I've just finished one of the best essays on film I've ever read. It's called "Has Hollywood Murdered the Movies?" and it's by David Denby in The New Republic. Denby's essay is about the effect that over-digitalization and informal formalism have on movies: how the narrative art has been pruned to the point of poisoning the tree, how a concern with fleeting impression over deep-seated effect has destroyed the relationship between the spectator and the spectacle. In six pages, Denby effectively conveys things I've been feeling and saying for years. I don't necessarily agree with all of Denby's examples (some of the films he sees as exceptional I think are endemic, and vice-versa) but his overall point seems irrefutable. Movies are no longer made, marketed, or (especially) received the way they used to be, not in an evolutionary sense (these goalposts are always shifting) but fundamentally. This passage in particular had me shouting "Yes!" aloud as if I was watching the Patriots score a touchdown:
"The glory of modernism was that it yoked together candor and spiritual yearning with radical experiments in form. But in making such changes, filmmakers were hardly abandoning the audience. Reassurance may have ended, but emotion did not. The many alterations in the old stable syntax still honored the contract with us. The ignorant, suffering, morally vacant Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull was as great a protagonist as Julie Marsden. The morose Nashville was as trenchant a group portrait and national snapshot as the hopeful Stagecoach. However elliptical or harsh or astringent, emotion in modernist movies was a strong presence, not an absence." (emphasis added)
What an elegant and perceptive way of contrasting the formal revolution of the fifties, sixties, and seventies with that of today. Elsewhere, at times, Denby falls into the trap against which he cautions in his opening: "Nostalgia is history altered through sentiment. What’s necessary for survival is not nostalgia, but defiance." Denby is a brilliant diagnoser but suggesting viable solutions is not so much his strong suit, whatever his best wishes. That's okay; we need more defiant voices right now, more people who, as Denby puts it, "are made crazy by the way the business structure of movies is now constricting the art of movies." What's so astonishing is that so few people seem to be concerned about this; as Denby says later:
"These observations annoy many people, including some of the smartest people I know, particularly men in their late forties and younger, who have grown up with pop culture dominated by the conglomerates and don’t know anything else. They don’t disagree, exactly, but they find all of this tiresome and beside the point. They accept the movies as a kind of environment, a constant stream. There are just movies, you see, movies always and forever, and of course many of them will be uninspiring, and always have been. Critics, chalking the score on the blackboard, think of large-scale American movie-making as a system in which a few talented people, in order to make something good, struggle against discouragement or seduction; but for my young media-hip friends, this view is pure melodrama. They see the movies not as a moral and aesthetic battleground, but as a media game that can be played either shrewdly or stupidly. There is no serious difference for them between making a piece of clanging, overwrought, mock-nihilistic digital roughhouse for $200 million and a personal independent film for $2 million. They are not looking for art, and they do not want to be associated with commercial failure; it irritates them in some way; it makes them feel like losers. If I say that the huge budgets and profits are mucking up movie aesthetics, changing the audience, burning away other movies, they look at me with a slight smile and say something like this: “There’s a market for this stuff. People are going. Their needs are being satisfied. If they didn’t like these movies, they wouldn’t go.”"Denby argues, on the contrary, that "The audience goes because the movies are there, not because anyone necessarily loves them." I tend to agree, and agree as well that to the extent audiences, at least younger audiences, do seek out this form of entertainment, it's more a matter of conditioning than inherent predilection. Lately I've had conversations with people only eight or ten years younger than me, but there's already a sensible generation gap in the way they view movies: when I argued for originality, for a cinema that created new characters and stories and experiences instead of endlessly rehashing the same material they seemed perplexed - they went to movies precisely to see the familiar "rebooted" with new technology but the same old connections. The sense of adventure, at least beyond the adventure of ever-slicker fantasy worlds, has gone out of cinema, and with it, I think, a sense of emotional investment, a feeling that movies were somehow important and exciting.
Did everyone feel differently in the past? Probably not. And yet sixty years ago, even thirty or forty years ago - hell, I'd argue even ten years ago - movies were a bigger part of the national psyche, part of the way we engaged with the world around us whether (as Denby has it) we were younger kids being dragged to "adult" movies, half-understanding what we were seeing and intrigued by what we didn't understand, or adults who had to see the latest topic of conversation so we'd know what to talk about at the party. Movies were important. Important no matter what type of person you were, or where in society you came from, and the more obscure films basked in the reflected glory of the more iconic examples: thus even the most challenging avant-garde experiments felt like brothers under the skin to the blockbuster titans. Everything was cinema.
