Is the Cinema Really Dead? (first part)

The first part (roughly the first half) of Chapter One of my most popular book, Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Films We Can See (2000). The second half will be posted tomorrow; the illustration below is from the now out-of-print English edition.  — J.R.

Is the Cinema Really Dead?


[The] early nineties have not been as encouraging as the early seventies.. . . It is not as easy now to believe in the medium’s vitality or its readiness for great challenges. So many of the noble figures of film history aredead now, and who can be confident that they are being replaced? . . . .The author sees fewer films now. He would as soon go for a walk, look at paintings, or take in a ball game. [1994]

It has become harder, this past year, to go back in the dark with hope or purpose. The place where “magic” is supposed to occur has seemed a lifeless pit of torn velour, garish anonymity, and floors sticky from spilled sodas. Forlornness hangs in the air like damp; things are so desolate, you could set today’s version of Waiting for Godot in the stale, archaic sadness of a movie theater. . . .This is not just a lamentation that movies are in a very bad state. Rather, I feel the medium has sunk beyond anything we dreamed of, leaving us stranded, a race of dreamers. . . . [1996]

I still look at movies the same way today that I did [at the time of the New Wave], but I know it’s not the same world, exactly. Even if we enter the theater the same way, we don’t go out the same way. [Question: “How is it different?”] Less hope . . . . [1996]

Cinema’s hundred years seem to have the shape of a life cycle: an inevitable birth, the steady accumulation of glories, and the onset in the last decade of an ignominious, irreversible decline. This doesn’t mean that there won’t be any more new films that one can admire. But such films won’t simply be exceptions; that’s true of great achievements in any art. They have to be heroic violations of the norms and practices which now govern moviemaking everywhere in the capitalist and would-be capitalist world — which is to say, everywhere. And ordinary films, films made purely for entertainment (that is, commercial) purposes, will continue to be astonishingly witless; already the vast majority fail resoundingly to appeal to their cynically targeted audiences. While the point of a great film is now, more than ever, to be a one-of-a-kind achievement, the commercial cinema has settled for a policy of bloated, derivative filmmaking, a brazen combinatory or recombinatory art, in the hopes of reproducing past success. Every film that hopes to reach the largest possible audience is designed as some kind of remake. Cinema, once heralded as the art of the twentieth century, seems now, as the century closes numerically, to be a decadent art. [1997]

It is perhaps too late to lament the disappearance of the foreign film from a major place in our culture. After many depressing conversations, I have found that younger moviegoers, reared on little but American movies, imagine that mourners for the foreign cinema are talking about some fool’s paradise of zinc counters and cappuccino, a pretentious refuge for bearded losers and solemn girls in black. “Cinéastes” — isn’t that what they used to call them? It is worse than useless to tell such moviegoers that Bergman and Kurosawa, Antonioni and Fellini, Godard and Truffaut — to name just the most obvious figures — defined our moods in late adolescence, enlarged our sense of romance and freedom and passionate melancholy as well as the expressive possibilities of movies, and that their influence was so pervasive that Bonnie and Clyde as well as the careers of Woody Allen, Paul Mazursky, Robert Altman, and a host of other American directors would not have been possible without them. . . . One must quickly add that the current French, Italian, German, and Japanese cinemas are but a remnant of their former selves, and that the new movies from China, Russia, Finland, and Iran, however fascinating, cannot replace the old masterworks in excitement and glamour. “Where are the great foreign films now?” a friend asks, by which he means that he refuses to feel guilty about not going when there are no masterpieces to see. He has a point, but even when a good French movie opens here (like Claude Chabrol’s La Cérémonie, in 1996), it’s hard to scare up much of an audience for it. [1998]


One could cite other recent texts voicing the same sentiments, but these five representative samples — drawn from four highly respected writers whom I’d prefer not to identify right away — should suffice. I won’t identify them just yet because I’m interested primarily in what they’re saying, not who they are. Their striking similarity in tone and position tempts one to conclude that they all swim in the same water, which further suggests that they must be right to some extent.

