52 Authors: Week 17 - Christopher Derrick
Glitches, Maybe

A Conversation Piece

I've been reading Robert McCrum's biography of P.G. Wodehouse (Wodehouse, 2004). In passing, discussing Wodehouse's decision to try writing for Hollywood in the late 1920s and early '30s, the author mentions this:

According to George Cukor, the premiere [of The Jazz Singer, the first talking picture], on the night of 27 December 1928, had been 'the most important event in cultural history since Martin Luther nailed his theses on the church door'....

My first thought on reading that was "What a ridiculous thing to say"--just the sort of thing you might expect of some self-important entertainment industry executive. My second thought was "But now that I think about it, I guess it was pretty significant." (And Cukor was not an executive, but a director, trained in the theater, who went to Hollywood at about the same time Wodehouse did.)

And my third thought was, "You know, I think he might be right." Whether or not the Luther comparison is accurate, it is true that moving pictures, especially after they became speaking pictures as well, are something never before seen in human history, and that they've had a huge influence. And it seems entirely possible that their cultural effect may be as great as some of the big philosophical shifts in civilization. Never before had the human race seen itself this way. There had been theater, of course, but as the early movie producers soon realized, that is a very different thing. Actors on a stage remain human in scale, and in the same real world as the audience. Movies, in comparison, are simultaneously much more and much less real--literally larger than life, and at the same time, and no doubt in part for that very reason, creating a stronger illusion of reality, and all the more illusory because it's heightened and intensified.

I haven't really thought about this at length, but surely others have. No doubt there are books exploring the idea. At the moment I'm just tossing it out for discussion--what do others think? As a cultural influence, has it had an effect on the mind of a civilization comparable to that of the Protestant Reformation, or the Enlightenment, or industrialization? 


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Yes, I think so. There's an unobtainable book by Friedrich Wilhelmsen which argues that the reason film is so influential is that it mimics the process of perception.

More like the printing press (which, of course, is related to the Reformation). Not as big as the wheel or writing, though?

What about iron?

Yeah, printing press is probably an excellent comparison.

Interesting that you mention Wilhelmsen, Grumpy, since we've just been talking about Christoper Derrick. I read something by him around the same time as I was reading Derrick. I don't think it was an entire book, maybe just some pieces in periodicals. But I recall being impressed. I'd be interested in reading that book. I've read one or two books about the influence of the media, but I think they focused more on the effect of television and such as an environment, not so much on the inherent qualities of the technology.

Did novels get there before movies? They grabbed readers at a very personal level and sent them off into imaginary worlds.

True, they did do something quite similar, using only words. I think movies have proven more universally potent, though. And with tv (counting it as moving pictures, of course) much more pervasive. Though that's not really intrinsic to the technology.

I think I'm willing to say that they are even more potent than anything mentioned so far.

One of the things that I learned when homeschooling that really changed the way I understand learning is that there are all these ways of learning: visual, aural, kinesthetic, etc. (I know y'all know this.), and that each student learns best by his own personal combination of these kinds of perception. Each one of these sends information to your brain on its own little track, so to speak, and the more tracks, the more you understand.

So movies send the ideas in both visually and aurally, and it's not just the spoken word they use but the very powerful medium of music, AND they are relentless, that is, an idea comes and you can't stop and think, "Is this true?" because if you do, you miss the next thing. So, you store it away to get to it later, but you don't usually have a chance, so it stays there and becomes part of your little jumble of ideas. It's like having a splinter in your finger that you don't even know is there. It's still doing something to your body.

Darn, I have so much more I could say about this, but I have to work. Sorry if it's unclear.


No, it's quite clear. Those are the kind of thoughts that have been floating around sort of half-formed in my mind. I don't really have any doubt that it's more potent. More potent now than it was 50 or 75 years ago, too. I'm wondering more about how significant the effects have been.

What does your Legolas look like? Unless you already had a really clear image of the characters from the Lord of the Rings before you saw the movie (which I fortunately did), you are probably heavily influenced by the movie. One of the reasons I resisted the movies so much was because I didn't want my Galadriel to be Cate Blanchett.

Unfortunately, I saw most of the characters in a trailer before I knew what I was looking at.


My mental images of Gandalf, the Hobbits and Theoden have been colonised by the film. The film's Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli have faded but retain a shadowy influence. Gandalf and the Hobbits I think because you just see so much of them. Theoden I must only have had a shadowy idea of beforehand. At the time, I was glad they didn't put Tom Bombadil in the films.