I've written about this before, from a more personal angle (exactly a year ago, in an essay called "The Big Picture") and I've also alluded to many of these arguments - the way digital cinema has thrown the relationship between illusion and reality out of whack, the decline of movies as they are colonized by younger art forms (comics and video games), the possibility that audiences - in an age of increasing interaction (with media) and atomization (from one another) are losing their orientation toward cinema and engaging more with more long-form, episodic, open-ended formats like a TV series. Denby doesn't touch on all these points in his essay; it's a frustrated cri de coeur but sometimes I feel like he might be missing some connections. It would probably take a full-length book or at least a much longer essay to really nail the how and especially the why of cinematic decline.
Most of all, Denby doesn't really seem sure where to go from this crisis. At essay's end, after pinpointing numerous causes and outcomes of "a new and awful way to put a picture together", he has only this to offer as a shred of hope:
"So are American movies finished, a cultural irrelevance? Despite almost everything, I don’t think the game is up, not by any means. There are talented directors who manage to keep working either within the system or just on the edges of it. Some of the independent films that have succeeded, against the odds, in gaining funding and at least minimal traction in the theaters, are obvious signs of hope. Terence Malick is alive and working hard. Digital is still in its infancy, and if it moves into the hands of people who have a more imaginative and delicate sense of spectacle, it could bloom in any one of a dozen ways. The micro-budget movies now made on the streets or in living rooms might also take off if they give up on sub-Cassavetes ideas of improvisation, and accept the necessity of a script. There is enough talent sloshing around in the troubled vessel of American movies to keep the art form alive."This is rather thin gruel after working up our appetite, but at the risk of sounding ageist part of the issue might just be that Denby is in his fifties or sixties. His proposals are essentially returns to a past, yet he himself, in one of the essay's most provocative and essential passages, notes that past forms were not inevitable but in large part accidental; that the train has not derailed from its one truth path but taken another route, one it could have taken from the get-go but for historical and cultural circumstances of the early twentieth century:
"A long time ago, at a university far away, I taught film, and I did what many teachers have no doubt done before and since: I tried to develop film aesthetics for the students as a historical progression toward narrative. ... But I now think there was something merely convenient in teaching that way. The implication of my lesson plan was that the medium had by degrees come to a realization of itself, discovering in those early years—say, 1895 to 1915—its own true nature embedded within its technology: the leafy oak of narrative lodged within the acorn of celluloid. It is a teleological view, and it is probably false. In truth, there is nothing inherent in the process of exposing strips of film to light sixteen or eighteen times a second (later twenty-four times) that demanded the telling of a story. ... It is likely ... that narrative emerged less from the inherent nature of film than from the influence of older forms—novels and short stories and plays. ... If creating fictions is not encoded in the DNA of film, then what is happening now has a kind of grisly logic to it."With this in mind, I doubt what will "keep the art form alive" is a strengthening of the weak elements that right now preserve the flickering flame. I think those embers are dying and fanning the ashes will not ignite a new conflagration; what is needed now is an entirely new spark. This will, unfortunately, entail a sharp turn from the dying elements which added so much to the meaning and romance of film in its early years: the communal experience, the texture of celluloid. The new cinema will be broadcast through the internet and viewed on computer screens; it will be fashioned with cheaper and more flexible tools, less prohibitive in cost, less restrictive in ability. Many movie-lovers want to revive the lush and glamorous means used to weave a spell. But these means have always been in the hands of those with money and power, the gatekeepers to the system, and they will not relinquish their money or power any time soon. Creators and critics need to get it into their heads that the essence of cinema, its soul so to speak, lies not in the trappings of Hollywood but in what is conveyed amongst those trappings, or what was once conveyed.
Since the Hollywood gatekeepers will never let us in, better to fashion our own world outside the gates, just as those within (or their ancestors) did once upon a time. If you can bring down costs, simplifying the input, you can multiply the output. The film industry essentially arose from scratch. Why not repeat the experiment, and delight in the fresh and unexpected results?
