The end of cinema is (only the) beginning

All this talk about the uncertain future of film criticism seems to run parallel to another hot topic among worried cinephiles: the decline of cinema. The two are connected, obviously, and although I’m definitely in the minority on this one, I’m optimistic about the fates of both.

In a contribution to Andy Horbal’s pretty damn amazing film criticism Blog-a-Thon (how much evidence for the improving health of film criticism do you need?), Annie Frisbie at Zoom In Online articulated a collective concern in a fine post called Film is about to disappear over the historical horizon:

Cinema has always meant reverence, the hush of a dark theater (sans cell phones), the flicker of light on my face almost tangible, waiting for the dream to continue. It seems to me that the digital age has taken the magic out of movies. (…)

This year brought Half Nelson and Little Miss Sunshine, but it also marks a year when I saw fewer movies in the theater than I did when I was in college in the suburbs without a car. I find this depressing. I’m losing the plot. I need a miracle.

nighthawkscollage.jpg

In my celluloid fantasia Nighthawks – a fictional essay in which New York City is overtaken by movie characters as diverse as Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver), Barbarella, Alvy Singer (Annie Hall), Vincent & Jules (Pulp Fiction) and Marge Gunderson (Fargo) – a cute little mass-murdering rodent by the name of Mickey Mouse voiced a similar sentiment:

People don’t care anymore. They used to look up to us in the dark, in awe of that eye-enveloping screen, absorbed in the magic of the moment, hanging on to every word we uttered. Now they’re just killing time, flipping channels, skipping chapters, moving us around with game controllers, navigating content, shuffling context, downloading us to tiny portable displays they command with their thumbs…

At that moment, Dressed to Kill‘s Kate Miller briefly interrupts Mickey to remark:

If they’re doing all of these things, doesn’t that mean they still care about us, only differently?

Mickey, however, won’t listen:

You don’t mind being reduced to mobile wallpaper? I mean, where’s the allure in that? Face it, to the modern consumer we’re a hip accessory at best. An excuse for further browsing without sense of destination. It’s sad when you think about it. They watch but they don’t see. Deliverance has become a dirty word, attention spans are shrinking by the minute. Viewers expect to be transported, but they won’t let us take over the wheel. So they keep driving in circles, blissfully unaware of the fact that, without surrender, there is no journey.

Too many cinephiles grumble about like Mickey; few are as open-minded as Kate. To complain about the rapid decay of cinema with a sense of melancholy is to put the lid on an era. That way of thinking, understandable as it may be, is a bit of an insult to the fine films that are made today. (For those of you snorting in the back: In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a Golden Age of Asian cinema happening right now. Genre films, art house, animation… the works.)

It’s rare for a medium to die. People have predicted the end of radio since the introduction of television, and radio’s still here. The medium even branched out to podcasts, streaming channels and audio books. Likewise, cinema isn’t dying–it’s evolving. The real question is, into what?

Annie Frisbie’s post payed tribute to a classic 1999 essay by Godfrey Cheshire entitled The Death of Film, The Decay of Cinema. Cheshire’s towering article envisioned a future where movies would still be made, only they would “increasingly be like Titanic, splashy spectacles made for a global 12-year-old whose main education comes from you-know-what,” lacking “nuances of tenderness and tragedy, of profound inwardness and chivalrous discretion, and of the individual artist’s very personal way of envisioning the world.” With a frame of reference restricted to blockbuster fare and a certain brand of Oscar contender, there’s plenty of truth to Cheshire’s vision, but a wider perpective reveals how much his prediction has dated.

Just look at the massive popularity of viral videos and audio-visual mashups at YouTube, MySpace and iFilm, of video podcasts, of DVD, Home Theatre and online rental services like Netflix, of devices like the video-iPod, the PlayStation Portable, PDAs, laptops, camera phones and software like BitTorrent and Final Cut Pro. A quickly expanding part of cinema is making a gradual shift from a collective, linear experience to a private, interactive one. Yes, the quality of user-generated content is still far from consistent (to put it mildly), and oh yes, all these ultra-flexible digital networks and continually updated interfaces can easily lead to pointless “browsing without sense of destination,” but I can imagine no better antidote against Cheshire’s “CGI blockbusterdom” doom scenario than this small-screen revolution. Who knows, we may be on the verge of a filmmaking Rennaissance. Picture it: A cinema of intimacy… discovery… a quirky perspective unfiltered by authority, corporate investment, analog distribution or popular demand… the bittersweet fruit of obsession and shameless self-indulgence… the mystique of a message shrouded by an ever-fluctuating context, offering audiences the challenge to guess the right questions, rather than the right answers.

If this is the end of cinema – and I’m not convinced it is – it’s only the end of cinema as we know it. Now is a time of transformation. The key to appreciating the change, I believe, is a wise notion of fellow-blogger Girish Shambu: Art is meant for use. That may be your miracle right there, Annie. Go ahead, give it a try. Mickey was right about one thing: Without surrender, there is no journey.

Comments
12 Responses to “The end of cinema is (only the) beginning”
  1. Is it even useful to compare user-generated work alongside classic narrative film? One debate has been whether narrative film is more like literature, or more like painting–or even more like music. User-generated work is definitely nothing like the first, a little like the second, and a lot like the third.

  2. Andy H. says:

    Annie, that’s where I’m at right now, too (I just composed and then deleted a response of a few hundred words length as too unwieldy). Peet, I definitely share your optimism. This is a moment of crisis for both film and film criticism, a time of catastrophic change (Mel Gibson should make a film about it). I’m excited and delighted to be coming of age as a writer and as a film lover right now: cinema is evolving into something new, something arguably more democratic, some potentially more useful.

