16 Sep 2010

The Death of Cinema

Fifteen years ago, Susan Sontag said that cinema is dead. She bemoaned both the corruption of the filmmaking process — that the Hollywood machine all but crushes the spirit of artistic pursuit — and the passing of its appreciation, which she deems “cinephilia.” The former sentiment, more or less, has gained widespread acceptance; we all see both the distinction between “Hollywood movies” and “independent films,” and the powerful advantage the mainstream holds over its outsiders. The latter, while equally as true, is something more abstract, requiring a wider lens of consideration.

With images of “Twi-hard” throngs losing all rational ability and fanboys doing their best to fill up the internet with hype in the lead-up to films like Watchmen, Inception and Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, it’s easy to say that cinephilia is alive and well. However, when one compares this with the kinds of films Sontag references (Breathless, The 400 Blows, Persona, etc.) one ought to be filled with a sort of melancholy. Sontag laments:

It’s not that you can’t look forward anymore to new films that you can admire. But such films not only have to be exceptions — that’s true of great achievements in any art. They have to be actual violations of the norms and practices that now govern movie making everywhere.

If one recent film calls to mind Sontag’s cinematic “violation,” it is I’m Still Here, a film that challenges the form such that its audience and critics are, for the majority, left confused. For film criticism, challenging cinema behaves like a Darwinian sieve, separating out the dilettantes and loudmouth attention-seekers from the true cinephiliac critics. Cinema is like religion: when it speaks, it demands a level of submission and quiet to be heard, the reward being a dissolution of individual isolation and consciousness in exchange for a profound sense of oneness. But like anything that requires submission and humility, some will be too drunk on their own self-importance to hear; they will sit in petrified confusion, isolated from the herd, and they will lash out to denigrate the film, hoping to draw someone else out from the blind. The method is easy — rejecting a difficult film to join the chorus of disparagement requires no submission or humility on the part of the viewer. But as with all easy routes, history proves the great equaliser; a cinephile takes solace in reading the early negative reviews of Raging Bull or 2001: A Space Odyssey. Perhaps the sieve analogy is less than apt, because there’s a third category for those who sit on the fence, too afraid to commit their whole opinion lest they be wrong, too afraid to proclaim love for a film lest they be heartbroken. And this fence seats more than the those it divides. What’s missing is what Sontag describes: cinephilia. Without love, there is no courage to step out into the void before others have already provided the critical foundation and champion a challenging film.

While critics may not be immune to the death of cinephilia, they are not its arbiters; this virus in cinema runs much deeper. On Christmas Day, 2008, at a Philadelphia cinema showing of The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button James Joseph Cialella asked some other patrons to stop talking during the film. They didn’t. The situation escalated until Cialella took out the .380-caliber handgun he had (brought tucked in the waistband of his sweatpants) and shot one of the talkers in the arm. Cialella then went back to watching the film until the police arrived. In the wake of this shooting, the story was received as a kind of joke, the same way people throw around “President Palin” with a kind of shaky certainty that the world could never really become that bad. Not really. While it must be noted that Cialella is an Iraq War veteran and this is likely to have been a contributing factor to the way he handled the matter, the flip-side of that coin is that a cinema theatre represents not the median of society but its cross section — while Cialella may not be average, he’s not unique. When the inventors of cinema first decided to bring people together in a darkened room to experience cinematic oneness, they rightly never took considerations for shootouts. Something has changed. Where once we would sit with a crowd of strangers, let the lights go down, and open up our hearts and minds to this glowing rectangular deity, now an innocence has been lost.

Yesterday I saw 8½ at the Art Gallery of NSW. A while before that it was 2001: A Space Odyssey and Badlands before that. This is a concise list of the cinematic masterpieces I have seen recently with a public audience. This kind of experience is not one I’m eager to repeat. During Badlands, in response to the disconnection between Holly’s voiceover and the onscreen scenes, the audience laughed — to them Terrence Malick’s exploration of Holly’s romantic illusions about the Bonnie & Clyde self-modelled tragedy was too confusing. Then in 2001: A Space Odyssey, when Dave is dismantling HAL’s mind, reducing the apparently self-aware computer to something akin to a retarded child (HAL sings a lullaby called “Daisy”), the audience, failing to see any connection between this scene and the opening act in which mankind first discovers tools, laughed. The third act of Fellini’s 8½ was interrupted when an altercation broke out in the back rows — “You’ve been talking through the whole movie!”

What happened to the submission and the quiet? Not in the sense of refraining from talking, but in the deeper sense of being experientially open? It’s not limited to, as some would put it, a lack of manners (although a lack of manners allows the behaviour to continue). The reaction isn’t hard to understand: people, in isolated confusion and fear, will attempt to quell such uncomfortable feelings by sinking to instinctive pleas for community; they’ll make open dismissals of the film by laughing or talking or making those annoying overt sighs of annoyance — all of this signal to others in the audience, who, also scared of their own confusion, respond in kind. Soon the relief of solidarity trounces the shame of incomprehension, and actually negates it: if everyone is stupid, then no-one is.

To draw another parallel between cinema and religion, cinema requires that one acknowledge something greater than themselves — but when did you last meet someone who thought themselves not the greatest of all things? If they’re great enough for 590 people to pay attention to their Facebook statuses, why should they pay attention to this silly cinema “masterpiece”? We live in a world where the notion that one may have room for personal improvement is outright insulting; where direct reprimand is so foreign to the average person that a man can continue to believe he’s doing nothing wrong until such point as he gets shot; where Hollywood believes that cinema can be catered to what audiences want, making multibillion-dollar studios into insecure sycophants offering up new factory-line film product like a character preparing for a big date might hold up outfits — “Do you like this one? What do you think of this one?” — all of this part of a system that generates increasing opposition against the flimsy and intangible truce of the darkened room. But this is the only place where cinema lives.

When incompetent film critics are paid to spew their ignorant vitriol, and three hundred people can’t sit in silence through a Kubrick film, maybe the era of cinema is over?