Movie Culture Isn’t Dead; Just Ask the Movies

Movie Culture Isn't Dead; Just Ask the Movies
Movie Culture Isn't Dead; Just Ask the Movies

Even as I see more and more articles pop up on the subject (like this one or this one or hey how about this one?), I sense that readers are getting a little tired of critics spouting off about how film is (or isn’t) dead (or dying or totally healthy). But this piece isn’t about what critics think, it’s about what the movies themselves think, and there are no less than four opening in theaters today that are specifically about the continuing power of movies.

Four. In one weekend. Critics have had their say, now the movies get their turn: they’re not going anywhere.

Or rather they’re going all over the world in an effort to prove their influence. In “Argo,” the magic of movies — the make believe, the fantasy — prove their very real, very tangible positive impact on society when they become the engine that enables a CIA agent (Ben Affleck) to sneak six American diplomats out of post-Islamic Revolution Iran. These half-dozen embassy workers snuck out of the U.S. consulate as it fell under siege from an angry mob and took refuge in the house of a Canadian ambassador. There, they waited, while Affleck’s Tony Mendez and his colleagues in the CIA and the Department of State try to think of some way to rescue these people without arousing suspicion. Could they pose as members of an organization hoping to fight hunger? Won’t work; not in the winter. How about pretending to be English language teachers? Nope; all the English language schools were closed after the Revolution. Oh hey, here we go: could we get a bunch of bicycles and just have them bike to the Turkish border, hundreds of miles away?

So every rational option, and several irrational ones, are all out. That’s when Mendez, watching “Battle of the Planet of the Apes” on television with his son, has a brainstorm: masquerade as a film crew on a location scout. A real movie gives him the idea, then a fake movie gives him the wherewithal to actually execute that idea. Beyond a crackling thriller and a canny statement about how unpopular political decisions are often the correct ones as well, “Argo” celebrates movies as a force for good in the universe, a literal life-saver.

The movies featured in the new horror film “Sinister” are not nearly so good, but they might be even more powerful. A true crime writer (Ethan Hawke) moves his family into a new house where he hopes to write a book on a local unsolved murder. Moving stuff into the attic, he finds a box labeled “Home Movies;” inside, he finds several reels of Super 8mm film and a projector. When he screens the footage, he realizes the killer he’s trying to find has left him the evidence of his crime — and several more crimes no one has yet to realize are connected. More than a decade past his greatest work as an author, Hawke’s character desperately needs a hit to provide for his family and (maybe more importantly in his mind) get his name back in lights. So he doesn’t tell the police about his discovery, and he keeps secret the strange things he begins to see and hear after his wife and two kids go to bed at night. And he also keeps watching these disturbing home movies. 

Why does he watch? Maybe he wants to further his career. Maybe he thinks this will help him catch a killer. Or maybe he just can’t help himself, and director/co-writer Scott Derrickson is saying something about the nature of movies — and specifically horror movies — which people continue to watch even though they know (or maybe demand) they’re going to get scared. Whatever the reason, there’s one thing that’s clear: these sorts of movies, like all good movies, hold a strange power over us. They always have, and they always will. 

Admittedly, the way those movies are delivered to us is changing rapidly, which is one of the background subjects of Ross McElwee’s new documentary “Photographic Memory.” The foreground subject is the same as every other McElwee movie: McElwee himself. This time, he is settling into his 60s and trying to cope with life as the father of an obnoxious twentysomething. Scrambling to find any kind of common ground with his snotty son Adrian, McElwee casts his mind back to his own early 20s, when he lived in France and fell under the influence of a wedding photographer named Maurice, and engaged in a brief but passionate affair with a young woman named Maud. McElwee later returned to the States and lost touch with both; now, decades later, he travels back to France to try to find them.

As McElwee narrates his journey, he also tries to navigate his memories of the period, but many have been bleached and warped by the ravages of time. And so he calls upon his old photographs to help him sort things out. In his beautiful black and white images we see yet another power of film: the power to remember the things we cannot. Though he’s forgotten most of the context of his pictures, McElwee’s can still look at the photos themselves, and in them the people, still young and beautiful. Documentary images like these are almost a sort of time machine, preserving people like a mosquito in amber. As he discusses in the documentary, “Photographic Memory” is McElwee’s first movie shot on digital memory cards rather than some sort of physical media. His tour of France shows us how the camera still gives us access to people and their lives in ways we could never understand or learn about without it, regardless of where the images are stored. Film, movies, celluloid, digital; the medium and the message endure.

And when the medium and the message fail, there’s the swagger, the style, and the flat-out fun of a movie like “Seven Psychopaths.” Here, writer/director Martin McDonagh tells a story of the movies about the movies: struggling screenwriter Martin (Colin Farrell) can’t figure out how to turn his great new title — “Seven Psychopaths” — into a great new screenplay. As various people (and nutjobs) in Martin’s life offer him council and share stories of the mentally unstable, his life and his work begin to merge into one metatextual romp. The power of movies here is nearly as impressive as in “Argo” — it reshapes lives and alters destinies, and though McDonagh also has fun taking the piss out of some of gangster and crime pictures’ worst cliches, he also reaffirms that those cliches are pretty damn fun and even sometimes a wee bit true.

These movies, stellar as all four are, will likely (and sadly) not end the debate on the death of movie culture, which, I’m sure, will carry on for years and decades, until everyone proclaiming the death of movie culture now is dead themselves. But that’s fine; let them keep complaining. With movies like these, there’s no need to argue back. The proof that they’re wrong is right up on the screen.

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