It’s been bang on ten years since I started my so-called career in film exhibition and film criticism. My hopes and desires, for film and for myself, was to engage in discourse. I’d just set up my equivalent fifteen minutes in cyber real estate with my very own Blogspot.com and an account on a new thing called Twitter.
Alongside my adventures in blogging, having recently completed my MA, I was working in what was then an actually busy, independent video rental store. Though it may not have been the most financially lucrative lifestyle – with its promise of being so far beneath the threshold that I would never have to pay back even a penny of my student loan – it was a physical space for discourse. I passed my days thinking and talking about the tricky, confusing and often uncomfortable ambiguities in all manner of film – working through both rep and the latest releases, grappling with ideas in a conversational odyssey, face-to-face with colleagues and customers alike.
What’s changed, in a decade (besides the relative demise of Blogger), is that the conversation has, largely, moved online. Today, though the video store in question is, against all odds, still in business, I, however, now work in a cultural institution, using the cinema space as precisely this kind of site, to facilitate discourse and discussion. The reason creating these physical spaces is now a job is because when opinions became virtual, they also became faceless. Without what French Philosopher Emmanuel Levinas theorises as a generator for ethical responsibility – the face-to-face encounter – polemic soars. The now virtual responsibility for individuals to think through, articulate and engage with ideas has also made physical spaces for discourse and discussion a thing of scarcity, forcing or enabling (depending on your viewpoint) cinemas to manufacture them. While I don’t personally see the Internet and its pervasive/democratising ways as responsible for the demise of critical thinking per say, its emphasis on immediacy, along with the rise of listicles, click bait and hot takes, has egged on a cultural race to righteousness.
When I first joined Twitter, it felt like ten people in a room having a chat, with the door wide open to welcome new voices into the mix. Over the past decade, the room got crowded, and now it’s not so much a chat as it is a contest as to who can shout the loudest. The once popular #FollowFriday, where one would make recommendations of people for others to follow, has now given way to #CancelCulture, where one makes recommendations for others to boycott. And, while there is some very sound reasoning for many of those boycotts – #MeToo didn’t just mark the decade, it brought the incredibly important and urgent role of face-to-face ethics and responsibility to the table – along with them rolled a polarity in taste, whose casualty has been critical discourse.
As a total fan of Alison Bechdel’s tremendous comic, Dykes to Watch Out For, it’s been uncomfortable to see her extremely good gag about how low the bar is for gender equality in screen representation reduced to a pass/fail test against which to measure a film’s worth – not least because brilliant films such as Claire Denis’ Beau Travail (1999) fail while the likes of Nicolas Winding-Refn’s horrendously violent against women Only God Forgives (2013) just about gets a pass. Bechdel, at the time of writing, hadn’t set out to prescribe a criterion against which future generations might measure moving images, she simply wanted to draw attention to the pervasiveness of a cultural issue. But, when independent cinemas in Sweden co-opted the idea to rate their film programme in 2013, cinematic shades of grey began to give way to black and white ratings. Much like star the ratings that accompany/dominate film reviews, the general idea is to reduce the rich nuance of opinion and analysis to a fixed viewpoint.
I am especially struck, in this regard, by how Claire Denis’ last two films were received where I work. Both films left me breathless and hungry for repeat viewings to unpack their dense atmospheric affect and subtleties. But Let the Sunshine In (Un beau soleil intérieur, 2017) and High Life (2018) struggled to find and connect with their desired audiences, owing largely, in the UK at least, to the problems of marketing in a crowded so-called attention economy. The lead artwork for Let the Sunshine In was an image of Juliette Binoche with her arms flung open, smiling ear to ear. Though not exactly misleading – Juliette Binoche does indeed star in the film and it’s ostensibly about a woman trying to let the proverbial sunshine into her life – it somehow communicated a far too whimsical tone. Think Chocolat – more Lasse Hallström (2000) than Claire Denis (1988). The violent result of this marketing was cinema walkouts: some audiences were outraged – not by any explicit content, but by pace, tone and affect. They wanted to ‘feel good’, like they thought it said on the tin and, failing that, felt indignant.
Similarly, High Life led with an image of R-Patz – again, not exactly a lie as the film does star Robert Pattinson – which attracted a great many of his devoted fans. But, when another not-so-whimsical Binoche gets her groove on in the spaceship’s mysterious fuck box, not all attendees felt they got what they wanted to have paid for. While we tried to create spaces for conversation around the film, there were still plenty of comment cards suggesting the film was weird or, worse still, a waste of time.
In an age where immediacy is king, and everything is virtually available at the click of a button, physical time and space have become rare commodities. The attention economy, among which cinema is just one contender, encourages us to make up our minds before the encounter, to judge something instead of experiencing it: if audience attention is at height of scarcity then people want to know they’ll enjoy themselves before paying. The attention economy is not interested in how a face-to-face encounter might offer enrichment; it just wants to know if it’s a sure thing.