Does the future have to be a digital future?

Does the future have to be a digital future?

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So how persistent — and culturally significant — will be the affection of millennials for analog media? This strikes me as one of the more interesting and largely open questions of the cultural future — with implications for the film industry, music business, […]

'The Flick' at Steppenwolf Theatre Company
'The Flick' at Steppenwolf Theatre Company

So how persistent — and culturally significant — will be the affection of millennials for analog media? This strikes me as one of the more interesting and largely open questions of the cultural future — with implications for the film industry, music business, booksellers, the theater and, of course, newspapers.

If you extend the notion of analog to include face-to-face meetings, you could even argue the question has similar import for the airlines, given that some have started to argue that huge tubes full of people jetting across the Atlantic are starting to seem very 1970s, given the plethora of digital alternatives to in-person encounters.

Conventional wisdom says that affection for the analog will be largely non-existent. Declarations that the young will still pick up a newspaper are typically greeted with derision, especially when uttered by those on the wrong side of 5 and 30.

That presumed lack of affection is now a mantra from those who benefit from its propagation. Trying to sell some Victorian children's books to a dealer the other day, I was greeted with so intense and lengthy a monologue about the total lack of any market for any old books whatsoever that it raised the question: Then why are you in the book business?

Masochistic tendencies? Or was this all about diminishing my expectations?

Even antique furniture dealers do the same these days. No market for heavy old stuff, they say. Nobody wants seasoned woodcraft, just a digital lifestyle.

Yet there I was on Saturday at the Steppenwolf Theatre watching young Annie Baker's excellent, Pulitzer Prize-winning play "The Flick," which is a drama based on the notion that a passionate movie theater usher in his mid-20s is willing to walk out of any theater that has replaced its old 35mm projection equipment with digital machinery. As a point of honor.

This is a melancholy drama suffused with nostalgia for the analog — the argument is made that digitally projecting a movie originally made on film represents a kind of ethical violence, a bait-and-switch immorality.

Even the title of Baker's drama is a reference to the mechanics of film, wherein a series of still images pass by a light source. The movement always was an illusion, of course, but in "The Flick," the act of projection is afforded the reverence of a kind of meta-reality. Real film, it is argued, represents real art which means real people in real jobs.

When, in director Dexter Bullard's production, the ugly new digital machine arrives, it is as if a huge and amorphous corporate whale has eaten up the projection room, robbing us of the comforts of looking back and seeing a projector that looks like a projector always looked.

You could argue that theater has always trafficked in nostalgia — and it does so with a vested interest, given that the Steppenwolf wants and needs to persuade people that its live, analog experiences should command a higher price. One should not confuse a bit of melancholy over change with anything capable of wrestling down larger forces.

At a neighbor's party the other week, the cool hosts cranked up their 1960s-vintage record player, replete with albums from the period. And the other night I was out with an old college friend who makes his living specializing in 1980s vinyl from Simply Red to New Order. All well and good.

But the Tribune's Howard Reich reported that the Jazz Record Mart, the self-declared "World's Largest Jazz and Blues Record Store," closed its doors in Chicago on Monday, after selling its entire stock to the ominously named Wolfgang's Vault, which sounds more like a cryogenic storage operation, or a Nevada bunker, than a happy meeting place of urban jazz fans.

So maybe there aren't enough of Baker's soulful 20-something ushers to really make a dent — beyond a boutique presence that cannot be scaled up. But I still think it may well be more complicated than that.

I watched Charlie Kaufman's Academy Award-nominated movie "Anomalisa" last week — it's an animated film about a rather sad love affair among the middle-aged, but it uses a jerky, stop-motion technique that renders its protagonists as cumbersome, awkward, hopelessly faux-analog puppets, and completely removes all the digital smoothness you typically see in such movies.

With full intention, no doubt, Kaufman did not erase in post-production the grooves and creases in the interchangeable faces of his leading characters. You might say it's a digital movie that feels weirdly handcrafted — which Kaufman, of course, links to the eccentric lives and fates of its characters, analog emotional souls lost in a cold, digital world.

So what's that? Fake analog? Probably. Maybe that's the sweet, scalable spot.

In the meantime, let's just hope Wolfgang looks after all those great recordings.

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.

cjones5@tribpub.com

Twitter @ChrisJonesTrib


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