Provocative Dramas in Digital Audio and Cinema

May 22, 2012
By Travis Bird

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the Abaton Players CD, Provocative Dramas by Arch Oboler. I thought it was a cool idea to re-record a pair of vintage radio dramas, but I immediately wondered how “vintage” they’d make it. It seemed to be a unique set of aesthetic choices being presented to Abaton with this release. Would they insert radio static, sample vintage soundtrack material, or record directly to tape? How important would these touches be to my enjoyment of the plays, my immersion in them? As it turned out, they didn’t do any of these things, and it was pretty significant that they didn’t.

It was hard not to make a parallel when listening to the Oboler plays (more on that in a bit) without thinking of this year’s Oscar juggernaut The Artist. I was charmed by the film, but as someone who is regularly exposed to celluloid, I found The Artist (and the other 2012 Oscar star, Hugo) drawing a difficult line in the sand. For a work so consumed with film nostalgia – the storytelling, cinema culture, and even the actual film stock – having it shot and exhibited digitally was a brutal reality to confront.

Like most (all?) theatergoers, I saw the film projected as a DCP (Digital Cinema Package), which basically means the movie is a high-quality digital file on a hard drive. It’s played back from a server through a digital projector that has roughly four times the resolution of a Blu-Ray player. In the recently digitized Prytania Theatre in New Orleans, a delightfully Spartan single-screen art house, the film looked fine – in the view of myself and many “film people” I know, digital projection has gotten good enough to compete with the rich texture of celluloid. Digital can also be – already is – an essential tool for archives restoring and preserving film prints that would be lost otherwise, the vision of the director and cinematographer destroyed by time. But it is not the same as film. And it was impossible for me to ignore the fact that, even though it was a black-and-white silent movie, The Artist did not “look like” film. And that’s a reality that for me, as a former film student and ersatz projectionist, is hard to sit with.

This is the moment – as multiplexes and major archives are switching over to digital projection – from which film, actual celluloid, will be regarded strictly as a museum piece. It will be used only by archives and die-hards in the future: frozen in time as a cultural artifact, like paintings before perspective was developed, or Igor Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale, written after he read early American jazz scores but hadn’t actually heard any jazz. In a generation, I wonder if celluloid will be regarded on a similarly novel level beyond the content of what’s projected.

This novelty would be the result of an almost total shift in awareness. One tenet of postmodernism is that works of art reference other ideas and works without meaning to, or without being aware that they’re doing so; for film culture and silent cinema in particular, The Artist may represent the beginning of its postmodern era. For those old enough to have experienced film, there is still an awareness of the difference between celluloid and DCP. But for most future viewers, there will be no awareness – when a film like The Artist references silent cinema, they will not know that this isn’t how silent films looked. Cinema and its history may become malleable and, for many, meaningless.

Radio, however, is passing through no such fateful doorway. It actually seems to be experiencing a renaissance, with podcasts and shows like This American Life and Radiolab, whose co-host Jad Abumrad was honored with a MacArthur grant in 2011, pushing the form by heaping creativity on the back of journalism. (And notice how many of these are public radio stations – reminding us that any politicians kicking around the notion of pulling NPR funding are talking serious shame.) Like DCP, these innovative radio shows are providing something new and high quality that builds on the tools of the original medium.

Storytelling radio as far as I can tell indifferent to fiction these days, and one thing that radio is not is nostalgic, even in A Prairie Home Companion or a David Sedaris monologue on This American Life. But nostalgia is tied up in presentation quality as well as content; when we imagine radio, so much of it is tied up in texture – rich voices, solemn cadences, accents. We may also imagine an antiquated form: static, muddy recordings, and outdated accents. Just like scratches on a film print, changeover markers, and the frame jump that sometimes happens at the end of a reel, these are part of the package, and something doesn’t feel right if they’re missing. The Artist is part of the shift away from awareness of this textural richness.

Which brings us to this plaintive release from Abaton, a CD featuring two half-hour radio plays by early radio dramatist Arch Oboler. Oboler is seen as a central figure in radio drama up through the dawn of television, drawing comparisons to Orson Welles and Rod Serling in his ability to push the medium in daring ways. But compared to The Twilight Zone, which has aged so well, Oboler’s pair here seem a bit flat, if initially interesting. “Catwife” concerns a problematic wife who is actually turned into a cat. “Baby” follows a wife who cracks up under the desire for a baby and her terror about impending world war, perhaps a topical choice on the part of the Abaton gang. The Abaton troupe handles the incongruities of time rather awkwardly, with synths and band-in-a-box musical backing adding to the slightly sterile dramaturgical atmosphere. The plays are crisply recorded like a modern jazz group, and the texture of a vintage Blue Note LP is missing.

For me, the Abaton CD is almost a relief, a lesson that a radio drama comes from a certain place and time and a reminder of the role technology plays in defining that. If it doesn’t feel right, my romantic and curatorial side fervently hopes that people will know, and will strive to cultivate awareness and respect for history and for everything that led up to this moment of them experiencing a potentially moving work of art. Although with commercial cinema after The Artist, I’m no longer sure that they will know.

Abaton Radio Theater, “Provocative Dramas by Arch Oboler” CD

Abaton Book Company

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