But are they? Or, more to the point, can they be right? The first quotation laments our lack of confidence that “the noble figures of film history . . . are being replaced” and the fifth is equally morose: “the new movies from China, Russia, Finland, and Iran, however fascinating, cannot replace the old masterworks in excitement and glamour.” But if I complained that no messiah has come along in two thousand years to replace Jesus, that we haven’t yet found adequate substitutes for Brueghel or Shakespeare, that no novelists have come along lately to fill the gaps left by Proust and Faulkner, and that no jazz musician since the fifties has displayed the genius of Charlie Parker, would I be saying versions of the same thing, or something different? A replacement implies a duplication, or at least an equivalent, rather than something new. Furthermore, since Jesus, Brueghel, Shakespeare, Proust, Faulkner, and Parker may not have been adequately appreciated in their own times, anyone who came along to “replace” them probably wouldn’t be adequately appreciated either.

Maybe the first and fifth quotations are implying that, rather than insufficiently recognized “noble masters” or “masterworks,” we lack masters and masterworks period — and that, unlike most of our historical predecessors, we’re fully capable of rooting them out and recognizing their merits. But how do we root them out? Only a tiny fraction of finished films actually arrive in theaters, and if we’re talking about foreign-language films in this country, we’re talking about less than one percent of what gets shown commercially; very few critics nowadays — including the four represented above — are likely to see all of these. If the handful of foreign films that open here, the elite less-than-one-percent, were the absolute best that’s being made — which automatically assumes that “the best” equals the most commercial — then we might have the basis for making such a generalization. But what evidence supports that belief beyond wishful thinking? Are we confident, for starters, that distributors see all the possible candidates? And that they have such impeccable taste that they would recognize the best films as a simple matter of course? Or that the best films, even if they saw them and recognized their merits, are invariably commercial propositions worth investing in?

Still, it’s the usual role of critics — bolstered by such adages as “Cream rises to the top” (even if it takes a few centuries for someone like Jesus) — to make such pronouncements. To put it bluntly, we more or less have to make such sweeping generalizations from time to time if we expect to be listened to. To some degree, we all have to assume that we have some idea of the value of what’s being produced in a given art form, even if we prove to be wrong in the long run, because to assume otherwise is to abnegate all responsibility about such matters.

But once critics make such judgments, they owe it to their audiences to convey how they arrived at them. So unless foreign film distributors in the United States are all-seeing, all-knowing, preternaturally gifted guides in determining what’s best in world cinema — not only in the present, but also in the indefinite future — there must be other sources for these conclusions about the state of world cinema. Maybe these critics attend certain foreign film festivals where they can view wider samples (although these, too, are highly restricted in relation to the sheer volume of the films that get made), and maybe they read critics in other countries in order to get some estimation of what others think about what’s important — although, in point of fact, two of the four writers cited above rarely attend foreign festivals, and if they read foreign critics, there’s scant evidence of it in their work. Maybe they read what some of their local colleagues write about such festivals, and arrive at certain conclusions on the basis of whether or not they agree with the overall drift of their colleagues’ opinions. Or maybe they’re simply pretending to possess a certain expertise on matters that they know little or nothing about.


My quarrel here is with texts and positions, not individuals, and I hasten to add that I would never lodge an accusation of posturing against Susan Sontag, the author of the fourth quotation (drawn from her article “A Century of Cinema”) — a world traveler fluent in several languages who attends many film festivals abroad. Though she doesn’t regard herself as a film critic, she has done enough legwork to qualify her to judge the current state of world cinema, and even though I don’t agree with many of her conclusions, I don’t consider her presumptuous in making them. The third quotation, which is more about the climate of moviegoing than the state of the art per se, comes from Jean-Luc Godard’s press conference at the Toronto Film Festival in 1996, and I’ve included it here only because Godard’s own pronouncements about the death of cinema over the last several years have probably influenced other commentators — perhaps Sontag most of all. But when David Thomson, the author of the first two quotations, and David Denby, the author of the fifth, make comparable claims about the contemporary state of the art, I’m less inclined to take them seriously, because I see a good deal more than they do and seldom feel that they’re attentive to anything more than what’s currently available, commercial, and fashionable (a very thin slice of the pie) — thereby leaving out most of what keeps the art of world cinema, including American cinema, alive. [1]

