Every few years a notable film critic will take a step back and assess where motion pictures finds themselves in the changing nexus of art, technology and commerce. Notable recent ones are New York Press critic’s Godfrey Cheshire’s “The Death of Film/The Decay of Cinema“ (1999), a prescient look at the coming future-shock that digital projection would bring. A decade later there was The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane examination of the rise of 3D, “Third Way – The Rise of 3D“.
Adding to this canon are two new entrants. The first from The New York Time’s A.O. Scott (right) who looks at whether television dramas have unseated films as the source of quality drama in his piece “The Big Picture Strikes Back“. Surveying the “post-film, platform-agnostic, digital-everything era,” he asks “what the art of cinema might be” in this era. It is a think-piece that anyone involved in, or who cares about, film and media should read and reflect upon. The second is a piece titled “Film Isn’t Dead, It’s Just Misused” and is written by Kenneth Turan, chief film critic at the Los Angeles Times. He diligently assures readers that “nothing can envelop viewers like a movie,” but that “the emphasis at movie studios on profits has hurt content”
The publication of these two latest editorials, so close together, seemed like the perfect opportunity for Celluloid Junkie’s own thought provokers to discuss their own views on the subject. The following is transcript of their conversation:
J. Sperling Reich: Much in the way Hollywood studios will all jump on a hot new trend like 3D or paranormal stories, this really seems to be a year in which everyone is piling on the film business. I’m not sure if it stems from the public finally growing bored with the onslaught of mediocre tentpole releases that soak up so much public mindshare or if the fact that filmmakers themselves have started bemoaning the state of the artform. First we had Steven Soderbergh’s talk at the San Francisco International Film Festival earlier this year about the dire state of cinema, then almost immediately we had Steven Spielberg and George Lucas echoing the sentiment. I suppose that’s what prompted A.O. Scott’s piece. What do you think? In your travels have you noticed that ragging on current movies and the industry itself have become almost trendy?
Patrick von Sychowski: It’s definitely hip to be down on films. However, movies and the industry that spawns them regularly go through bouts of soul searching and anxiety, with the Golden Era of the 40s and 50s or the studio ‘auteur’ era of the 70s giving way to the elephantine Cinerama spectacles of the 60s (think Cleopatra) and multiplex and VHS fodder of the 80s (think Police Academy III). The difference this time is that the ragging comes in the shadow of what Wired Magazine dubbed the ‘Platinum Age’ of television, with the growth of screen sizes in people’s homes matched by a rise in quality of what’s shown on them. Cinema may not face the existential threat that is staring newspapers and magazines in the face – a quick look at the MPAA numbers confirm that, particularly given the growth in non-US markets – but films have lost the elite cultural cache that was once the their exclusive preserve. The Coppolas, Scoceses, Ashbys, Friedkins and Spielbergs of the 70s are today the Chases, Gilligans, Weiners, Huruwitzes and Harmons. So isn’t the “decline” of movies simply the ascendancy of HBO and Netflix?
J. Sperling Reich: I’m not sure if it’s HBO, Netflix or a specific source of content. I think a flood of media from 500 cable networks, to multi-player video games, to mobile apps, iPods, the Internet and more, has shifted the attention of an entire generation of younger consumers and focused it on a range of mediums some of which they have control over. The kinds of visual effects that used to be achievable only in feature films can now be seen in the latest blockbuster video game release. So now you have Hollywood studios wanting to up the ante by producing these huge tentpole releases that cost a fortune. One of the issues Spielberg and Lucas were highlighting earlier this year is that the stakes are so high with so many films now that studios are trying to lower the risk by casting big movie stars and backing them with expensive marketing campaigns. This has meant fewer medium sized titles or “art” films get made leaving a ton of talented creatives on the sideline.