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Sandler’s ‘Click’: A control freak’s paradise?

Technology has come along way to let us imagine the film’s scenario. By John Hartl

Adam Sandler’s latest comedy, “Click,” is the story of a workaholic architect who uses his remote control to organize his life. He can fast-forward through the bad times, slow down or rewind the good ones, and more or less turn his remote into a selective time machine.

It’s an idea that would only make sense at this point in history. Half a century ago, it would seem as impossible as landing a man on the moon. As Arthur C. Clarke is fond of pointing out, even tiny advances in technology can begin to look like magic.

They can also change the way we look at things and reshape the expectations we have of certain forms of art and commerce. It’s been a gradual process, so gradual that we barely realize that we’ve left some possibly essential things behind as “instant replay” became part of the language. Once you can manipulate and choose what you want, other possibilities fade.

Early days of 8mmIt all began with film, not television or videotape or DVDs. During the silent era, some film stars shot home movies of families and friends that could be edited for content, just like feature films. In the 1950s, the idea caught on with middle-class families, who began recording their lives on 8mm and 16mm film.

Once they had projectors, they could also buy shortened versions of feature films through the mail. In the late 1950s, Universal Pictures was particularly generous with its library, turning out 10-minute highlight reels from “The Incredible Shrinking Man” and “The Creature From the Black Lagoon.”

Sometimes preferable to the overlong originals, they could also be summoned up at any time. “Creature” may have disappeared from theaters, it may have been shown at odd hours on television, but if you owned a copy you could watch it whenever you wanted

My first purchase was a Charlie Chaplin comedy, “Charlie Spills the Beans,” a three-minute 8mm excerpt from a longer 35mm film that originally had a different title. I was less thrilled with the film itself than with the idea that I could start it up, play it in reverse, slow it down or speed it up whenever I felt like it..

The first ‘must see’  TVAround the same time, “appointment television” became a reality with annual network showings of “The Wizard of Oz” in the late 1950s, and network telecasts of major-studio movies on NBC’s “Saturday Night at the Movies” in the early 1960s. But it lost its charms if circumstances prevented you from making that appointment. 

And most movies weren’t given the deluxe network treatment. Many were condemned to being scheduled in late-night slots in dubious presentations. Black-and-white, scratched-up prints of color films became the norm.

It wasn’t unusual for television stations to reward you for staying up until 2 a.m. by showing, without apology, a murky, poorly scanned black-and-white print of a wide-screen color epic like “The Big Country.” Not until the 1970s, and the advent of cable, did high-quality presentations become the norm.

When Disney entered the 8mm market in the 1960s, you could watch favorite scenes from “Bambi” or “Cinderella” on any occasion, rather than wait for the feature-length versions to be reissued to theaters every seven years. That was the studio’s theatrical policy. (It lives on in Disney’s DVD releases of movies that are available for sale only for brief periods.)

Eventually, a magnetic strip on the side of the 8mm film made talkies possible. It also introduced the idea of adding your own soundtracks to home movies or silent studio features and manipulating the sound.

Nino Rota’s music for Fellini films could bring a sense of whimsy to home movies of cousins splashing in a lake, while a 10-minute suite from Richard Rodgers’ “Victory at Sea” could add unexpected oomph to your 8mm edition of “War of the Planets.”

Sometimes the synchronicity was uncanny; every note seemed to be written with this particular series of images in mind. If you’d never noticed before how much music can add to (or subtract from) the mood of a film, it was almost like going to film school.

Change acceleratesVideotape started to turn up in the mid-1960s, when I first held a reel of the stuff in a college journalism class. My professor, who moonlighted at an advertising agency, brought in the tape to demonstrate how expensive it was ($65 for a five-minute reel), how dodgy it would be to manufacture on a large scale, and how it would never, ever catch on with the public for home use. Besides, who would want to own a movie?

A decade later, the Betamax arrived, and with it the first sophisticated remote controls. My professor was right about one thing: the tape was awfully expensive at first, so frequently I used it to record only parts of movies — highlights like the ones Universal and Disney pioneered on 8mm film. It was heaven if you liked to compile “greatest hits,” and frustrating if you wanted a copy of the whole movie.

A few years later, the early laserdiscs introduced stereo soundtracks and letterboxed images, which then started turning up on tapes — and DVDs. Manipulation of image and sound reached new heights with interactive DVDs and discs that offer different angles on a single scene. “Director’s Cuts” sometimes offer a radically altered version of a movie you thought you knew.

Also changing the way we watch are TiVo and HBO On Demand, which vanquish the idea of “appointment television” altogether. Whenever you want to watch “The Sopranos,” there it is. 

Of course, we lose something in this exchange. Even 20 years ago, families felt a communal sense of anticipation around television showings of “The Wizard of Oz” and theatrical reissues of  Disney’s “Fantasia” or “Snow White” — especially when Disney insisted the latter would never be released on video in any form. And for awhile any theatrical showing seemed superior to home-theater quality.

It’s hard to make that argument now that some theaters use digital projection, while entire living-room walls are covered with flat-screen televisions hooked up to sophisticated stereo systems. Aside from IMAX and Cinerama, there often isn’t a great difference between living rooms and theaters.

“Click,” of course, goes to comic extremes with the idea of the ultimate control freak manipulating the sounds and images of real life. It’s doubtful that anyone will be able to duplicate Adam Sandler’s relationship with his remote in the near future. Still, what seems magical now...