_______________________________________________________________ [1] The second quotation is the beginning and end of Thomson’s first movie column for Esquire, “Who Killed the Movies?,” published in December 1996, and the fifth comes from the middle of Denby’s article “The Moviegoers” published in the April 6, 1998 issue of The New Yorker. The first quotation comes from Thomson’s introduction to the third edition of A Biographical Dictionary of Film, and helps to explain why this 1994 volume contains no entry about any filmmakers from Iran and Taiwan, nor any about Chantal Akerman, Atom Egoyan, Jon Jost, Emir Kusturica, Kira Muratova, Mark Rappaport, Raul Ruiz, Aleksandr Sokurov, or Béla Tarr — among many others.


If Thomson and Denby suddenly changed their minds and decided that exciting and important things were happening in the cinemas of Iran  and Taiwan, they would probably no longer be publishing in the same magazines, because mainstream publications aren’t interested in such subjects, even as theoretical possibilities. They’re interested almost exclusively in commerce and fashion, not in art when it comes to film, and for this reason alone declarations about the death of cinema as an art form from the likes of Denby, Thomson, and even Sontag can easily be translated into expedient defenses of these magazines’ own positions as commercial vendors. Such declarations even become godsends to editors who are tired of feeling challenged by the number of things going on in world cinema that they choose to ignore. (Although, as I’ll show a little later, even Sontag’s more nuanced and informed articulation of the death-of-cinema position had to be significantly modified before it could appear in a mainstream American publication.) Paradoxically, they also want to promote — and to benefit from the promotion of — new commercial films as art objects, because unless one decides that art and entertainment are incompatible, new works of entertainment have to be praised as works of art if they’re going to be taken seriously.


So the ideal film columnist in a magazine like Esquire would write alternate columns declaring the death of cinema as an art form and the rebirth of cinema as an art form every time a “special” mainstream property comes along. Thomson filled that bill perfectly during his extended stint at that magazine. He boldly inaugurated his column by declaring that movies were at an end, then promptly resurrected them in his second column in order to praise L.A. Confidential, something he would do again for The Truman Show. In a comparable spirit, Denby, who didn’t share Thomson’s enthusiasm for The Truman Show, seemed to base much of his own despair about the future of film as an art form on the “difficulty [of L.A. Confidential] in finding a large theater audience”—“a matter of much chagrin to me and a number of other movie critics I’ve spoken to.” I don’t happen to share Thomson and Denby’s enthusiasm for or even their interest in that particular film, but even if I did, I doubt that I could rest my conclusions about the survival of cinema as an art form on either the existence or the commercial success of one particular movie. I’m pretty sure that they don’t either, but it’s part of the peculiar hysteria produced in mainstream pop culture to foster such temporary impressions. And one of the natural consequences of such a stance is that Denby, like Thomson and some of his other colleagues, seesaws regularly between announcing the death of cinema and hyping a certain number of current releases. One feels at times that he and his colleagues are merely trying to do what’s expected of them, and contradictions of this kind are virtually inscribed in the editorial dynamics at their publications.

Indeed, a good deal of journalism is devoted to creating feeding frenzies that are subsequently forgotten, usually in order to make room for new ones. It’s a syndrome I’m susceptible to as well, for the pressure on consumer-oriented reviewing is always to make the products of a particular week or month seem important regardless of whether they are or not; after all, to treat a movie as unimportant is often tantamount to telling a reader to stop reading. But when another week or month rolls around and it becomes necessary to treat another movie or set of movies as important, the reviewer and reader both have to experience temporary amnesia in order to keep the process going.


