I’ve often thought, pace the various laments for the death of cinephilia, that ours is the best generation in which to be a film-buff (I’m talking, I suppose, of people in their 20s and early 30s). Fast-forward a few decades and our already vast hinterland of film history becomes impossible to encompass. Go back a generation, to the hallowed days of the ’60s and ’70s, and it becomes impossible to explore, at least with the thoroughness we take for granted nowadays.
The difference, of course, is video – and, if I can bring any particular perspective to this little gathering, it’s surely that of a film-buff shaped almost entirely by the VCR. The reasons are geographical rather than aesthetic, yet I suspect my experience would be broadly similar even if I lived in the US or a big European city. It’s impossible to resist the lure of films on demand – the opportunity to compare and contrast, study influences, scramble narratives: it is, quite simply, a question of control.
It seems to me the video age – however derided by cultural commentators, even many of those who grew up in it – has transformed movie-watching in a way that makes nostalgia for a lost cinephile Eden not so much misguided as simply irrelevant. It’s led, most conspicuously, to a new formalism, a concentration on the texture of the movie image over what it represents. There is of course an irony here, in that – not, I think, coincidentally – the image is precisely what video degrades (it’s as though videophiles were pining for what they can’t have, rather like urbanites who want their foods to be as ‘natural’ as possible). And of course it may also be a question of a more formalist time in general, one that doubts and downgrades absolute values like Truth and Meaning.
Whatever the precise cause, the effects seem unmistakable. At the low end of the aesthetic spectrum, the emphasis on digital enhancement of the image, the explosions in DVD and DTS, the emergence of an audience who demand only the most pristine transfer with the clearest, crispest sound. At the high end, the growth of a culture where critics and film-makers alike shrink uneasily from the notion of what a movie “means”, the preference for the immanent and suggestive over the declarative or symbolic (Bresson over Bergman, to put it crudely), the marginalisation of political analyses, the kind of criticism that gravitates to films which are “about how time feels as it’s passing, about the feeling of simply existing, moving through life as most people do” (Kent Jones on Goodbye South, Goodbye in Film Comment, Sep/Oct 99).
All this I’d lay at the door of video-watching, our unprecedented ability to isolate and manipulate images; except that “lay at the door” sounds like something the prophets of doom might say – and I, as already mentioned, am far too much the product of the new cinephilia to feel anything but enthusiasm for it. Especially since my personal experience tends to highlight its valuable rather than pernicious aspects.
Take, for example, two of the most commonly cited reasons for pessimism (as mentioned in Steve’s opening essay): first, that “home video has killed off the rep circuit that used to thrive in most American cities”; second, that “the most meretricious Hollywood blockbusters have achieved an unprecedented level of domination over both the American and world markets”. Both true, so far as they go; but my experience of growing up in Nicosia, Cyprus – a provincial town on the outskirts of Europe, albeit the capital of a sovereign nation – shows the extent to which the Death-Of-Cinema laments reflect the experience of a relatively small group of viewers, looking back to a time before the current video-led democratisation.
Take the rep-circuit point first. I don’t know how it used to be in the US heartland (I note, for instance, Jonathan Rosenbaum’s frequent mentions of the independent cinema chain his family used to own in rural Alabama), but the idea of an arthouse or repertory circuit in provincial Greece, for example, would’ve seemed ridiculous in the ’50s and ’60s. A mere couple of decades after a debilitating WW2 and an unspeakably bloody civil war, the prosperous, settled middle class who might take film as seriously as that (if it even existed) simply hadn’t recovered its bearings yet, living under the shadow of the War. I’m almost certain no such circuit exists even today, and I know it never existed here in Cyprus: when I was growing up, a Film Society would occasionally hold irregular screenings of horribly tattered prints, but my main source of cinematic inspiration was, of all places, the American cultural centre, showing the likes of Kings Row (Sam Wood, 1940) and The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955) for the benefit of expatriates and US Embassy staff. Even now, the idea of taking films seriously is struggling to take root: cinemas show films with an intermission (so much for auteurial intentions!) and, pirate video having been hammered into the ground, pre-’90s films are literally impossible to find (at least until the advent of Internet shopping).
In other words: the invocation of a flourishing rep-theatre community killed off by the soullessness of ’90s film-watching – like so much of the nostalgia for a cinephile Golden Age – reflects primarily the experience of American filmgoers, and specifically the denizens of a few select cities, but it shouldn’t be seen as universally applicable. Nor, come to that, does the undoubted domination of Hollywood cinema right now – and its various marketing offshoots, from “Behind The Scenes” TV shows to hype-infected reviewing – necessarily imply the destruction of some more benign previous industry. Again, all I can offer is my own experience: 20 years ago, cinemas here showed a mix of foreign and Greek-language films. The latter were undistinguished, very much for local consumption, cheap and cheesy but much-beloved; meanwhile, the one TV channel showed Dallas and Dynasty (there was no local TV industry). Today, Greek-language films have vanished from cinemas but the 20 most popular programs on the (many) TV channels are all local, crowding out the likes of Friends and E.R.. Nothing’s really changed – people still escape into glossy American entertainments while saving their affections for local heroes, only the locus of those affections has shifted from the cinema to the living-room, the big screen to the small.
Indeed, the most useful approach to the role of cinema today may be to view it not as a shrinking force but as the most visible and glamorous part of an emerging larger force – the flagship of a generalised moving-picture medium comprising TV, video, video-games and (increasingly) the Internet. Seen this way, we’re not in the death-throes of cinephilia but on the threshold of its new manifestation – a brave new world where different parts fulfil different needs. Cinema is equated with spectacle, TV with the quotidian. Cinemas are increasingly given over to gaudy trash but festivals, for example, are becoming ever more relevant as a forum where ordinary viewers can seek out more challenging fare – just as the TV networks have in recent years been supplanted and complemented by cable, satellite and a multitude of niche channels; meanwhile video anchors it all, acting as a database from which the viewer / consumer can mix and match. Reports of the death of cinema may or may not be exaggerated: it all depends how broadly you define it.
Questions, of course, remain. What about a sense of history, for instance? Horror-stories abound of (predominantly young) people refusing to watch anything in black-and-white, or thinking movies began withStar Wars. Yet in fact people are becoming more, not less, aware of Cinema – especially in the kind of developing market where I live. Twenty years ago one could easily ignore any form of moving pictures here in Cyprus, except as a Saturday-afternoon diversion: there was no access to the latest movie news (or the latest movies), TV was primitive, video in its infancy, computers non-existent. Today, Hollywood hype inundates us with entertainment shows, and ensures worldwide distribution in profit-maximising time. People are made to care about box-office grosses. Every other house has a satellite dish. And anyone with a computer will have (probably) a DVD drive and (invariably) access to the Internet, with its thousands of movie sites. How long before at least some of these newly-empowered people start getting curious about the movies, looking below the surface, following the same impulse that makes children take things apart to see how they work? How long before Hollywood’s flavour-of-the-month approach begins to grate? How long can this new expanded audience be fed on cinematic crumbs – and put up with it?
Curiosity about film history is bound to grow as the current transitional phase plays itself out. But what about a sense of – well, seriousness? This, I suppose, is the most vexing question – if only because our pre-millennial (verging on millennial) world is so lacking in themes to explore (another probable reason for the formalism mentioned above). Ideologies are increasingly irrelevant as global capitalism steamrolls on ; their successors – worthy themes like environmentalism and human-rights – lack drama, smack too much of do-goodery; spiritual matters have been cheapened by the commercialisation of both organised religion and its New Age alternatives. It’s no wonder film-makers and critics tend to bypass the Big Questions. Yet it’s also worth noting that L’Humanité (Bruno Dumont, 1999), for instance – which, whatever one may think of it, does attempt to grapple with said Questions, even in its title – seems to have found a much warmer response among the new generation of Internet critics than the older cinephiles of the British and American media. Clearly, an appetite for film as philosophical discourse remains, albeit (inevitably) among a minority. And at least those who care about these things will now be able to see the films as well as reading about them: I still run into film-people here in Cyprus whose opinions were shaped solely by academic or ideological considerations, simply because that was all they had to go on, pre-video (actually watching films was a rare bonus). They revere Grigori Chukhrai – and have barely heard of George Cukor.
All of the above boils down to one simple point: things are changing. How they’ll change is of course a mystery – but there’s no reason why the twin forces of democratisation, video and the Internet, shouldn’t work the way similar forces work in politics, through initial fragmentation and alarming bouts of populism to, finally, greater maturity and long-term stability, not to mention a richer and more varied spectrum to choose from. We’re at the beginning of a cycle, and anyone who thinks Hollywood’s current dominance marks a death-knell for cinephilia is falling into Francis Fukuyama’s “End Of History” trap. Studio heads might imagine they’ve found an endlessly-reusable formula for success; you’d expect critics – at least those unfettered by nostalgia – to know better.