Over the past 20 years, the terminal decline of cinema and/or cinephilia (which, for our purposes, I’ll define as the desire to talk, think and/or write seriously and knowledgeably about film) has been prophesied repeatedly. There’s a familiar litany of fatal wounds: most writing about film in the mainstream media amounts to unpaid advertising, home video has killed off the repertory circuit that used to thrive in many American and European cities, and the most meretricious Hollywood blockbusters have achieved an unprecedented level of domination over both the American and world markets, thus helping to reduce many European and Asian national cinemas to shadows of their former strengths.
These charges are largely accurate. Four rep theaters have gone out of business in the past seven years in New York. By and large, TV and newspaper journalism are only interested in discussing film in terms of economics and – to a lesser extent – moral “controversies”, with aesthetics barely getting a toenail in the door. Substantial American films like Rushmore (Wes Anderson, 1998), Affliction (Paul Schrader, 1997) and Magnolia (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1999) could certainly have benefited from a fraction of the tidal wave of hype generated byAustin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (Jay Roach, 1999), yet I doubt even Austin and Dr. Evil’s biggest fans would claim that it amounts to anything more than a pleasant evening out. The mania over The Phantom Menace (George Lucas, 1999) clearly had more to do with its audiences’ delight over an event that might bring back childhood pleasures than with the expectation of seeing a great film.
I’ve also been told over and over again that much of the blame for this sad state of affairs lies with spectators in their 20s or early 30s who purport to be cinephiles but think film history began with Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977). While there are plenty of people who fit this stereotype, patronizing an entire generation doesn’t take into account how its critics or cinephiles are responding to (or even trying to resist) the worst aspects of our film culture. Writing reviews of any intellectual ambition for an American daily has become practically impossible, as Dave Kehr’s dismissal from the New York Daily News in 1998 showed. Yet paradoxically, I doubt that the urge to write about film has ever been stronger. A search on Yahoo! will reveal dozens, if not hundreds, of people writing reviews for their own web sites. Of course, the “democracy” of the World Wide Web has provided a forum for plenty of functional illiterates to crank out 400-word plot summaries, but it’s also contributed opportunities to spread the kind of information that doesn’t have a chance to be heard in the mainstream media. From the response to my own site, I can testify that it’s also helped like-minded people make contact despite geographical boundaries.
Given the fragmentation of American film culture, this potential for cross-cultural communication seems especially vital. Apart from Film Comment and the industry-oriented Premiere & Movieline, practically every film magazine published here falls into one of three niches: semi-academic journals (Cineaste, Film Quarterly), publications aimed towards filmmakers themselves (Filmmaker, Moviemaker, The Independent), and genre-oriented zines (Badazz Mofo, Asian Cult Cinema.) Rarely does anyone attempt to bridge the gaps between these diverse agendas, not to mention the one between everyday reviewing and academic cinema studies. The spirit of collective argument and discussion that I associate – rightly or wrongly – with André Bazin, Positif and Cahiers Du Cinéma in the ’50s, and the heyday of Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael in the ’60s, has largely vanished from present-day writing on film. Even the best critics working today seem like solitary voices shouting into the wilderness. The Usenet discussion group rec.arts.movies.current-films, which often resembles a large room in which 5 or 6 groups of people with disparate interests are all shouting loudly, provides further testimony of this fragmentation.
Reciting a list of the numerous ways in which home video (even laserdisc and DVD) has degraded the film image and decimated a collective film culture would be pointless. However, I know very few cinephiles purist enough to lay off the format entirely. I can’t deny that my knowledge of film history would be much weaker without it; when I first discovered European cinema, I was overjoyed by the opportunity to see a dozen Fassbinder or Godard movies in a few months. Video can also provide a short-cut through the sheer amount of work it now takes to have anything approaching a comprehensive knowledge of world cinema, given the limited access most spectators have to film festivals. If Jackie Chan has become an American superstar, John Woo a Hollywood player and Wong Kar-wai and Takeshi Kitano arthouse cult favorites, much of the credit may be due to the sub rosa video availability of their films years before their theatrical release in this country.
When I worked at a video store, I was more than a little baffled by the kind of “videophile” customer who would spend $100-150 on laserdiscs each week yet acted as if films were never projected as such anymore. (I remember one customer who bought laserdiscs of many new releases about which he knew nothing; for the same cost, he could have seen each film 3 times in the theater.) The eclecticism of zines like Shock Cinemaand Video Watchdog strikes me as far more productive than this compulsive consumerism, but their range of interests can now only be satisfied on video, given the death of the B-movie circuit. In the best-case scenario, I’d like to hope that a well-stocked video store could foster a kind of benign anarchy in which all films eventually become equal shelfmates no matter how they were initially regarded. When Quentin Tarantino makes connections between the French New Wave and blaxploitation and Takeshi does much the same between Dirty Harry (Don Siegel, 1971) and Ozu, I think we’re starting to see the long-term results of videophilia. As Tarantino’s detractors would surely point out, this kind of freedom from hierarchies can have a downside: an amnesia regarding the vast historical and cultural differences separating the store’s different aisles.
It’s not exactly news that the lines between film and video are rapidly dissolving. With the advents of both digital projection and digital production upon us, this dissolution has led to apocalyptic predictions of a total collapse of the boundaries between television and cinema, as well as utopian rhetoric in which every would-be director will be “empowered” by cheap digital video equipment and indie distributors will find their burden lessened because digital projection eliminates the expense of making and shipping 35mm prints. However, for all this rhetoric, video still strikes me as an extremely limited medium. Of course, it can lend itself to beautiful work – Sadie Benning has even worked wonders with the toy Pixelvision camera – but the most successful video-cum-films that I’ve seen – The Celebration (Thomas Vinterberg, 1998), The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sánchez, 1999), Hal Hartley’s The Book Of Life (1998), Fred Kelemen’s Fate(1994) – don’t look conventionally “well-made.” In fact, the beauty of Fate and The Book Of Life stems largely from the way Hartley and Kelemen utilize video’s tendency to blur and distort bright colors. Videomakers who don’t take this limitation into account usually just wind up making something that looks cheap and ugly. Given the enormous success of The Blair Witch Project, I can foresee a grim future in which many, if not most, low-budget productions are shot on video.
There’s no easy solution to the impasses regarding the ills plaguing American film culture, but I’m hopeful that the generation of critics and cinephiles who came of age along with the video medium can find ways to work around these pitfalls. Quite possibly, videophilia could continue creating new ways of thinking and writing about film, and the Internet will keep on functioning as a forum and training ground for adventurous young critics, rather than being reduced to a new form of advertising . Of course, it’s equally possible that this present-day situation will continue or get worse, but asking these questions is vital if one wants to get on with real work, rather than performing an elegy for old-school cinephilia. Ignoring or patronizing the voices of those of us who still treat film seriously makes the worst-case scenario all the more likely.