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Reports of Film Culture’s Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

Reports of Film Culture's Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

“A movie is almost by definition a record of that which once was — and how we long for that which no longer exists!” — J. Hoberman

I didn’t even know film culture was sick; I come home from Fantastic Fest and all of a sudden it’s dead? What the hell happened? What killed it? Was it contagious? Is there a funeral? Do I need to send flowers?

I’m not sure how so many film-is-dead-or-dying pieces materialized simultaneously, but no less than three major ones have been published in recent weeks. In The New Republic, David Denby wondered “Has Hollywood Murdered the Movies?” (SPOILER ALERT: Yes!) while David Thomson declared that “American Movies are Not Dead: They are Dying.” At Salon, Andrew O’Hehir’s prognosis was equally negative, in an essay titled “Is Movie Culture Dead?

There are certainly some valid reasons for pessimism. We just escaped a particularly dreary summer movie season. Actual film — light captured on and then projected through celluloid — is vanishing at an disturbing rate. 3-D is still darkening theater screens and emptying patrons’ pockets. Our children’s notion of “the movies” will look completely different than ours. 

But does different mean dying? If this alarm rings a little familiar, it should. Denby and company are far from the first critics to act like coroners trying to ascertain a cause and time of death. Their words don’t sound all that different from these, by film critic Rudolph Arnheim:

“One of the tasks of the film critic of tomorrow — perhaps he will even be called a ‘television critic’ — will be to rid the world of the comic figure the average film critic and film theorist of today represents: he lives from the glory of his memories like the seventy-year-old ex-court actresses, rummages about as they do in yellowing photographs, speaks of names that are long gone. He discusses films no one has been able to see for ten years or more (and about which they can therefore say everything and nothing) with people of his own ilk; he argues about montage like medieval scholars discussed the existence of God, believing all these things could still exist today. In the evening, he sits with rapt attention in the cinema, a critical art lover, as though we still lived in the days of Griffith, Stroheim, Murnau, and Eisenstein. He thinks he is seeing bad films instead of understanding that what he sees is no longer film at all.”

Arnheim’s essay, “The Film Critic of Tomorrow,” wouldn’t have looked much out of place if it had been published yesterday on Slate in response to Denby’s piece. In fact, it was written over 70 years ago, in 1935. And it was brought back into the public consciousness in 1998, in a superb essay by J. Hoberman entitled “The Film Critic of Tomorrow, Today,” at yet another moment when the discourse about film and criticism began to edge toward doomsday predictions. Now it’s 2012, and here they come again. It’s as if the Mayans prophesized the fall of cinema along with the fall of civilization.

In other words, as long as there have been movies, there have been people ready to pronounce them dead. Movies died when silent film vanished; they died when color replaced black and white; they died when television was invented; they died when blockbusters swamped the New Hollywood era; they died when VCRs became popular; they died when multiplexes pushed out single screen palaces; they died when digital became the industry standard. Cats don’t have this many lives; zombies are harder to kill.

In this particular case, each of our three critical coroners diagnosed a different malady afflicting film culture. Thomson blames the aforementioned transition from celluloid to digital. “The movies were always a dream and a fantasy,” he says, “but for about five decades they were anchored in the lifelike nature of photography.” Without photography, movies are dying, even though some (myself included, I guess)…

“…choose to ignore the awkward stink. Cinephiles watch Turner Classic Movies and subscribe to Netflix. They swear by Criterion. They may be within reach of a film museum, and even a repertory house. They go to silent screen festivals, and revel in the club-like mood of their packed houses.”

Thomson sounds exactly like the film critic Arnheim described. But with a glass-half-full mentality, the same set of information becomes cause for celebration, not despair. In the so-called golden age, your film consumption was limited to what played the local movie theater or television station. If you missed something, it was gone for years or decades. Now we have TCM and Netflix and Hulu and VOD and iTunes. I can start a movie on my laptop and finish it on my HDTV. I can watch any of hundreds or thousands of the greatest films ever made without leaving my house. There are things I miss from my childhood, like video stores and no commercials before the feature presentation. But on the whole, cinephiles have never had it better in my lifetime.

