Levinson (2005). Survival of the Media Fit. (“The Soft Edge”, Chapter 9)

Levinson, P. (2005). Survival of the Media Fit. In The Soft Edge: A Natural History and Future of the Information Revolution (pp. 93–105). London & New York: Routledge.

“Benny Goodman’s records might sell a million copies — because people indeed prized the record’s permanency — but no self-respecting radio station would play it when it could have Benny Goodman performing live over the air. Indeed, radio networks in the first two decades of operation prided themselves on banning ‘second-hand’ recordings from their airwaves …” (p 95)

“This suddenly changed in the 1940s, when technology gained the capacity to not only record musical performances but improve them in the recording. This was one of the two technological springboards (electric instrumentation was the other) that propelled rock ‘n’ roll onto radio playlists in the 1950s, 60s, and after, and worked along with deeper evolutionary factors to make radio thrive in many ways better than television in the television age.” (p 95)

“The motion picture from its very inception differed from all other media — including phonograph and still photography — in that its presentation of images in motion is an illusion, created by the offering of these images so quickly to the eye that our cognition, in yet another display of our ubiquitous narrative impulse, weaves the images together into one continuous flow. The constituent photographs of motion photography are of course not sleights-of-hand — they capture images that in fact are literal reflections of scenes in the real world — but the motion is a re-creation, not a reflection, of any motion in the real world. And this opened up a most interesting possibility. For that which [page break] was re-created, rather than literally copied, could also be changed, perhaps for the better, in the re-creation.” (p 95-96)

“Stopping and starting the camera — what Méliès called ‘artificially arranged scenes’ — was of course a cumbersome way to edit, although Méliès managed to produce some superb movies with this technique, among them a _A Trip to the Moon_, a hand-colored, 1902 film satirizing Jules Verne’s _From the Earth to the Moon_ (1865) and _Round the Moon_ (1870), which was the first science fiction movie.” (p 96)

“The technological stage was set for motion photography to be more than a photocopy of life in action: scenes that followed one another in the real world could now be separated on film; scenes that had no connection in the real world could be brought together in the motion [page break] picture; and all at the behest of the filmmaker’s inner vision, via the expedient of a splice.” (p 96-97)

“D.W. Griffith played on these and a whole host of similar cinematic tricks he invented a decade or more later; and the subsequent advent of Soviet montage completed the transformation of film from a passive reflector to an active producer of worlds in motion. … As Mast (1971, p. 191) aptly notes, ‘Editing alone had created the emotion — as well as a brilliant acting performance!’ (See also Jacobs, 1969, and Monaco, 1977, for more on Porter and Griffith.) Kuleshov had shown, and Sergei Eisenstein went on to further demonstrate and explicate, that the story of a film comes not in its individual images but their interaction. Film, never quite just a recording of theater to begin with, would go on to become a major player in the supplantation of linearity in the twentieth century: the multidimensional, simultaneous visions in the director’s mind, and how the viewer’s own deep need for narrative could be coaxed into seeing these, would be the operating manual for cinema.” (p 97)

“By the 1940s, however, the confinement of recorded sound had changed. The introduction of audio tape not only allowed for editing via [page break] splicing, but opened the doors for overdubbing and multi-tracking that at last lifted recording from copy of reality to art-form.” (p 97-98)

“Radio’s tenure as a medium that typified and dominated the popular culture lasted more than two decades beyond the heyday of silent movies, but, in the end, radio too was confronted by its talkie, its _Jazz Singer_. And its face was television.” (p 99)

“A medium cannot exist, let alone thrive, without content.” (p 100)

“Seeing without hearing, hearing without seeing: the two processes seem much the same, yet the first shrivels in the face of seeing-and-hearing competition, and the second becomes the locus for one of the most successful popular cultures in our century. The two processes must thus be different in some fundamental way.” (p 100)

“Almost two decades ago, in my doctoral dissertation (Levinson, 1979, pp. 227–234), I pointed out that whereas hearing without seeing is a pervasive, natural, ‘pre-technological’ mode of human communication, seeing without hearing is not. The world grows dark every night but never really silent; we can effortlessly shut off sight by closing our eyes, but we have no earlids; we regularly look at one thing and hear something else; modes of eavesdropping on the world, social as well as natural, seem intrinsic to the information gathering that typifies our humanity.” (p 100)

Selected References

  • Jacobs, L. (1969) The Emergence of Film Art, New York: Hopkinson and Blake.
  • Levinson, P. (1979) “Human replay: A theory of the evolution of media,” Ph.D. diss., New York University.
  • Mast, G. (1971) A Short History of the Movies, New York: Pegasus.
  • Monaco, J. (1977) How to Read a Film, New York: Oxford University Press.
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