seriously said to me, “Why should I know anything when I can look it up on my phone?”
Bravo! Why bother learning to count when you have a calculator? Why bother knowing your way home when you’ve got GPS? Why learn to tie your shoes when you have Velcro?
Why bother knowing things? Because if you don’t know anything you are what our society refers to as “stupid.” Or an “idiot.” Or a “moron.” Just because you have a “smart” phone which has access to a lot of information doesn’t make you one iota smarter. There were always libraries around—the information was always available—and it may well be more convenient to get it on your phone than going somewhere, but if you don’t make use of it you’re still destined to be an idiot.
For 100 years, 1890 to 1990, film editing meant physically cutting film and sticking it back together with tape or glue. This method worked just fine and was the process used to edit most of the great movies ever made. Then digital editing was introduced (I was already in my thirties and a professional filmmaker at the time) and it’s a much more convenient way to edit—you no longer needed rooms and shelves full of film, usually involving several assistants, and now you could keep cutting new versions and saving them. Digital editing is way more convenient, and I really like it and immediately accepted it, but it doesn’t change the decision of where to make a cut. And if making a cut entails a tiny little bit of hassle—chopping a piece of film and taping it to another piece of film—perhaps it causes you to think for just a second longer about whether the cut goes here or there. And maybe that’s good.
I hear that Steven Spielberg still cuts on film. If so, it certainly hasn’t held him back in any way. No, it’s not as convenient for his editor, but that’s not Spielberg’s problem, is it?
I recently had a discussion with a professional children’s portrait photographer and her boyfriend, who clearly understood the basics of photography. He was purporting that digital photography made taking a good picture easier.
“In what way?” I asked.
“Well, it’s more convenient now,” he answered, appearing like this was so obvious it needn’t be stated.
“And how,” I queried, “does convenience make the picture better? You still have to know where to aim it and when to push the button, and that’s based on instinct and talent, not digital technology.”
This seemed like a baffling, but interesting, concept to the two of them. I then brought up Henri Cartier-Bresson, very possibly the greatest photographer of the 20th century (along with Ansel Adams), and neither of them had heard of him, and therefore appeared skeptical of the fact that he might be “the greatest photographer of the 20th century,” and how did we miss him (after all, we have smart phones)? Henri Cartier-Bresson was the master of the “candid” photograph. Candid is defined as, “Frank, not hiding one’s thoughts,” which is entirely true of Bresson’s incredible portraits, but what of his multitude of brilliant street scenes of nothing more than buildings or environments? He had a knack, a talent, an ability, if you will, to see when things—people, buildings, shadows, animals—lined up in such a way that it was both aesthetically pleasing and visually exciting. Bresson’s talent was far beyond taking candid portraits. Where most people wouldn’t have even seen any photo at all, he frequently saw a great one. Nothing, not technology or lessons or even experience, will teach you that. It’s called having an “eye,” and either you’ve got it or you don’t.
Bresson used a 35mm range finder camera, which predates the single lens reflex (SLR) camera, the most commonly used 35mm camera, and it’s a reasonably convenient camera to use. No, you can’t see through the lens, nor did it have any automatic settings, but you could set the focus at close, mid-range, or far, and if you have any experience with photography you always have a basic idea of what the exposure is, so if you’re outside you can keep it set at about f22 or f11 and if you’re inside at about f5.6 or f4, and you’ll probably be close to right. Beyond that, if you make sure the camera is cocked, you always have it with you, and you’ve got your eyes open and you’re paying attention, all you have to do is lift the camera up and push the button. Bresson never reframed a photo in the darkroom, nor did he pay any attention to the printing process. Often, he didn’t even look through the viewfinder—he just fired the shot. And he rarely if ever shot a second photo of the same thing. Whatever he got he got.
Photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson
Ansel Adams, the other most famous photographer of the 20th century, who specialized in landscapes, went far out of his way to make sure that there was nothing convenient about how he took pictures. He worked mainly with bulky, large format cameras (8x10 or 11x14, with a bellows, and upside-down picture, and a cloth over his head), which are notoriously difficult to use, have no automatic settings, and any single mistake ruins everything. He would then haul this heavy equipment for hours up mountains or into the desert, find just the right spot (as he saw it), and would only bring two to four glass plates (instead of film) which would yield a mere four to eight (two per plate) photographs, then wait for exactly the right moment (in his estimation) and shoot his shots, at least half of which he’d always screw up and knew that he was doing it at the time. Then, back in his darkroom, he’d very specifically process the plates using various types and amounts of different chemicals, then he would print them using many, many different techniques for lightening, darkening, bringing out highlights, and it just goes on and on what you can do with a photograph while printing if you care to. As Adams said, “You don’t take a photograph, you make a photograph.”
Convenience was the opposite of his method, and his results prove his method to not only be sound, but superior.
Photo by Ansel Adams
Here is a minor, but illustrative, example of my point. I get Netflix on DVDs sent to me through the mail, which I watch then send back in the handy, postage-paid envelope in which they came. The DVD side of Netflix has about 90% more titles than the streaming side, which is indeed more convenient, just nowhere near as extensive. So when I recommend a movie to someone, and they ask where I saw it, and I reply, “Netflix,” they inevitably next ask, “Streaming?”
“Oh, I have streaming. Will they have it?
“Probably not. They have 90% more titles on DVD.”
“But streaming is a lot more convenient. All I have to do is push a button.
“Right, but it’s not as good.”
And that’s the end of it. For most everybody (and I really mean everybody), convenience wins over superiority every time. So, as I watch the movies I want to see, having to go to the extreme inconvenience of getting them out of the mailbox (where I go everyday anyway, and finding the red Netflix envelopes is always a joy), everyone else can just click their remote from one bad movie to another to another, never getting to see anything good. And we’re both spending about the same amount of money. So who’s getting a better deal?
I’ve recently watched a series on PBS called Soundbreaking about the history of music recording. It’s a shoddy production obviously culled from many other documentaries I’ve already seen (all of which are better), with some new interview footage cut in. But it seemed to me that the underlying agenda in the series was purporting that as recording techniques ultimately went digital and became easier and more convenient, music has somehow gotten better. A young “musician” (I believe from the Black Keys) exclaims, “Now you don’t have to know how to play the guitar or drums,” and Lordy, isn’t that convenient. Hell, why bother putting in all of that wasted time learning to play an instrument and studying theory and technique when you can just push a button on your laptop and bingo, there’s a perfect drumbeat. Push another button and your unexceptional voice can magically become a chorus of unexceptional voices. Push another button and there’s an entire string section behind you. Except that there are no programs on your laptop that will ever cause you to write a good song. Not only that, but a perfect drumbeat is a bore. Great drummers never were looking for a perfect beat, they were always searching for an interesting beat, with a lot of cool fills (the beats that go within the beat).
As Lorne Michaels explained about his friend, Paul Simon’s songwriting technique, when you hear a clever, witty lyric of Simon’s it’s because he’s generally experimented with hundreds of other variations until he settled on that one. Yes, occasionally great ideas just appear in their entirety, but not usually.
So when I hear that a song’s lyrics were simply improvised in the studio, or Judd Apatow no longer bothers to write a script, but just wings it on the set (as per Norman Lloyd), I think, that’s why contemporary art has turned to complete crap. Nobody is putting in the effort anymore because it’s not convenient, or easy.
Yes, it’s highly inconvenient to try hundreds of variations of a lyric before arriving at just the right one; or spend a year or two writing a script so that you know you have something worth shooting before you arrive on the set; or keeping a camera around your neck all the time, your finger on the button and your eyes open and watching; or hiking miles up a mountain with heavy, old-fashioned equipment, then waiting for hours in the cold or the heat for just the right moment to push the button. And no, inconvenience in and of itself does not automatically equal better, but convenience for its own sake probably never does.