    But I sympathize with those who are concerned and frightened. This new cinema will be so multi-faceted and will change so rapidly that the day of the film critic who can confidently state “This is the year’s best film” is going to fall away. No one voice will have the authority of Pauline Kael’s or Roger Ebert. I also think that it’s difficult to anticipate what ways people will find to write about film professionally in the future, and that’s of obvious and understandable concern to film critics.

    And finally, like Annie says, is this new cinema even going to be cinema? I think that your example of radio is a telling one: sure, radio still exists as it was in the 20s–but look at how “important” it is, and at how many people making a living in it. If we expand our definition of “radio” to include things like podcasts or satellite radio, then it’s as much in the news as ever, and as lucrative. But the world of traditional radio is only one stakeholder in these new forms of many…

    Again, I think that this is an exciting time to be a cinephile, full of opportunity and potential. But I have very little to lose. But aren’t those always the people who lead revolutions, those with nothing to lose?

    This is a very interesting can of worms…

  3. Peet says:

    Annie:

    I agree that user-generated work is generally awful, but it’s a fertile ground for new talent to arise. Blogs are user-generated too, aren’t they? Are you saying that literature is a “higher” art than painting and music? That would be QUITE a statement! I won’t go there.

  4. Andy H. says:

    A thought: The good people at The Daily Reel is practicing a form of film criticism when they select the day’s best/most interesting online media. Will this be, to a substantial extent, the role of the film critic of tomorrow? Selecting from an unimaginably vast menu, the specials du jour? And if so, so what?

  5. Andy H. says:

    “is practicing.” My kingdom for a spell checker…

  6. Definitely not stating that literature is on a higher level than painting or music… just saying that the three forms are very different. Conventional cinema used to straddle all three (at least from a theoretical perspective), but user-generated content is more like music or video art (what is that anymore, anyway?) and nothing at all like literature. Is it even anything like conventional narrative cinema?

    In other words, narrative film shares certain attributes with literature (a story told over time), painting (it’s a visual medium), and music (the performer, not the audience, controls the pacing and delivery). In the same way, user-generated content shares certain attributes with narrative film, but it’s not quite the same thing.

  7. Flickhead says:

    Good post. If it’s any consolation, people were moaning about the death of cinema in the late 1960s and the first half of the 70s. The mainstream initially resisted changes in forms and conventions, but released unconventional pictures (by Altman, Scorsese, Bogdanovich, etc.) in a state of surrender. (Otherwise, attendance may have dried up entirely.) A recently released DVD of the Dick Cavett Show from 1972 offers a panel of Altman, Bogdanovich, Mel Brooks and Frank Capra (!) discussing the “death of Hollywood,” even though that decade’s l’age d’or of American film was unfolding right under their noses.

    Ironically, by the end of the 70s, mega-budget fluff, fantasy and action fare had eclipsed the innovative, intellectual and personal cinema of Coppola, Altman, Scorsese, Polanski, Rafelson, et al…and the mainstream touted the “comeback” of The Movies.

    Recent years are an entirely different matter, and though I once went to see movies in a theatre two, three, or occasionally four times a week, it grew increasingly obvious that society in general had shifted its values and that there were too many people in the audience who simply did not know how to behave in public. When cell phones became de rigueur is around the time when I started subscribing to Netflix and staying home. Given the precarious state of my mind, it wouldn’t take much for me to have a complete meltdown and send some loud mouth bore in the next row straight to hell.

  8. Peet says:

    “This new cinema will be so multi-faceted and will change so rapidly that the day of the film critic who can confidently state “This is the year’s best film” is going to fall away.”

    That was never my idea of interesting film criticism anyway… :-)

    But don’t get me wrong, Andy: I sympathize with those who are concerned, too. The kind of cinema I adore is linear, lyrical and intoxicating: pretty old-fashioned in terms of viewing experience. It has always been my impulse to really submit myself to the screen, but the modern viewer longs to interact with it. A big part of Nighthawks is about the filmmaker and dedicated cinephile in me, coming to terms with the extend to which the relevance of cinema depends on the whims of spectatorship. The realization that “cinema only exists when it is seen” – a key sentence in the essay – convinces the movie characters (who are representatives of their own medium) to pick up where they left off, basically, and be open to new ways of drawing audiences. I see potential in the medium’s evolution, but fortunately enough I also keep seeing examples of “traditional” films that still seem to matter.

    Thanks for stopping by, Flickhead! You’re quite right: This is not a new discussion, but the topic seems especially relevant today.

  9. Bryan says:

    Yeah, it’s not a new earth-shattering revelation, but maybe this is the real death, or numbing, of the cinema we have all come to know and love. (I have Barney the Purple Dinosaur bedsheets.) The YouTube and independently home grown stuff is too mainstreamish, and really, I don’t think anyone takes it seriously anymore. All this “entertainment” exists for ridicule and mockery. The visual medium is less rigorous and more “that’s so silly!”

  10. Peet says:

    “The YouTube and independently home grown stuff is too mainstreamish, and really, I don’t think anyone takes it seriously anymore.”

    No one takes it seriously anymore?!? The site barely even started! YouTube’s official debut was in November 2005 – that’s right, last year – and the video iPod was released only a month earlier. This really is just the beginning…

  11. Bryan says:

    I wasn’t just commenting on YouTube but the independent digital cinema in general pace Steinman.

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