Thursday, February 16, 2012

Unbearable Lightness

Plasma light, something like this: liquid, neon, ardent, vibrant, magical, mysterious.

Probably for a couple of years (maybe five) I resisted High Definition for too long. The HD / Blu-ray floods broke while I was in the midst of a dual 11-year, ever-deepening romance with a Toshiba 61H70 and a Jaton PSD-7611K. The "high definition ready" (it wasn't) 61-inch rear projection television was as deep as it was wide and high, weighed over 200 pounds, was not designed on wheels(?!); so the idea of moving it to a repair shop if things went screwy was always out of the question; broken, break it up for firewood and move on. I was lucky. During the 11-year love affair she was perfect. A 4 x 3 aspect ratio, only 480p, a way too-soft image -- yet she breathed. With the light bouncing off rear reflectors and then back out through the lintel front screen, she reached a fruition where the light attained the quality of a projector light passing through a revival house screen. The 4 x 3 frame locked it (and my livingroom) into a resolutely celluloid zone.

Feeding the zone was the Jaton 7611 player, also a jewel: region-free, transferred PAL into NTSC (or reverse), capacity to change aspect ratio across the horizontal and vertical, amazing zoom in or out function. Over the years I must've thrown a few thousand discs at the Jaton and it returned a smooth play each time. Then one day last fall, the Toshiba refused to power up, dying in her sleep. I had no choice.

My head spun after trying to understand the LED / LCD / Plasma debate. I did know that Plasma screens always looked the prettiest and most alive. That size was important, as was 1920 x 1080p power and a high (600Hz) refresh rate. What was anathema was friggin' 3-D and "smart" options. Smart Options -- all of which are meaningless design tweaks or covers for corporate fingers in your eye. Who the heck surfs the web on a 50"-plus HD screen? Or desires NetFlix or YouTube to take over your set? After a lot of push-pull, I finally settled on the LG 50PV450.

The Toshiba now buried, the Jaton could no longer do. One glitch with the masterpiece player, probably due to age, occurred more and more often: it would on its own slip into 480-interlaced mode: a mode not recognized by most Plasma players, including the LG. As much as I loved the Jaton, this replacement was easy.

A minor work of technical art replaced by a major. The OPPO BDP-93 is a magical transformer; and after two months of use the best piece of technology I've ever owned. I could no more explain how it does what it does anymore than I could win this month's NBA Slam Dunk Contest, but the OPPO takes 240 / 360 / 480 resolutions and "upscales" them into full-blown 1920 x 1080p diamonds. (And low-bit, poorly-mastered CDs into sound Rudy Van Gelder would wink at. The OPPO does contain the best music player I've ever heard.) My resistance to moving into HD / Blu-ray was reminiscent of the stale old vinyl / digital debate: precision and detail (and ease of access) are not everything; presence is important, a sense of a machine living on its own, shifting the media's mood and shape every time one would watch or listen. Did I want The Dick Van Dyke Show, Gertrud, The Band Wagon, or old Laker games saved on disc pushed to the bristling coldness of a Christopher Nolan monstrosity?

Vinyl fans certainly have a point. But I didn't. If anything, the Plasma / OPPO may have too much presence -- things are made perhaps too beautiful. (Was Rob Petrie's livingroom really this noirish and glistening?) So I really wanted to test it out, telling friends that the only item on my Christmas list was whichever Blu-ray they thought I might like. And someone found the perfect pilot.

I cut my movie-watching teeth on Kubrick hatred, thanks mostly to Pauline Kael. Since he seemed to be in direct competition with other American director heroes of mine at the time (Coppola, Penn, Altman, Brian DePalma[!], Woody Allen[!!]), and because his fans were the types who were wrong about everything else, he was easy to despise. As an interview subject he was a condescending pretentious creep: the Lord of Cinema Art. (And treated as such by his interviewers.) Clean hands, cold heart. (Much as Scorsese -- another once-hero -- devolved into the Reichsmarschall of Our Collective Movie Past. And God is Hugo crap, with all the enchantment of a Travis Bickle taxi ride.) Kubrick's movies, by American New Wave standards, seemed icy, elliptical, and disinterested in the daily world.

Now, the works feel very different. While the vile Clockwork Orange (1971) belongs more than ever on the Heavy Metal garbage heap, the rest are a collection of tenderness, melancholy, sincere human interest, terror -- inside a detached obfuscation and an almost violent rejection of how we live. And the forms' monumental uniqueness is pretty unmatched. One can see the director in any shot from his works.