Or have they? O’Hehir claims film has been supplanted in the pop culture firmament by television, “where your average episode of ‘Breaking Bad’ or ‘The Good Wife’ or ‘Louie’ will generate many times more debate and conversation — more actual excitement — than all except perhaps a half-dozen movies released this year (and most of those will involve superheroes).” He regrets the way film culture has become “a moribund and desiccated leftover that’s been cut off from ordinary life, from the mainstream of pop culture and even from what remains of highbrow or intellectual culture.”

But as Devin Faraci astutely notes in his piece on this subject in Badass Digest, an episode of “Breaking Bad” is viewed by something like 3 million people — a far cry, in movie or television terms, from a mass audience. Your average weekly episode of “The Voice” draws roughly four times as many viewers, a number that’s still way below the ratings the Big 3 networks routinely drew a few decades ago when they were the dominant force in broadcasting. 

Once again, we can apply the same glass-half-full philosophy and turn this negative outlook into a positive one. It used to be that flops were flops; a few lucky ones might develop an underground following over the course of years and become a “cult hit.” Today, that process can take weeks or days, and fervid cultism can support movies and television shows that would have previously fallen into obscurity. Twenty years ago, “Breaking Bad”‘s ratings would have doomed it to cancellation. Now, they qualify it as a hit. The niche is the new mainstream. 

Finally, and perhaps most frustratingly, there’s Denby, who blames the death of movies — and specifically Hollywood movies — on what he calls “conglomerate aesthetics”:

“Hollywood has almost always been a big-money game, that money is the lifeblood of large-scale picture-making… Yet the desire to be profitable does not dictate, in itself, one style or another. The dreadfulness of many big movies now cannot be waved away on the grounds that the studios have to make them that way. They don’t have to make them that way; they just think they do. They choose this style. Constant and incoherent movement; rushed editing strategies; feeble characterization; pastiche and hapless collage—these are the elements of conglomerate aesthetics. There is something more than lousy film-making in such a collection of attention-getting swindles. Again and again I have the sense that filmmakers are purposely trying to distance the audience from the material — to prevent moviegoers from feeling anything but sensory excitement, to thwart any kind of significance in the movie.”

To Denby, the absolute nadir of “conglomerate aesthetics” is last summer’s “The Avengers,” a triumph of “cynical marketing” that “degenerated into a digital slam, an endless battle of exacerbated pixels, most of the fighting set in the airless digital spaces of a digital city.” Denby is more than entitled to his negative opinion of “The Avengers,” but I find it interesting that as part of his argument about how far Hollywood has fallen he cites a quote from Andre Bazin about some of the greatest examples of “classical movie art” — including the 1939 John Ford film “Stagecoach.” “Stagecoach,” Denby writes, remains “fresh… very funny and sharply edged… bracingly decisive and swift.” He praises the way the film “is not so much a matter of a dominating individual as of an evolving group” and how Ford creates a “drama of space.”

Does anyone else think that description kind of sounds like “The Avengers?” Many of the qualities Denby praises in “Stagecoach” can also be found in Joss Whedon’s superhero spectacular, a story — like Ford’s — about a bunch of unruly and ill-matched men and women thrown together by fate against a common enemy and overwhelming odds. “The Avengers” is funny, decisive, and swift, and its drama is specifically about the way dominating individuals learn to evolve as a group. Denby can complain about the digital characters’ supposed weightlessness — but he seems to have missed the incredible long take that connected all six members of the Avengers in a single, unbroken shot, a true drama of space in the canyons of New York City.

I disagree with Denby, but I don’t have a problem with his taste — it’s his attitude I take issue with. Yes, Hollywood makes bad movies now. Hollywood also made bad movies ten, twenty, and fifty years ago. In the 1940s and ’50s each studio had its own, pronounced house style; today we look back at “MGM musicals” or “Warner Brothers gangster pictures” — a whole host of corporate aesthetics, if not conglomerate ones.

As Hoberman says in “The Film Critic of Tomorrow, Today,” we always long for the things that don’t exist, and there are indeed things about the cinema that used to be and are no more. But that doesn’t mean film culture is dying. That just means it’s evolving. In the last month alone, I’ve seen “The Master,” “Looper,” “Holy Motors,” and “Cloud Atlas.” If this is what the death of film looks like, I might be a necrophiliac.

Read more of “Has Hollywood Murdered the Movies?” “American Movies are Not Dead: They are Dying,” and “Is Movie Culture Dead?

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