Coming back from a long vacation earlier this week, I discovered something truly shocking as I read back through all the news and chatter that I’d “missed” while away. Between the wholly predictable stories about Russia, terrorism, and the GOP’s never-ending quest to sever America’s last remaining strands of basic human decency, I found that people had been talking about something else, something far more surprising. People had been talking about movies.
More than that, people were talking about movies like they mattered. People were talking about movies like they were cultural events. People were talking about movies like they were newsworthy, fiercely arguing the merits and failures of new films (like “The Beguiled”) while also using recent developments as a lens through which to exhume and re-examine old ones (like “The Color Purple”).
In other words, people were talking about movies like they were television shows. That’s a huge change from how I left things earlier this month, when “The Mummy” was roundly mocked for having the gall to presume that it could inspire its own cinematic universe, humiliated for thinking that its budget was big enough to buy the film some kind of cultural footprint. I went offline during the age of “Cars 3” and returned to the era of “Baby Driver,” “Okja,” and “The Big Sick.”
And so, faced with this seemingly sudden sea change, it was only a matter of time before I found myself considering a refashioned version of an old question: “Are movies the new TV?” For years, entertainment writers have looked at it the other way around, and of course, there is no one answer to such broad questions. But it’s far more satisfying to explore the seismic cultural shifts that prompt us to ask them in the first place.
Of course, the rivalry between film and television is (and has always been) a completely imagined one. The thinking is that there’s only so much water in the proverbial water cooler, and therefore any attention paid to one format is attention that isn’t being paid to the other. Never mind that Trump is currently holding the whole cooler over his head and guzzling it down his leathery orange maw like a frat boy at a keg party; the fact of the matter is that movies and TV bring us together in very different ways. The overstated binary between the two owes less to discrepancies in screen size or accessibility than it does our ongoing struggle to codify how we watch things at a time when we can watch things anywhere.
The biggest difference between the two mediums used to be that one was enjoyed in public and the other in private, but the digital age has forced us to reconsider our definitions of those parameters. They’re no longer opposites, no longer mutually exclusive. Abbas Kiarostami loved to set scenes in cars because he was drawn to the idea of people living private lives in public spaces; these days, anyone with a social media account naturally defaults to that gear.
If one of the great virtues of art is that it can foster a communal sense of connection, then it only stands to reason that new dimensions of connectivity will require us to reconsider our relationship to the arts. Naturally, the current landscape offers an advantage to anything that can accommodate for the blurred lines of modern existence. Why pay money to suffer through Michael Bay’s latest action vehicle (secretly a surreal art film in disguise!) in silence when you can stay home and live-tweet “Twin Peaks: The Return” for free? Do people still have the patience to wait until something is over before we start talking about it? Can we still see something as a communal experience even if we’re forced to watch it in the dark?
For a minute there, it was hard to say for sure. Cable and streaming TV was getting better as blockbuster movies were getting worse, and it wasn’t long before this pop cultural power shift was seen as a snap referendum on How We Live Now. It didn’t seem to matter that great films were still being released on the regular (or that the average episode of “The Big Bang Theory” makes “Sing” look like “Hamilton” by comparison); such nuances tend not to matter when people try to crowdsource which way the wind is blowing. And while there have been a few recent flare-ups in which it seemed like the Movies Mattered again (it would be ridiculous to overlook the colossal impact of something like “Moonlight”), the general consensus has been that going to the theater is a decreasingly relevant way to watch something, whatever the hell that means.
But this summer movie season seems to be chipping away at that perception, at least for now. It’s not just that a couple of recent films are really strong, or that a handful of them are inspiring some heated debate on the internet (seldom a positive thing in and of itself, but a helpful indication of cultural import all the same). Both of those things happen to be true, but they also happen all the time. I think what’s different about this new rash of enthusiasm, what’s made June stand apart from May, is that each of the former month’s most exciting movies generate and thrive off a communal spirit that’s unique to theatrical experience.
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