Jul 14, 2023, 06:28AM

Motionflow Madness

Hell is other peoples’ TVs.

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Film lovers rejoiced late last month when it was announced that Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and Paul Thomas Anderson intervened in Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav’s restructuring of Turner Classic Movies. Zaslav fired the executives in charge of the channel and shifted its management to Cartoon Network head Michael Ouweleen, presumably with the eventual goal of some kind of cross-promotion between networks, an alarming bit of news given that TCM has always been free of advertising. After meeting with Zaslav, the three directors agreed to take an active role in the network’s future. The channel’s SVP of Programming and Content Strategy Charlie Tabesh, whom Zaslav had included in his mass layoff, will also be rehired. “This unique arrangement, initiated by David Zaslav, reflects his commitment to honoring the TCM legacy while also involving us on curation and programming,” a statement from the directors reads  “We are thrilled that longtime programmer Charlie Tabesh will be staying with TCM and gratified to know that the team is focused on preserving TCM’s mission of celebrating our rich movie history while at the same time ensuring that future generations of filmmakers and film lovers have TCM as a valuable resource.”

PR hokum aside, this is good news. TCM has been a godsend to film directors, enthusiasts, and critics for almost as long as I’ve been alive. Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker keep it playing in the background in the editing room, as I’m sure many other directors and editors do. For the curation of essential cinema, TCM is practically unrivaled. It’s one of a few places left that reliably showcases pre-1970s cinema, which alone makes its preservation important.

But it’s also important to consider what cinema is and how it’s presented on TV. When movies are shown on TV, they’re modulated through the TV’s design and manufacturing specifications. This is why when TVs were square boxes, widescreen movies were often presented in pan and scan formats that clipped the sides of the frame. Besides colorized versions of black and white films, pan and scans were the cinephile’s worst enemy when I was growing up. My high school English teacher did a whole lesson around Chinatown, specifically the scene in which angry farmers heckle Hollis Mulwray for refusing to build a new dam, where he compared the widescreen and pan and scan versions to demonstrate how much visual information, not to mention the exquisite framing by John A. Alonzo, gets lost in the latter. Now that wide TVs are standard, we have the opposite problem: Disney+ clips off the top and bottom of classic Simpsons episodes to make them fit wide TVs, and when that doesn’t work, they simply stretch the frames. (I’m told that the streaming service now offers the show in 4:3 aspect ratio, but I’ll stick with my ripped-from-broadcast wav files.)

In essence, from Louis Le Prince's Garden to TikTok, cinema has always been a record of movement. The word is shorthand for the French cinématographe, a combination of the Ancient Greek κίνημα–kínēma, or “movement”—and γράφω (gráphō, “write, record”). Film cameras traditionally record movement at 24 frames per second, as do most digital cameras. The eye perceives the movement by means of rapid kineography, the film reel functioning as a massive flipbook. As technology has improved, TV manufacturers and filmmakers alike have begun to experiment with higher frame rates, the biggest fuck-you to film lovers since the pan and scan.

There’s a real “these go to eleven” stupidity about the increase to 48 frames per second in film, which started about a decade ago with Peter Jackson’s Hobbit series and has continued to this day. I don’t think anyone ever noticed the ellipses between the 24 frames in a given second, and there was never any need to double them. The irony of the high frame rate is that it’s meant to give the movie more detail and presumably make it more life-like, and yet the only thing the added frames offer most films is an alien, uncanny sheen. But as much as I think The Hobbit looks like garbage, at least Jackson and his team work to create the extra frames and give them as much detail as possible. The high frame rate of smart TV motion smoothing is nothing but algorithmic generation, the added frames aggregated from existing ones. To watch a movie with motion smoothing is to watch a movie cannibalize itself.

In all fairness, high frame rates have their place. Gaming, sports, and even some movies (Avatar: The Way of Water, Gemini Man) can benefit from additional frames. If used correctly, it smooths out the visual experience and provides a level of visual detail in sequences whose fast pace might otherwise blur or strobe the image. The problem is that many (if not most) televisions don’t have a way to easily toggle between normal and high frame rates. Turning off the default motion smoothing settings can be complicated and usually requires some Googling. Once you turn them off, turning them back on—for, say, a football game—can prove just as difficult.

The bigger, more difficult problem has arguably less to do with the motion settings themselves and more with the public’s indifference to them and, by extension, the depreciation of the moving image, especially in film. When I go to friends’ houses, I often notice the motionflow settings are turned on, no matter what they’re watching. I never say anything because I don’t want to be that guy, but I’m perplexed by it. Do people just not care? Or do they not notice? Years ago, while watching The Sixth Sense with my family, I couldn’t bear it anymore and made them pause while I looked up how to turn off the TV’s motion smoothing. At first they insisted they didn’t know what I was talking about, but once it was fixed, everyone admitted that the movie looked much better with the smoothing turned off (though it’s possible they were just placating me in an attempt to shut me up).

When I stay in hotels, these settings are the default and usually impossible to turn off, as was the case last week during a visit to St. Louis. Gangs of New York was on Showtime, probably the TCM Defender’s worst movie. I always wondered how much of that was Scorsese’s fault and to what extent the movie suffered from Harvey Scissorhands’ infamous creative meddling. As terrible as Harvey Weinstein was, both as a person and movie producer, it’s hard to imagine this movie being much better if a less intrusive producer like Brad Grey had made it. In any case, the distorted effect of motion smoothing only serves to highlight the inherent phoniness in the film’s design and how impossible the suspension of disbelief becomes while watching its woefully miscast stars fake their ethnic accents and ham their way through what looks like a Civil War-era NYC Westworld environment.

During my four nights staying at the hotel, TCM featured, among other things, a marathon of Bob Hope/Bing Crosby movies, 1776 (for July 4th), Dog Day Afternoon, and Gold Diggers of 1933. The hotel TV was indifferent to the varying aspect ratios, stretching the 1.37 : 1 of Gold Diggers to an obscene widescreen. At times, the motion smoothing made it look like an SNL sketch approximation of a 1930s musical. I treated the film with a similar level of indifference, mostly ignoring it while I worked out in the small space in front of the bed. And yet, during Busby Berkeley’s famous “Shadow Waltz” sequence, I was moved to cease all calisthenics and just watch. No amount of digital distortion could detract from the beauty of the images. If anything, the elongated frame and motion smoothing lends the phantasmagoric sequence an additional layer of abstraction. Maybe that’s the ultimate test of great cinema: can it withstand the unforced errors that its corporate gatekeepers inevitably make in non-physical, non-theatrical avenues of distribution and one-size-fits-all broadcasting?

Meanwhile, in multiplexes, Tom Cruise is thanking audiences before each screening of the new Mission Impossible, recognizing how important it is to see these movies in theaters where they belong. That kind of groveling shouldn’t be necessary from the world’s greatest movie star, but so it goes. I’m glad TCM is here to stay. Let’s hope cinema is too.


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