When I first fell in love with the cinema at age 17, I was primarily interested in classic Hollywood films, and my main sources of access were independent television networks that filled the gaps in their schedules with old movies. The screening conditions were often atrocious, but there was no alternative that delivered the quantity of film history that I wanted. Films were programmed at all hours: I would set my alarm for 2 am or 4 am to wake up for works by Frank Borzage or Nicholas Ray. These broadcasts were almost always interrupted by commercials, and the early morning commercials were the most frequent and intrusive: a shot and its reverse shot might be separated by five minutes of used-car sales pitches. I found that it was better for a commercial to break a film in mid-scene, as one’s mind would then be forced to reconstruct its time scheme after the break; whereas a commercial that arrived during a pause in the narrative would have an elusive effect on my sense of the film’s duration. Widescreen films were adapted to Academy-ratio televisions by various methods: again, I came to prefer the most blatant violations of the image, in that they forced me to reconstruct the unaltered compositions in my mind. Cable television was not ubiquitous in the 1970s, and poor reception via the airwaves was a threat. The first time I saw Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind was on a 13-inch black-and-white television with shaky reception in a noisy room at a rented vacation house in New Jersey. Seeing this particular film without colour or proper compositions would seem to be a crime against nature…and yet its quality, and even the quality of the grayed-out colour, registered on me. I decided that good filmmaking had an essence that poor presentation couldn’t easily destroy.
Before COVID-19 came to us, I was in movie theatres almost every day, sometimes in several theatres a day. I’d lived that way for many decades, but my theatre-going patterns evolved over the years. In particular, the availability of preview materials on the internet revolutionised my selection process. Instead of relying on reviews (a system that never worked well for me – I don’t agree with any critic often enough), I started watching clips and trailers of the repertory and festival films that screened near me. My success rate in discovering new favourites increased – the films I loved most weren’t always the films that conquered the festival circuit – and my filmgoing focus shifted to new international cinema as a result.
Happily, the last film I saw in a theatre before the shutdown, Nicolás Rincón Gille’s Valley of Souls (Tantas almas), was a very good one. Since then, I’ve instituted a ritual of screening a film on home video every evening. Even before the virus forced me to dip into my hoard of downloaded files, I knew that it included films that I wanted to see more than nearly anything that I could see in theatres: films previously unavailable to Anglophone audiences, with fan subtitles that were created only when the internet brought together film fanatics to do work that would not turn a profit for any distributor. It’s been a great summer of film watching, with the highlight a private retrospective of the German films of Iranian filmmaker Sohrab Shahid Saless, now established in my mind as one of the greatest of directors, despite the low technical quality of the VHS transfers that I was able to see.
All this to say that the cinema comes to us in ever-changing ways, with technology both degrading old experiences and enabling new ones. Maybe some event or development will eventually destroy the cinema, but so far every challenge has only made it stronger.