Post-1517 cultural developments. Let's see. Northern Renaissance portraiture. Congregational hymn-singing. Secular drama. The essay. The atlas. Baroque painting (Rubens, Rembrandt, Caravaggio). Tourism. Opera. Journalism. Encyclopedias. Novels (as Marianne so astutely pointed out). Neo-Classical architecture. Musical theatre. Romantic poetry. Neo-Gothic architecture. Photography. Building with steel and glass. Mass peaceful protest (with marches, banners, songs). Universal schooling. I'm probably missing something. I don't know if I'd put all of them above film, but surely some of them. And if anything, I think I'd rate moving pictures higher than talking pictures.

Northern Renaissance portraiture is probably cheating: its roots go back before 1517.

And perhaps congregational hymn-singing counts as a consequence of the Reformation. The rest stand.

@Robert Gotcher and Janet: That's exactly why I've steadfastly refused to see any of the LOTR movies.

Well, I wasn't seeing the LOTR movie at that time. I was at the theatre to see something else, and it was a preview.

But yes, I agree you were very wise.


My mind has very definitely been colonized by the movie images. I've been hesitant to read Tolkien again because of that.

I don't think I'd put more than a few of those developments up there with motion pictures, Paul. And by the way I'm including talking pictures in that term. Those are all important but few of them strike me as having the simultaneously deep and wide impact of movies and tv.

But it's not just the cultural influence as such that I'm wondering about, it's whether m/tv have--I hate to use this kind of terminology, but it seems appropriate--changed our consciousness in some more fundamental way, our perception of the world and ourselves. The printing press and widespread literacy--not Luther's revolution itself--and, following from that, things like the novel and journalism are the only things that strike me as being in the same class.

I think it can all be subsumed under the general turn toward the consciousness of the individual (both looking in and looking out) over the past 500 years.

I suppose this is Marshall McLuhan stuff.

And, of course, the pinnacle of the process is...the selfie!

What comes to mind for me as an exploration of this phenomenon is the movie Being There and the movie The Truman Show. And Forrest Gump, I guess.

It's interesting that the Internet has been pushing us in the direction of moving out of that individual consciousness space and back into a communal space.

Somehow connected to this must be the drop in the sales of e-books, while the purchase of printed books just keeps chugging along.

I do remember someone saying that good pro-life films combined with the newest technology in ultrasounds would be the main mechanism in turning the culture against abortion. That seems quite plausible and seems to support the view of Cukor.

I do think movies (and TV) are very potent.

Thanks for that list, Paul.

I don't really think the net has moved us more to a communal space. Seems more of a collision of personal spaces, or a theater where everyone believes himself to be part of the cast, not the audience. I mean, the units are not any less self-conscious and self-absorbed, or more willing to see the self as part of a whole, at least not past the ritual nods to humanity in general or "the planet." The selfie, as Robert says, seems significant.

But then there's the flash mob phenomenon. Doesn't that signal something communal happening?

Flash mobs don't seem communal to me. They're just temporary conglomerations of individuals.

I know McLuhan talked a lot about TV. Did he think of TV as significantly different from movies?

I haven't read much McLuhan, and that long ago, so I'm not sure.

The modern consciousness of the individual I'm trying to describe is not the same thing as self-absorption or self-interest. They're often related, but what I mean is a general cultural interest in and emphasis on the individual, his experiences and well-being. It has its roots in Christianity, or at least Christianity helped to bring it out. The individual *matters* to us, collectively, in a way that I don't think it did to ancient civilizations.

At any rate neither of those ideas or tendencies is exactly what what I'm trying to connect with moving pictures. I'm having trouble articulating it, obviously.

Oh, and classical music, jazz music, and the phonograph - they all fall in the 1517-1928 slot too. As do (speaking of communal areas) public parks, public libraries, and the concept of heritage and landscape conservation.

Big as those are, I don't think any of them is as huge and fundamental as the invention of the printing press and the advancement of literacy, which I'm more and more inclined to think is what movies and tv may be comparable to.

Never mind Luther and his theses (which I think were never actually nailed to a door anyway) etc.--the Protestant Reformation was really only one item, albeit a big one, in a cultural movement that took place over centuries. Although its cultural and political significance was enormous, it was more an effect than a cause of a shift in consciousness.

So I think Cukor was wrong insofar as he meant the Protestant Reformation specifically.

But to put the minimally-revolutionary case, moving pictures for the most part perpetuate the aesthetic and moral sensibility of Victorian melodrama by a different technical means (while documentaries are basically public lectures with moving lantern-slides). They too can be fitted into a narrative of longer-term cultural change and continuity.

