Why There Are So Many Doors in Movies:

Codexes, Ligatures and the Internet

Columbia Journalism Review, March/April 2000

Mitchell Stephens

In an effort to gain perspective on the future of the Internet, I recently sat down and watched, notebook in hand, the 1946 version of The Postman Always Rings Twice. This film, like so many old movies and television shows, is filled with shots of characters going through doors. I counted. There are 118 such shots.

Contemplating all those opening and closing doors a half-century later, we smirk. What are they doing there? I suspect that if the film's director, Tay Garnett, had been asked, he would have alluded to the need to guide audiences in and out of scenes. John Garfield can't just magically appear, all hot and bothered, in Lana Turner's kitchen. We need, the director might have explained, to see how he got there.

But, in fact, we don't need that. As has become clear in recent decades, audiences are quite capable of following sequences in which a character is in one room in one shot and in another room (or even another country) in the next. The door (or airplane), you might say, is assumed. When Bob Rafelson remade The Postman Always Rings Twice in 1981, Jack Nicholson, Jessica Lange and company pursued each other through only (only?) 77 doors. Were the film remade again today, the door count would undoubtedly decline further.

To explain all those doors, it is necessary to look to the direct ancestor of film and most television, to their model: theater. Characters on stage can't arrive in or depart from a scene without making an entrance or exit, without, in other words, passing through a door. That was the way it was done. It became, naturally enough, what filmmakers did. New forms of communication invariably imitate the forms that came before. As we try to figure out how to make use of such marvelous but unfamiliar new methods of informing and entertaining ourselves, we do the obvious thing: We borrow from their more familiar, if somewhat less marvelous, predecessors.

Some of these borrowings make sense. Perhaps the best historical example is the codex, which had been introduced in the Roman Empire as a replacement for unwieldy scrolls. The codex divided writings into pages, bound together. When the first printing presses were assembled in Europe in the fifteenth century, those who operated them borrowed the codex form from the handwritten manuscripts they were using as their model. It worked just fine. Our printed books and magazines still appear in what is, in essence, the form of the handwritten codex.

Many such borrowings, however, work less well. Ligatures may be the classic example. Scribes saved energy by connecting some of the letters in the words they copied; early printers wasted energy molding extra type in an effort to reproduce these ligatures. Why? It is easy once again to smirk, but that was simply the way it was done. Gutenberg and his contemporaries would be long gone before those vestigial remnants of the days of scribes, ligatures, began to disappear from print.

The history of communication is full of examples of similarly wrongheaded imitations. For the first couple of decades of this century, for example, the fledgling radio industry was doing its best to produce "wireless telegraphy" or "wireless telephony" - an ether-borne version, in other words, of one-to-one communication. However, radio's great strength (at least until the arrival of cellular phones) turned out to be mass communication: [ital]broad[ital]casting.

Now it is the Internet that is new. One method of trying to understand which way it might be heading is to examine its borrowings - and they are many. Then we might begin the rather more difficult task of trying to figure out which of these imports might prove as useful as the codex, which as foolish as printed ligatures.

Computers initially were passed off as big-brained adding machines or typewriters. Then they were decked out as if they were desktops. (A "metaphor," this particular imitation was labeled.) While we were still trying to get comfortable with that little scissors symbol, the Internet sprang to life on our screens - in the form of an electronic postal system. Normally societies precede their communications systems, but this imitation postal system, in a dazzling reversal, then gave birth to a whole imitation community, filled with "sites" -- the Web.

Whew! It would be useful to have another decade or so to figure out whether this current conception of the Internet as a kind of easily traversed, endlessly interconnected town, with addresses and shops, is the best with which we can come up. (Couldn't we at least lose those annoying "dots" and the "www"s?) But, of course, billions of dollars have already been spent constructing businesses to occupy these "sites." (Never has so much been invested so quickly in the success of a metaphor.)

The business model through which most of these investors hope to enrich themselves - selling audiences to advertisers - is, predictably, a straight borrowing from other media, particularly television. TV had stolen it from radio. Radio had stumbled upon this method of pocketing soap and cigarette money late and almost by accident; the telegraph and telephone, after all, hadn't carried ads.

Advertising seems - naturally enough, this being the way things are currently done - a reasonable way for a Web site to make money. (Especially inasmuch as the other immediately available model - charging admission to the "site" - apparently has worked only for dirty pictures and the Wall Street Journal.) However, if investors weren't so busy bidding up the price of each other's holdings, they might be worrying a bit more about the audiences they will be able to offer advertisers. Yes, those audiences can be carefully targeted, but there's also a good chance that, in the endlessly fragmented (more telephone- or telegraph-like?) world of the Web, those audiences will be piddling. I suspect the cute, animated advertising "banners" we're all so adept at ignoring may start to look a little like ligatures.

And then there's the question of what form of information is actually being provided by the Internet. When you click on any of our news-oriented Web sites - from cnn.com to drudgereport.com to salon.com - what you are greeted by is, in essence, a table of contents. This is another interesting borrowing - from print. It may even qualify as a borrowing that makes sense. Web sites, in journalism at least, have now in fact become elaborate, cross-referenced, multi-level, searchable tables of contents, with all the articles attached. This is quite useful, whether you want to know more about East Timor, Al Gore or Beck's tour. Maybe the table of contents will someday be seen as having done for the Web what the codex did for print.

Or maybe not. Almost all the articles that are now being so effectively indexed and linked on line have "headlines" and are organized into "pages." And with the exception of occasional videos (which remain, for the moment, low-resolution and small-screen), they all could, and in many cases did, appear in a newspaper or magazine. The Web may be structured like a community; it may hope to finance itself like television; but its content - its news content - is currently just about pure print. Imitation of this intensity, history tells us, is a sign that a form of communication has not yet found its way.

A new medium usually has to overcome a strong tendency to devote itself almost entirely to the products of the much more respected older medium it is imitating. Only then can it come up with original products of its own. Writing had to do more than preserve the ancient epics. Printing had to do more than make the old handwritten manuscripts accessible. Film and television had (have) to do more than aim cameras at plays.

Is what we are seeing in this, the infancy of the Internet mere "digital newspapery" or "digital magazinery"? Will a Columbia Journalism Review writer someday sit down and count all the "pages" in a typical Web "site" back at the turn of the millennium that were turned over to listings of unimaginatively print-like articles? Will that person's readers smirk?