Technology and Stories

Screen capture of a scene in the trailer for ‘Oppenheimer,” from Universal Pictures



It might seem appropriate that one of the stories that have come out of the release of the movie Oppenheimer is that when it is shown as director Christopher Nolan intended, it arrives at the movie theater as a 600-pound, 11-mile-long strip of film.

How Nolan intended it, in 70mm format, can only be seen in about two dozen theaters across the country, however, so if you see the movie in IMAX at a local theater retrofitted for such films, as I did, chances are it will be shown from a digital file instead, with reduced resolution and screen size. (Do not worry: It will be plenty loud and frenetic.)

The hubris in Nolan’s decision, whatever you think of his movie, and the demands on people and resources that it makes, may not begin to approach the scale or significance of, but is in parallel with, his movie’s story, based on the “triumph and tragedy” of the “American Prometheus.”

The assumption that the technology used to tell a story has to be big in some literalized way in order to capture the drama of big events is interesting. The assumption is not of the same scale, but is in parallel with, moviemakers’ choices to show the future or other worlds by using lots of lazily-imagined props and frenetic CGI violence and to have an actor turn to the lens and shout the carefully-crafted line of dialogue, “Reload!” as happened in a trailer before Oppenheimer. I would much rather be sitting in a darkened cave and watching my Neanderthal ancestors blow ochre through reeds against their hands on the wall in the flickering light of a torch. Now there is a technology that matches a portrayal of the experience of being alive.

But the change in film technology is another of those things, like the technology of warfare itself, that sometimes leave us agog, like British Army officers sitting atop camels in a desert and watching one of the first biplanes fly past. My viewing lifetime has included film strips, VCR carts in classrooms, and “showings,” as we used to say, of short films on actual film stock in the nuclear shelter under my junior high.

The rackety projectors sometimes threw film off its sprockets mid-story, an expected event but always a little shocking that the world you had become immersed in was destroyed in front of you—sometimes by melting and charring by its own source of illumination—and the created experience came to a stop, so you were returned to a realer reality. Room lights were brought up, people came running to tinker with the intricate machine, and kids began laughing and talking loudly.

When this happened in commercial movie theaters there might also be shouted mockery from the audience or unabashed canoodling in the balconies. (Compare this with the Oppenheimer experience, which encourages canoodling only with more technology; the old dad in front of us spent the whole movie fingering his phone, looking up topics related to what he was seeing onscreen, including, “What is communism?”) The manager sometimes came out to apologize in olden days, even held a raffle for a cheap set of pots, though it was understood that the film seizing up, jumping perilously, or melting in an expanding void with burnt edges was hardly management’s fault.

Sometimes audio in a film got unsynched to actors’ lips, or a projector bulb dimmed, and the audience began to shout things to the unseen manager, who was always there somewhere, the god in the machine assumed to be responsible for his work or even largely benevolent. It was assumed we were all in the thing together, and if the projectionist might be suspected to have to slipped downstairs to chat up the popcorn girl, that was understandable, but the manager would of course solve the problem.

When repairs had to be made, the delays were oddly pleasurable, as if we were relieved to have survived technological disaster. Soon the spectacle would clatter again on its tracks, delivering Ernest Borgnine’s ultimate sacrifice by wedging his mini-sub, a real wonder, under the Ocean Lab, to save the other aquanauts from falling into the abyss. It was technology all the way down, with some melodrama thrown in, but in that reprieve there were only human voices, soft laughter, and a communal peace.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.