Tweaking the doomsday positions of Sontag, Thomson, Denby (in earlier pieces), and others in the April 1997 issue of Vanity Fair, James Wolcott countered their gloomy claims about the state of cinema with a list of twenty-odd recent favorites, not one of which was in any language other than English. L.A. Confidential, which hadn’t yet been released, didn’t make it onto his hit parade, but his common ground with Thomson and Denby, when it comes to nonmainstream world cinema, is more significant than any polemical differences. In fact, Wolcott’s deepest scorn was reserved for those “sullen Village Voice reviewers” who “praise movies so obscure that simply getting to the theater counts as a quest for the authentic.” One of them, he pointed out, had the nerve to write hyperbolically about a recent Godard video — something that Wolcott presumably couldn’t be bothered to see himself.

In other words, American film reviewers are expected to dispense a certain comfort to moviegoers by assuring them that what’s available at their local multiplex or video store is all that’s worth seeing. If these reviewers happen upon films that aren’t available at those outlets, they won’t be able to run reviews of them in mainstream publications; so unless they want to feel frustrated about their jobs, they accept the choices made by large distributors on their behalf. Assigning central importance to someone like Godard in these circumstances can only sound irritating and elitist, and it’s important to underline that there’s nothing new about this bias; in mainstream terms, Godard has remained a marginal spokesman since the sixties, even if many of his critical and cinematic ideas have periodically entered the mainstream in simplified or garbled form.

Writing in New York magazine in 1980, Dan Yakir noted that Godard “had become a cultural nonperson,” and blithely added that “It’s possible that Godard was not even surprised” after Jean-Paul Belmondo — Godard’s star in Breathless (1959) and Pierrot le fou (1965) — recently asked him, “Can you still direct?” The fact that Godard had directed over half a dozen released features and two extended French TV series during the seventies — a corpus of work with the collective running time of almost two days — obviously didn’t count in this reckoning either for Belmondo or Yakir because none of the Hollywood studios were distributing this work. In other words, out of sight, out of mind — and anything not for immediate sale is out of sight. (As I’ll show later, the same skewered reasoning has given Orson Welles a mainstream profile of artistic inactivity over the last quarter-century of his life, while he was working on literally dozens of projects.)



One of the most sophisticated American film critics I know refused to see Béla Tarr’s seven-hour Sátántangó at the Toronto Film Festival because he knew that if he really liked it he would feel frustrated about not being able to write about it: “I’d rather see four terrible films,” he bluntly informed me. An equally sophisticated colleague of his made it to the first couple of hours of Sátántangó, which he liked, but then had to leave in order to attend the screening of something else he liked less that he knew his editor expected him to review. Although the prospect of a seven-hour film seems daunting — even if it’s shown with two intermissions, as Sátántangó usually is, in accordance with the filmmaker’s wishes — when I selected the film as a “critic’s choice” for the Chicago International Film Festival, it drew nearly a full house at a commercial cinema, and there were very few walkouts. By contrast, the press screening in Toronto attracted only a handful of reviewers; most of the others logically concluded that such an experience, no matter how rewarding, would only interfere with their jobs.

Anomalies of this kind are both frequent and on the rise nowadays, especially at film festivals, and they point to a contradiction that is even more damaging than coupling end-of-cinema pronouncements with the hawking of new commercial products: the assumption that audiences, unlike sophisticated critics, are intolerant of films that demand some thought or patience. In my experience almost the reverse is true, and part of the reason for the critics’ intolerance is the intolerance of most of their editors. This is what makes the death-of-cinema racket so attractive to certain critics as well as editors; if you decide in advance that something like Sátántangó has to be a waste of time — unlike the usual trash that gets reviewed — you’re bound to experience a certain relief.

(to be continued)

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