My Mistress’ Eyes Are Nothing Like The Sun

July 15, 2010

I had the fortune of studying literature in two distinct ideological periods (or perhaps just in two ideologically distinct universities [or perhaps it is just a sign of my advancing age]). First in a strict socio-political cultural studies milieu that was a reaction to the decadence of l’art pour l’art patriarchal imperialist literature. Second in a material culture-centric atmosphere with a heavy concentration on Victorian aestheticism. This dichotomous education either makes me very well-rounded or extremely useless.

I tend to favor the latter evaluation because, outside of a thesis on the socio-aesthetics of online catalogs, I haven’t had much chance to apply all that book-learnin’. Perhaps that’s why I was excited to read Virginia Heffernan’s recent Sunday Times Magazine piece, “How HDTV Scrambles Beauty Standards”. The problem of HDTV exposing every line, splotch, make-up-covered-blemish, facial hair, and — especially — plastic surgery scar is nothing new. What I found novel in Ms. Heffernan’s article was the discussion of how cultural beauty standards may be shaped in part by available image-producing technology. She suggests that stars such as Katharine Hepburn and Harry Belafonte who were admired for more angular looks (high cheekbones, regal noses) would not have become as well established in an HD world as they were when their star image was viewed in the realm of more contrast-y black and white shot by cinematographers well-versed in established lighting and capture techniques that simultaneously highlighted and softened. She also points out that people with contrasting coloring (dark hair, pale skin, ruddy cheeks) do not look good in HD. Stars like Montgomery Clift and Ava Gardner looked dreamy in Technicolor — their extreme coloring playing to the heightened unreal reality of the color process — but those same features can look garishly unreal in the so-real-it-hurts reflection of HD.

So what does look good in HD? Heffernan’s argument is that the format favors the monochromatic, pointing out Jessica Alba as a potential ideal. The article suggests a positive aspect of this (Alba comes from an extremely mixed cultural heritage; the ‘browning’ of America is becoming an accepted norm) but there is also a subtextual negative in her use of language: the general even-ing out of visual / artistic culture to a middle-of-the-road banality where contrast and originality are subsumed by an overwhelming sameness.

Admittedly, from the ground, that point of view sometimes seems to be the case. They don’t make stars / movies like they used to… The culture is growing dumb and lazy… Nobody cares about skill and quality… These concerns are well known. More well known than one might know. The same complaints about backsliding, the weakening of our character and culture, and the continuing downward spiral of America have been repeatedly expressed since the colonial period, most likely since the second colonizing ship hit shore. (And I won’t even get into the long-standing theories of degeneration from the purity of Native cultures or Buffonian generational decay engendered by the atmosphere of the Americas.)

I’m afeared that I’m starting to sound like a rambling old fuddy-duddy, discontented that they just don’t make ’em like they used to. However, I run at the mouth so because I feel it’s important to be aware of these historical trends and cognizant of technological and aesthetic shifts in modes of expression. Reformatting is a fact of audiovisual preservation, and within that process is the demand to maintain the highest possible fidelity to the originating image / signal / object / etc.

The desire in this process is to keep that original looksound, the aesthetic quality tied to the historical development of the medium and related creative processes. The problem is that, first, these fidelicious attempts have a certain reliance upon human memory and human perception as part of determining the success of reformatting. This fact is what it is. Second to consider is the problem that started this whole post (remember a few paragraphs back?): the fact that technologies change and it is not always possible to capture the same intangible quality from generation to generation.

This is why we at AVPS always recommend that important originals be maintained after a preservation reformatting project — a better technology for image / signal capture may come along later; it is necessary to quality check originals versus new derivatives; etc. — but it is also why we recommend maintaining or achieving the ability, where feasible, to play back original assets. Without being able to see and assess how a particular format from a particular time period presented itself, we lose the cultural knowledge of how that content originally looked and why it was considered of aesthetic value. This isn’t to say that all people must only watch films or videos in their original format, but rather, that that original display be available so that later caretakers reformatting to new presentation technologies can develop means to emulate older styles… Or so that later content creators can learn from and artistically emulate the skills of the past. We see this in the development of .mp3 where the ultimate goal is to revise the format to the point that it can reproduce instrumental music and lower range tones as well as analog formats can. HD is here, and we need to demand that display devices be able to recreate the sharpness, contrast, and range of tones (or limits thereon) that older formats / displays produced, and we also need to expect that creators will become equally skilled with using the new medium.

Things are never the same. They never will be. Until they are, we all have the responsibility to make sure that the way things were remains an accessible knowledge source.

—¬†Joshua Ranger