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Politics and film

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How technology changes art
Michael Chapman Film-maker
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I think that the way that... If I were young and trying to start again, or start out to do it, what I would be interested in is in a kind of less realistic format, by which I mean... I'm going to go back to a kind of idiot's history of art for a second. Just to explain what I mean. In the Italian renaissance the laws of perspective were worked out so that art could... the art of painting could accurately represent what the eye saw. You know: I'm closer to you I'm larger; as things go away... there were vanishing points; and all that stuff which had not been used before. And because that had been worked out, there became, over the years, a kind of representational imperative in painting that you had, once you could do that, you had to do it, in Western art. And that was in many ways a wonderful thing. And it allowed enormous advances in... in telling people what the world looked like, and showing what it looked like. Not only just repertorily, but emotionally too. But it wasn't the only way. And because of this representational imperative, it seemed to me that, in a curious way, art began to bog down in the 19th Century, as witnessed, for instance... the French Academy and Bouguereau and people like that, they didn't... they were very slick and very beautiful and they showed life, but they... things began to... it began to be kind of a dead end.

But fortunately... and this is how... an example of how technology changes art: fortunately the invention of photography came along and took over this representational imperative, and it was a job that you could do much better than painting could, because there was no intervening human hand. It was just light, lens, and the object. And there was no way that the painter could intervene. He was unnecessary. He was gone, like a... like a wood engraver. And that freed art to go whooshing down the Impressionists, Fauvists, abstract... whatever road it wanted to. It does not mean that painting, that, you know, representational imagery could not be in painting. It still can and still is, and will always be. It just didn't have to be. It gave painting more freedom.

Well, I suggest that, because we are so surrounded by imagery of all sorts, with, you know, 500 channels on television and advertising, and everything all around us, that we are so saturated with representational imagery that we can now... the mass mind of the... at least the Western world, will begin to accept less rigidly representational imagery in visual storytelling. And that you can... now you can... you should be able to begin with... and certainly with video you can, to make the visual imagery that we use in storytelling more... freer, more... more able to represent overt emotions in... because of the colors, the framing, the how the image breaks up. You should... we should have far more freedom. Or we can begin to explore freedom in visual storytelling. And if I were young, and starting out, I would very much try to do that. I would... that's what I would passionately try to do. And, by God, I think that the... the human mind, in the sort of... the abstract of the, you know, middle class Western world – be it in America or Europe or whatever – would be begin to accept it. Because they're so saturated in imagery that they don't need this... this hammering of... of perspective and clarity. They don't anymore. And then I think they would begin to... and sometimes there is the beginnings of it; you see it every once in a while.

There's a curious movie called, I think, Greenvale [sic] or something, by a rock and roller, or an aging rock and roller... now my mind's just gone; wait a minute. Neil Young. Neil Young. Did you see it? It's called Greenwood. Greenwood. Greenvale. Greenwood. I thought it was Greenvale. Well he shot it on Super 8 handheld camera, and it looks like... it's kind of wonderful. And it doesn't, it's not, it's barely realistic. It's all Super 8 so when it's blown up it looks like Seurat. It looks like Pointillism, but it's moving Pointillism. And it's utterly convincing. Curious... I mean, I went to see it only because I wanted to see what Super 8 looked like. I didn't think I would last 10 minutes through it and, by God, I sat through it. And I was kind of fascinated. And it's all... what it really is... is an album of songs and the people in the movie lip-sync the songs. And it's quite curious, but it works. And it doesn't pretend to be realistic, at all. And it was a sort of step by this sort of goofy guy that I remember from The Last Waltz, with the big... Well, never mind. And, you know, it works. He... this guy did something that was really... really new and really exiting and not realistic. And that's where... that's one of the directions that lie in the future. You know that, I'm sure – that all sorts of things... I don't begin to think that I know the answer to any of this stuff, but I think there are many more, especially so because there are so many outlets and the Internet and all that stuff, that we can begin to really just let loose, and don't be held back by... by this representational imperative that has hung over us for so long. Especially in things like the Internet where everything you look at is no more than, what is it, 5 x 6, or something in size. You can do anything you want, you know.

 First of all you're not going to have... I mean, it's going to dictate that you don't want to have big wide shots. A big wide shot on a... a... your computer, you know – it's the Himalayas, you don't know what it is; it's just sort of there. Most of it's going to be tighter stuff. Those are dictated... those choices of imagery are dictated by technology, if you're going to the Internet. But let it... this is a sort of plea to people. Let loose! Just do it! My God! You know, think of... think of Impressionism, think... think of Picasso, think of anything. Think of, you know, I don't know what, but think of the most abstract stuff you can possibly get away with, and try it and see what happens. Because I think, also, that with the Internet and stuff as a... as a form of distribution, I don't think you need millions of dollars anymore, or billions of dollars; you really don't. I think there's all sorts of things that can be done that... home movies... the equivalent of home movies can be put out there for the world to see. And I would very much try that, if I were... if I were not an old fart, I would.

Michael Chapman, an American cinematographer, has had a huge influence on contemporary film-making, working on an impressive array of classic films including 'Taxi Driver', 'Raging Bull', 'The Lost Boys' and 'The Fugitive'.

Listeners: Glen Ade Brown

British Director of Photography and Camera Operator Glen Ade Brown settled in Los Angeles 10 years ago.

He has been working on features, commercials and reality TV. He played an instrumental role in the award-winning ABC Family series "Switched" and is also a recipient of the Telly and the Cine Golden Eagle awards for Best Cinematography. He was recently signed by the Judy Marks Agency and is now listed in her commercial roster.

Tags: Greenwood, The Last Waltz, Neil Young

Duration: 7 minutes, 15 seconds

Date story recorded: May 2004

Date story went live: 29 September 2010