Mon, May
27
2002

The Sensibilities of the Fifties

Mon, May 27, 2002

Do you notice how the vocabulary of our movies has changed over time?

Erin and I were commenting on this after watching Quatermass and the Pit (1957). Over and above the fifties sensibilities (token female scientist; overblown dramatic music, moral point hammered home at the end, etc), the pace of the stories was slower. Someone remaking this serial today could prune it from three hours to an hour and a half, with much of the cuts taking out establishing shots. The series had an interesting conceit to show the passage of time (a lineup of newspapers at a newsstand, with the headlines showing the progress of the week), and had slow camera pans to drive home to the audience key plot points (the spaceship is hooked up with lots of cables. Conversations on how scientific equipment worked, etc).

We all know that one of the casualties of the past fifty years of moviemaking has been subtlety (witness the horrible things Hollywood did in the remake of the 1963 movie, The Haunting), but the narrative in most film and television has been sped up by glossing over details that many of us now take for granted. We talk about how television and movies dumb things down for audiences, but todays audiences understand a lot through filmmaking codes to suggest such things as the passage of time, the introduction of new characters, or key plot elements. This shorthand also glosses over technical details of devices which, fifty years ago, would have been explained quite thoroughly to the audiences. Today we would say, "so, this device reads brainwaves? Cool! No, you don't have to tell me how it works. Don't explain it to me! Ho hum."

In the recent mini-series, Trudeau, a number of directorial tricks were employed to convey significant information quickly. For instance, about thirty seconds of mindless chatter was used to show that the 1982 constitutional talks were deadlocked. Trudeau's relationship with the press was summed up by having "the press" consolidated into a single character who would show up to interview Trudeau at certain periods during his tenure. Erin tells me that you notice this shorthand (or lack of it) in books as well, when mainstream writers write science fiction or fantasy novels, without reading any other novel in the genre. P.D. James, known for her mysteries, has a well written book about the last children ever born to humanity, but goes on at length over what precipitated the disaster (even though the true cause is unknown to the characters in the book). Veteren science fiction authors don't go into the details of a nuclear war in order to write a story about a post-apocalyptic world. They'd say, "so, there was this nuclear war", and get on with the story.

After fifty years of television and a century of movies, today's audiences can shorthand a number of narrative points, leaving the movies to (hopefully) concentrate on other areas of the plot. Perhaps we are different people from what we would have been fifty years ago, far more attune to the visual medium than we used to be. One wonders how this will develop in the Internet Age.


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