That's true, but it's precisely the technical means that I'm puzzling over. Is it more important than what was done with it, especially in the period immediately following its introduction? If there is anything to the notion that I'm struggling to articulate, it's that the technical means changed something on a level below aesthetic and moral sensibility.

Yes, what Mac said. The content of films and TV is as you say a re-run of Victorian melodrama. But the medium is somehow more 'interior' to the mind than Victorian novels. Wilhelmsen says this is because the technique of film making reproducing the human process of thought. That makes watching a film peculiarly absorbing. It makes the illusion of reality much stronger. If as Augustine said God is more interior to me than I am to myself, than a movie can appear to me *as* interior to me as I am to myself.

One upshot is that skills which were perhaps over valued in the past, such as the capacity to read 900 page Victorian novels, are now undervalued. Because all most people under 40 are up for is 'watching' a graphic novel.

Well, I could be mistaken, but I do think that the sheer 'interactivity' of the internet makes it less purely solipsistic than some people think. Here is an example. With the old media, if you wrote an opinion in a book or journal or newspaper, it takes time and effort for someone with a contrasting view to express it. Whereas now of course that contrasting opinion can be expressed immediately and with ease. We all know the problems that generates - trolls! But I also think that these new fora where an author's book is reviewed and the author responds and then the reviewer comes back are bringing a certain parity and accountability into book reviewing which was impossible with the earlier technologies. In the Middle Ages (I have read) there were flighting competitions. I think the way in which the internet re-invents that possibility is a good thing (bearing in mind that even good things can harbour evils or privations).

Think about a city in the late 1970s 1980s. If you looked into an apartment block, most people were sitting in their apartments watching TV. Perhaps alone, perhaps with a spouse. Now today that person might be chatting on facebook or yakking away on a blog like this one or joining in other interactive social media thingies. (Yes of course that person could be looking at internet porn - I'm not saying it's all good). And then you can say that 90% of that 'chatting' is just posting things about themselves (status updates) to which no one replies. Sure, but at least they announced their condition ("I am eating dinner") in some public way rather than staring at a TV.

There are fewer and fewer public spaces. It's a huge problem in both the Universities I've been at. At Aberdeen and now in the Mid West, people have campaigned for years without success to get a common room. The administration will not give us the space. It seems to me that at its best social media function as a surrogate common room.

Yes it could be better if we had a real one, but we don't, and the current situation seems better than not having a real common room and sitting in one's office watching TV.

When I said 'you' up above in my first line I meant Paul.

Picking up on what Grumpy said about the "interactivity" of the Internet, there's this:

"Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, has declared 2015 the Year of Books, committing to read a book every fortnight while discussing it on Facebook. The ultimate digital champion is now championing the world's most traditional form of expression and creativity, telling us that reading books and our social media culture can go hand in hand."

And then there are the "BookTubers" -- "most often teenagers, [who] document their reading experiences via webcam, recommending reads and setting themselves impressively large reading goals for their viewers to follow."

I wonder, ungenerously, what books Mark Zuckerberg would read. But it's good to hear about all those young people reading. Though I've never been--I doubt any person who's thought seriously about would be--of the mind that reading is a good thing regardless of what's being read.

I'm not of the view that the Internet is an isolating influence, by the way. It certainly isn't for me!--I mean, here I am, talking to all of you.

I'm puzzling over Grumpy's reference to Wilhelmsen. I don't really understand it.

"the world's most traditional form of expression and creativity" – surely that would be song and/or dance?

The Telegraph has a list of five of the books, all non-fiction, that Zuckerberg's chosen thus far. The article says he's selected the titles based on their ability to "emphasise learning about new cultures, beliefs, histories and technologies".

Could be worse. The Pinker book has gotten a lot of attention and seems worth reading. The gang leader book looks interesting. The others, not so much, to me. The first one actually looks sorta dumb.

That is pretty funny, Paul. Or drawing pictures?

I went to a talk last week given by Archbishop">http://www.lumencivitatis.com/">Archbishop J. Augustine di Noia. and one of the things he was talking about was that the Enlightenment thinkers wanted to build a society based on reason and get rid of God, and in so doing they have lost reason. We're all familiar with that concept of course. Well, this list of books somehow brought that to mind.

Maclin has a point about reading not necessarily being a good thing. I kind of wish I had time to read a couple of these to see what they are saying.


Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name is required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)