Movie content is a story that grips you, a character you care about, but also a throwaway gesture that delights you, a fleeting expression on a face that moves you, a color or location or change of light or piece of scenery you find thrilling for some unexplainable reason. Movie style is how a shot contains its elements, how editing creates the exquisite ecstasy of frisson, how the actors' or camera's movement opens up a new world with each footstep or turn of the dolly wheel. Celluloid was sensitive and added many qualities of its own while the experience of viewing with a big audience amplified and extended the experience; no doubt we are losing something as these qualities disappear, but in lightening its load cinema will also become more fleet-footed, more flexible in its ability to reach viewers and reflect new aspects of their reality - and their imagination.
Perhaps because I am young enough (twenty-eight, and disillusioned with contemporary cinematic trends for about half my lifetime) I can understand this better than someone in his sixties or seventies. Then again, on the same day, on the same website, David Thomson, no spring chicken, published a companion piece that points in the right direction. At first, more than halfway through his essay, "American Movies are Not Dead, They're Dying" I thought Thomson was merely indulging in his recent penchant for dismissing both the cinema and the cinephiles who adore it with a reckless passion he once shared: "older cinephiles stay at home nursing their Criterion securities. They have never had it so good, or so misleading. ... don’t worry: new movies will be released on any Pad you have, streaming, screaming, and available for interruptions of all sorts."
However, as it turns out the operative description in his dismissal is "older," not "cinephile." Thomson goes onto praise the inclusion of The Man with the Movie Camera in the recent Sight & Sound top 10, an inclusion he attributes to the younger viewers. Observing that "Dziga Vertov’s 1929 film is the single work in the new top ten that seems to understand that nervy mixture of interruption and unexpected association," Thomson goes on to praise viral mashups recontextualizing Lindsay Lohan and Scarface. Ultimately he is observing a similar phenomenon to Denby - a cinema stripped of the need for (conventional) narrative and returning to its frenetic pioneer roots; only Thomson detects the silver lining. This suggests that perhaps the problem with the new mainstream cinema may not be the new ingredients but the old - not that contemporary blockbusters are fragmented, unmoored, and driven more by speed than gravity, but that they are all this while still clinging to old cliches. The worst of both worlds, so to speak: narrative accouterments without the soul of emotional involvement, formal fireworks without the full freedom Vertov's experiments allowed. Ultimately Thomson fudges on his enthusiasm for the young, and ends on a pessimistic note but his uncertain hopefulness is more significant. He can't see how the jokey You Tube videos might evolve into something more ambitious and rewarding, but I can.
For older viewers, the decline of emotional involvement and the ascent of video (both in the recording and viewing sense) are inextricably tied. But when I fell in love with movies, I could move with ease between the home living room and the neighborhood multiplex; I was equally fascinated by the Hi-8 images recorded in my father's home movies and the 35mm prints projected on a large screen in a dark room. That's how I know digital technology and home viewing are new developments in cinema, rather than its end. Likewise I intuit that as narrative continues to develop (and as films continue to explore avenues that are not primarily, essentially, or even minimally, narrative) the movies can still retain, indeed strengthen and evolve, an emotional relationship to the audience.
Just as the past glory and the present misery of the movies were not inevitable, neither is the future. We must make it ourselves.
Here are some more great passages from Denby's essay, to whet your appetite until you're convinced to read the whole thing:
"When I speak of moviegoers, I mean people who get out of the house and into a theater as often as they can; or people with kids, who back up rare trips to the movies with lots of recent DVDs and films ordered on demand. I do not mean the cinephiles, the solitary and obsessed, who have given up on movie houses and on movies as our national theater (as Pauline Kael called it) and plant themselves at home in front of flat screens and computers, where they look at old films or small new films from the four corners of the globe, blogging and exchanging disks with their friends. They are extraordinary, some of them, and their blogs and websites generate an exfoliating mass of knowledge and opinion, a thickening density of inquiries and claims, outraged and dulcet tweets. Yet it is unlikely that they can do much to build a theatrical audience for the movies they love."
"The Iron Man movies have been shaped around the temperament of their self-deprecating star, Robert Downey, Jr., an actor who manages to convey, in the midst of a $200-million super-production, a private sense of amusement. By slightly distancing himself from the material, this charming rake offers the grown-up audience a sense of complicity, which saves it from self-contempt. Like so many big digital movies, the Iron Man films engage in a daringly flirtatious give-and-take with their own inconsequence: the disproportion between the size of the productions, with their huge sets and digital battles, and the puniness of any meaning that can possibly be extracted from them, may, for the audience, be part of the frivolous pleasure of seeing them."
"Many big films (not just the ones based on Marvel Comics) are now soaked in what can only be called corporate irony, a mad discrepancy between size and significance.
