The End Is Near (Bring Out Your Dead!)
What strikes me as funny, hilarious even, is that as critics are talking the death of film, movies are everywhere a, if not the, shared language. Everyone I know seems to have a lot of shared text, shared ready conversation, regarding movies. It’s the only art form that still retains this position. If film were to die, what they’re really talking about, is that it would no longer be a big theater spectacle (is this necessarily a bad thing?). It’s the spectacle they’re talking about, not that films will be replaced by a different thing entirely, a different genre. This is Scott’s summation of the situation:
“Anthony Lane of The New Yorker laments the impending eclipse of moviegoing, a collective ritual ostensibly threatened by the ascendance of home viewing. ‘Enjoy it while it lasts,’ he concludes, offering (by way of a quotation from ‘Melancholia’) a pre-emptive epitaph for a form of cultural consumption, built around ‘compulsion’ and ‘communion,’ with roots in ancient Athens and, apparently, no future to speak of.”
There’s a blurring of the medium (theater vs Netflix [etc]) and value of the object itself that goes on in the discussion of the decline of film (Film vs Movies, maybe) that muddies the argument, as the arguments tend to flip-flop between the quality of the art object (as an artistic experience) and the technology (move to video and digital, etc).
But even with that, there is a lot of crossover I see in this conversation, this anxiety, to the other, more minor arts. Here are the bits that most ramified with the ways I’ve also heard people talk about the visual arts and poetry:
It can be hard to escape, and even harder to argue against, the feeling that something we used to love is going away, or already gone. This is less a critical position or a historical insight than a mood, induced by the usual selective comparisons and subjective hunches. Back then (whenever it was) the stars were more glamorous, the writing sharper, the stories more cogent and the critics more powerful.
Are movies essentially a thing of the past? Does whatever we have now, digital or analog, represent at best a pale shadow of bygone glory? Among the recent arrivals in bookstores — speaking of obsolescence! — are two collections of writing by prominent critics that say as much in their titles. The Library of America volume of Pauline Kael’s essays and reviews is called The Age of Movies, a period that evidently lasted from the mid-’50s until the early ’90s, when Kael departed her perch at The New Yorker. Meanwhile a book by Dave Kehr (who writes a home-video column for The New York Times), titled When Movies Mattered, gathers up his articles from the ’70s and ’80s, when he wrote mainly for The Chicago Reader.
As a platform for criticism, the Internet lends itself to the endless making and circulation of lists, and it has also become a gathering place for cinematic antiquarians of all stripes and sensibilities. At the same time the history of film is now more widely and readily accessible than ever before. We may lament the end of movie clubs and campus film societies that presented battered prints of great movies, but by any aesthetic (as opposed to sentimental) standard, the high-quality, carefully restored digital transfers of classics and curiosities now available on DVD and Blu-ray offer a much better way to encounter the canon.
But the very proximity of this canon contributes to the devaluation of the present. Those Criterion Collection and Warner Brothers boxes — of Ozu and Rossellini, of westerns and films noirs and avant-garde cinema — gaze reproachfully from the shelves, much as the Turner Classic Movies titles lurk in the conscience of the DVR, silently scolding viewers who just want to catch up on “Modern Family” or “Bored to Death.” Shouldn’t we be giving our attention to movies that have proved themselves, over the years, worthy of it?
By all means. The alternative is an uncritical embrace of the new for its own sake, a shallow contempt for tradition and a blindness to its beauties. But there is at least an equal risk of being blinded by those beauties to the energies that surround us, and to mistake affection for a standard of judgment. Of course no modern movie star can match Humphrey Bogart’s world-weary toughness or Bette Davis’s sparkling wit, and of course nothing in today’s movies looks or sound the way it used to. But why — or how — should it? Every art form changes, often at rates and in ways that cause discomfort to its devotees. But the arts also have a remarkable ability to withstand and absorb those changes, and to prove wrong the prophecies of their demise.
The camera has an uncanny ability to capture the world as it is, to seize events as they happen, and also to conjure visions of the future. But by the time the image reaches the eyes of the viewer, it belongs to the past, taking on the status of something retrieved. As for those bold projections of what is to come, they have a habit of looking quaint as soon as they arrive.
The movies survived sound, just as they survived television, the VCR and every other terminal diagnosis. And they will survive the current upheavals as well. How can I be sure? Because 10, 20, or 50 years from now someone will certainly be complaining that they don’t make them like they used to. Which is to say, like they do right now.
It’s better to burn out than fade away . . . natch.