Monday, November 21, 2011

The End Is Near (Bring Out Your Dead!)

Reports of the death of poetry, both regarding its quality and its very existence, have been with us a long time now. Fifty years? Seventy-five? And one of the things that Frank O’Hara alludes to as a counter-force, or available mass alternative, to poetry in his “Personism: A Manifesto” is the movies. So it is with a large dose of humor that I read A.O. Scott’s, “Film Is Dead? What Else Is New?” in the NYT the other day, in which the decline of film is rehearsed:

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.


At 11/21/2011 5:25 PM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

The internet is dead. Whatever comes after the internet is dead. The technology we have yet to invent is obsolete.

At 11/21/2011 5:28 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Being obsolete is dead!

At 11/21/2011 5:30 PM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

Being dead is obsolete.

(In the future, we are all machines).

At 11/21/2011 5:31 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

The future is dead.

At 11/21/2011 7:42 PM, Blogger Steven D. Schroeder said...

The future is being dead.

At 11/22/2011 3:20 AM, Blogger Michael Schiavo said...

It's great that G.C. let you use that picture of him.

At 11/22/2011 4:46 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Now Michael, you know GC would never carry a sign that read THE END IS NEAR. His sign reads WILL TRADE GREEKS FOR FIRE.

At 11/22/2011 4:47 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Being is the dead future.

At 11/22/2011 5:25 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

At the risk of sounding like a doomsday prophet whose sandwich board is emblazoned with Godard on the death of film, I have to agree with the nostalgic cinephiles. Lots of people still watch and talk about movies, but the art of cinema, as David Lynch said recently, is dead. And yes, I think it'd be very sad if moviegoing disappeared--if you could no longer go to a beautiful Hopperesque movie palace(I used to frequent one in Ann Arbor) and watch Buster Keaton, Bergman,Godard, Bresson. I've always disliked people who say "Good riddance" when they hear of old theaters and libraries being razed, of books and newspapers and LPs and typewriters being pitched into the trashbin of history. Either they're too young to understand the ardent attachments older people may feel to these things, or they're cold, shruggy people. Excuse the cris de coeur.

At 11/22/2011 11:46 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


I don't have much to say about the film version of this, as I don't have much of a film gene. I was just thinking of it as analogous thinking to what I've heard of poetry and visual art conversations. There does seem to be a loss with grand movie theaters and drive-ins. Drive-ins were weird beasts, and difficult to describe to someone who never went to one.

At 11/22/2011 12:12 PM, Blogger David Grove said...

The thinking is analogous, yes; but when they said Paul was dead, he wasn't; when they said John was dead, on the other hand, he was.

I remember a drive-in in Flint. You could be quite a distance from it and still catch flashes of actresses in media dress. A thrill for a pubescent boy at that time.

Steven Wright: "I went to a drive-in in a cab. The movie cost me $90."

At 11/22/2011 12:17 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Indeed, and under one of these shells is a Greek on fire.

At 11/22/2011 1:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The future is in eggs.

At 11/22/2011 1:58 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


(But you’ve got to treat your chickens well.)

At 11/22/2011 2:10 PM, Blogger David Grove said...

Yeah, some movie palaces were originally venues for magicians--like Chung Ling Soo, who died on stage trying to catch a bullet in his teeth. 1918. And some of those magicians may have played shell games--"and under one of these shells is a Greek on fire." But you know, in The Glass Menagerie, Tom talks about watching a magician between features at a theater. So the custom of having live entertainment in movie palaces may have persisted until WWII or later.


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