Most of the great directors of the past—Griffith, Chaplin, Murnau, Renoir, Lang, Ford, Hawks, Hitchcock, Welles, Rossellini, De Sica, Mizoguchi, Kurosawa, Bergman, the young Coppola, Scorsese, and Altman, and many others—did not imagine that they were making films for a tiny audience, and they did not imagine they were making “art” movies, even though they worked with a high degree of conscious artistry. (The truculent John Ford would have glared at you with his unpatched eye if you used the word “art” in his presence.) They thought that they were making films for everyone, or at least everyone with spirit, which is a lot of people. But over the past twenty-five years, if you step back and look at the American movie scene, you see the mass-culture juggernauts, increasingly triumphs of heavy-duty digital craft, tempered by self-mockery and filling up every available corner of public space; and the tiny, morally inquiring “relationship” movies, making their modest way to a limited audience. The ironic cinema, and the earnest cinema; the mall cinema, and the art house cinema."
"The intentional shift in large-scale movie production away from adults is a sad betrayal and a minor catastrophe. Among other things, it has killed a lot of the culture of the movies. By culture, I do not mean film festivals, film magazines, and cinephile Internet sites and bloggers, all of which are flourishing. I mean that blessedly saturated mental state of moviegoing, both solitary and social, half dreamy, half critical, maybe amused, but also sometimes awed, that fuels a living art form. Moviegoing is both a private and a sociable affair—a strangers-at-barbecues, cocktail-party affair, the common coin of everyday discourse. In the fall season there may be a number of good things to see, and so, for adult audiences, the habit may flicker to life again. If you have seen one of the five interesting movies currently playing, then you need to see the other four so you can join the dinner-party conversation. If there is only one, as there is most of the year, you may skip it without feeling you are missing much."
"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 film-makers 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."
"People who know how these movies are made told me that the film-makers could not have held those shots any longer, because audiences would have noticed that they were digital fakes. That point (if true) should tell you that something is seriously wrong. If you cannot sustain shots at the dramatic crux of your movie, why make violent spectacle at all? It turns out that fake-looking digital film-making can actually disable spectacle when it is supposed to be set in the real world. Increasingly, the solution has been to create more and more digitized cities, houses, castles, planets. Big films have lost touch with the photographed physical reality that provided so much greater enchantment than fantasy.
In the scriptorium, an unspoken vow was repeated daily: audiences need to get emotionally involved in a story in order to enjoy themselves. The idea is so obvious that it seems absurd to spell it out. Yet in recent years this assumption, and everything that follows from it, have begun to weaken and even to disappear."
"It is shocking to be reminded of some of the things that are now slipping away: that whatever is introduced in a tale has to mean something, and that one thing should inevitably lead to another; that events are foreshadowed and then echoed, and that tension rises steadily through a series of minor climaxes to a final, grand climax; that music should be created not just as an enforcer of mood but as the outward sign of an emotional or narrative logic; that characterization should be consistent; that a character’s destiny is supposed to have some moral and spiritual meaning—the wicked punished, the virtuous rewarded or at least sanctified. It was a fictional world of total accountability.
Space could be analyzed and broken into close-ups and reaction shots and the like, but then it had to be re-unified in a way that brought the experience together in a viewer’s head—so that, in Jezebel, one felt physically what Bette Davis suffered as scandalized couples backed away from her in the ballroom. If the audience didn’t experience that emotion, the movie wouldn’t have cast its spell."
"This seems like plain common sense. Who could possibly argue with it? Yet spatial integrity is just about gone from big movies. What Wyler and his editors did—matching body movement from one shot to the next—is rarely attempted now. Hardly anyone thinks it important. The most common method of editing in big movies now is to lay one furiously active shot on top of another, and often with only a general relation in space or body movement between the two. The continuous whirl of movement distracts us from noticing the uncertain or slovenly fit between shots. The camera moves, the actors move: in Moulin Rouge, the camera swings wildly over masses of men in the nightclub, Nicole Kidman flings herself around her boudoir like a rag doll. The digital fight at the end of The Avengers takes place in a completely artificial environment, a vacuum in which gravity has been abandoned; continuity is not even an issue. If the constant buffoonishness of action in all sorts of big movies leaves one both over-stimulated and unsatisfied—cheated without knowing why—then part of the reason is that the terrain hasn’t been sewn together. You have been deprived of that loving inner possession of the movie that causes you to play it over and over in your head."
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