One of Kael's particular bĂȘte noires was Barry Lyndon (1975). (The same year she went ape over Rancho Deluxe, Rollerball, Funny Lady, Hard Times, and goddamn Nashville.) It is, though, one of great memory films of all-time, certainly worthy of comparison and rank with Lola Montes, Man Who Shot Liberty Valance or Autumn Afternoon. Is Kubrick's sorrowful embrace of the main character any less heart-felt or deep than Ophuls' love for Lola? Is Ryan O'Neal's portrayal of a silly, callow cad any less in a melancholy human key?

I was living in Manhattan when the Arts & Leisure vultures (this was blissfully before places like Yelp) descended on the summer of '99 carrion known as Eyes Wide Shut. I was still ignorant of Kubrick's art and went into the theater wanting to hate Cruise and Kidman. I retained a knee-jerk protectiveness towards New York (despite Seinfeld -- another work I was late in coming to love), deepened by that weekend's disappearance of John F. Kennedy Jr.'s airplane -- the true end of the 90s. It was one of the most mysterious and disturbing viewing experiences I'd ever had. The audience's cackles and hoots were non-stop -- one could feel the offense taken by the crowd at this loner Brit -- someone who hadn't been to New York City since 1972 -- exposing the oligarchical moral rot of 1990s Manhattan. As it's turned out, Kubrick got there first. The dark power which now sits atop and suffocates the city was not yet then in full force. The movie pointed toward what we would have to ignore in order to live here. The astonishment I felt at the movie's greatness (and the audience's pettiness) was matched by Dr. Bill Harford's astonishment inside Sydney Pollock's gameroom as he learns how Manhattan really works. It was the best English-language movie of the decade.

Lights down, the Plasma / OPPO introduction to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) was like entering the pregnant hush of a cathedral. Throughout, everything seems covered in a vast, mystic hurt, reserved in gloom; the outside and inside of objects like tablets of jewels emanating their glory. Yet the story:

A humming black slab somehow teaches a few missing links to murder, through use of the larger bones in a skeleton. One of the links chucks a skeleton bone into the air and suddenly we're watching stations floating in outer space to Strauss's Blue Danube. A secret mission is heading toward the moon, where another (or the same) humming black slab has been found buried beneath ground. Somehow, the slab points toward Jupiter as the source of absolute proof of non-Earthly life forms, and as possibly a gateway to the "infinite." A mission is sent to Jupiter, but along the way a super-computer called HAL decides to take over, murdering four of the five crew members, failing to take out the very resourceful Dr. David Bowman (Keir Dullea), who shuts HAL down. But as Bowman nears Jupiter, he's sucked into a time-space warp which drives him eventually into an 18th-Century style bedroom, where he sees a much older version of himself eating dinner alone -- whom he becomes. Turning, he now sees himself on his death bed, in the same room -- Bowman becoming the dying man. The humming black slab appears again, and transforms Bowman into a very scary monster fetus, bigger than the earth itself.

Like tossing pennies into a canyon. But what a canyon: it is nothing other than the scientist and the narcissist come together, speaking of something real: a wipeout of all feeling from the universe. And the psychology of machines, as if ceremony has come down to this, as if the road back from technology to the real can only be traveled through the machine of ceremony. Eventually, Kubrick sends us screaming through a tunnel as form scrapes at the place where the heart touches the beyond. And inside the form is a separation and eternal loneliness.

The year 2001 -- rather than a year of awe, magic, and transformation -- would be the year when the entire Western world would turn toward corporate filth, mass murder, worship of police power and most everything else of a prosaic, anti-magical nature.


How will the movie past evolve through these new viewing forms? Which directors -- and official masterpieces -- will rise or fall? Who will benefit from the precision, size, and vibrancy? (And the home theater isolation.) Some predictions. Up: Minnelli, Lang, Welles, Nicholas Ray, Jerry Lewis (oh! for a Blu-ray set of his 60s candy-colored humanity). Down: Chaplin, Capra, Cassavetes, Ford. The greatness of the Plasma / OPPO marriage is in its capacity to embrace and send-out not just objects at its own level of technology, but objects of warmth, wonder, spirit, intimacy, fellowship, and good humor.

Such as this other, later trip to the stars: