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.
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.