A Dark Room, a Bright Wall and a Dividing Line

By  · Published on June 12th, 2014

American Zoetrope

Francis Ford Coppola is humbly preaching to a crowd of thousands, sharing the gospel of innovation and promising a new era in filmmaking. In his own soft-spoken way, he builds tension for the potential of his new project before pressing The Button.

Nothing happens.

In pin drop silence, film composer Dan Deacon shouts out, “The future of cinema is here!”, eliciting raucous laughter from a crowd in need of the release. Coppola charmingly plays it off, and the rest of the presentation goes relatively according to a plan that accounts for improvisational errors that can be charmingly played off.

It’s 2011, Coppola is sharing his edited-on-the-fly, live cinema concept film Twixt with the world, and if the conversation I had afterward was any indication, the response was mixed. Typical for an experiment, I thought it was an exciting twist of convention from an eternally independent-minded director while my friend thought it was liking watching your war hero grandfather succumb to senility.

That was then, and now Coppola is proclaiming that the future which Dan Deacon sarcastically prophesied is still the future of movies we can expect. Or at least one future.

It’s a clever gimmick, but here’s the thing: imagine for a second that you’ve just watched a movie, loved it, and as you left the theater you’re told that it was edited right before your eyes. Would you have been able to tell otherwise?

Or imagine that you’re told the movie you’re about to see is “live,” and you enjoy it, but how would you know it was truly live? Even if you could see someone at an editing bay pressing buttons while the movie played, could you be certain that it was being mixed? If you didn’t see the movie “live” twice, would it even matter? Could it ever be anything more than a footnote to explain at cocktail parties?

This isn’t exactly a Cartesian problem. Not an existential conundrum. It’s a simple reality about the dividing line between us and the art on the screen. It’s what has always set cinema apart, and even if an editor is sitting next to you constructing a story out of individual parts in real-time, the performances are still miles and months away, and the parts are pre-constructed.

Still, the contradictory conglomeration is a fascinating one because it highlights so clearly the very thing that separates two art forms. It’s a simultaneous reminder that 1) up until 120 years ago, we thought we’d created all the types of art there could be and 2) that we’re still trying new things. In a way, there’s no one more fitting to deliver that reminder than the man behind a company with “Zoetrope” in its name.

Like most sane people, I don’t see “live” movies ever setting the world on fire, but we should all appreciate and applaud that Coppola isn’t one of the sane, and that we’re still doing bizarre things with this wonderfully elastic medium.

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector [email protected] | Writing short stories at Adventitious.