Monday, November 28, 2011

How It Happened, How It Didn't

Memory's saboteur
When instant replay was introduced to television sports in the late 1950s and 60s, the technology was crude, wet-film delay or sketchy videotape in slow-motion—we've all seen the jerky, blurry footage in vintage ABC Wide World of Sports clips.  Instant replay didn't demonstrably improve for a decade or more.  Now digital recording of sporting events stored on and retrieved from a complex arrangement of high-speed video servers allows for frame-by-frame replay in crisp, vivid increments; a moment, allowed to unfold in 1s and 0s, lasts for several high-def seconds, or is still-paused into razor-sharp infinity as commentators on television, and foaming hordes at home in their living rooms, argue for the head of the first baseman or the wide receiver—or umpire or referee. What fascinates me about instant replay is this paradox: it offers evidence of an event that didn't happen.


That is, it didn't happen in that way.  The receiver dropped the pass, yeah, and the pass had been tipped by the defender.  But with the technological hindsight of instant replay, the tipped football appears to hover in the air softly, nearly demurely, as it drifts, slightly off its initial trajectory, toward the receiver's gloved hands.  How'd he drop that? we scream.  I coulda caught that!  What's he getting, 3 mil a year to drop passes!?  Watch the play unfold again in real time (an opportunity offered by a responsible broadcast crew) and you see how smash-crash rapidly the play actually occurred.  What appear as moments during which the football stays aloft—so pluckable, like ripe fruit!—are actually seconds.  We know this, of course, but replay is seductive, manipulating us into believing something else.  The reality of the play—a tipped football that had been fired through a complex moving defense aimed at a man running a cross route thirty yards from the quarterback amidst a roar of 75,000 fans—metamorphoses via replay into a reality that we like to believe is a more accurate version of reality, when in fact it's an illusion, a meaningful event that—rendered, re-told, scrutinized—has lost meaning.  The past, yes, but slowed, studied, narratively rendered into new truth, yet false.


We replay a memory in much the same way—it happened, it didn't.  What can instant replay produce but an incident rendered gigantic, surreal, impossible?  (The ball between Buckner's legs, the obvious safe runner called out.). When we replay pivotal memories, across days or decades, we run them through the instant replay machine, elongating time, revisiting in vivid, sometimes crushing, sometimes joyous details a hyper-realistic rendering of story, pausing, rewinding, lurching forward again, replacing reality, screaming in anguish or joy at the high screen of memory. I should've kissed her!  I could've walked away!  We're recalling in re-made realism, a moment made mythic by a hundred replays, where time and space have grown impossibly, where the randomness and chaos of living is given a burdensome etiology: a new cause and effect transposed from a micro-second to a wide, painterly canvas, deliberated upon.  Between those lengthened moments new details may move in, shifting what's there already.  How it happened, how it didn't.

UPDATE:  the folks at the MIT Media Lab have developed a camera that captures a trillion frames per second. Gulp.

Image of first commercial instant replay deck from 1967 via CED Magic.

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