Film is not dead.
Well, film as a format might be dead. When such cinematographic greats as Dante Spinotti, John Seale, and the criminally underappreciated Roger Deakins begin proclaiming the extraordinary technical and artistic benefits of shooting digitally, the writing is definitely on the wall.
But film as an art form? As an exciting, engaging way to tell stories; to explore human nature in its many fascinating facets; to communicate with others and challenge them to consider great truths? Borrowing f ro m Twain’s immortal words, the rumors of film’s death have been greatly exaggerated.
Over the years, there have been a number of insightful and depressing articles written on the appalling lack of imagination that seems to have overtaken Hollywood. One of the finest recent examples is Mark Harris’s “The Day the Movies Died,” in which he takes a peek at the upcoming summer releases — Hollywood’s bread-and-butter season — and is understandably horrified:
Let’s look ahead to what’s on the menu for this year: four adaptations of comic books. One prequel to an adaptation of a comic book. One sequel to a sequel to a movie based on a toy. One sequel to a sequel to a sequel to a movie based on an amusement-park ride. One prequel to a remake. Two sequels to cartoons. One sequel to a comedy. An adaptation of a children’s book. An adaptation of a Saturday-morning cartoon. One sequel with a 4 in the title. Two sequels with a 5 in the title. One sequel that, if it were inclined to use numbers, would have to have a 7 1/2 in the title.
For those trying to keep score at home, Harris translates:
Captain America, Cowboys & Aliens, Green Lantern, and Thor; X-Men: First Class; Transformers 3; Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides; Rise of the Apes; Cars 2 and Kung Fu Panda 2; The Hangover Part II; Winnie the Pooh; The Smurfs in 3D; Spy Kids 4; Fast Five and Final Destination 5; and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2.
And yes, that’s an incredibly demoralizing list.
It is easy to look at that unseemly menagerie of cinematic insipidity and despair. Yet there is an important distinction to be made here: These sorts of articles, however chilling they may be, are rarely claiming that the art form itself is dying, and that we must brace ourselves for the Cinematic Apocalypse. What they are recognizing is the undeniable fact that Hollywood has ceased to provide us with the sorts of transcendental, artistic visions for which we long.
But why are we looking to Hollywood for transcendence in the first place? Hollywood is — and has always been — a business. The fact that the interests of its early audiences corresponded to a clear and compelling artistic vision says more about the evolving appetites of moviegoers than it does about the industry. Expecting a studio to take a massive risk on a difficult project simply because it has artistic merit seems neither realistic nor fair.
I love film as much as the next cinephile (and perhaps a good deal more than I should), but can a small segment of audience members reasonably demand that Hollywood invest in risky projects? Criticizing movie studios for marketing itself to the 17-25 male demographic is easy, but we would do well to remember that a studio’s ability to turn a profit depends on that very segment, not on those of us who want to see H. P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness novella turned into a $130 million, R-rated, Guillermo del Toro epic. Studio execs recognize that making nothing but beautiful, difficult, art-house films is the quickest way to gain the love and devotion of a historically small audience — and the quickest way to go out of business. Expecting Hollywood to change its artistic tune at the expense of preserving its bottom line is as unreasonable as it is futile.
Luckily, we no longer need to rely on Hollywood.
For those of us living a bit farther f ro m the multiplex powerhouses of America’s big cities, independence f ro m Hollywood is a way of life. When one is forced to watch the single-most popular or highly publicized film in any given week, the options are heavy on selections like Twilight: New Moon or Justin Bieber: Never Say Never. Small-town folks know exactly what Harris means when he laments Hollywood’s lack of imagination.
But necessity is the mother of invention, and we have found a way to survive — a way that may well point us out of this depressing era.
The explosion of the mail-order, streaming video, and niche-DVD markets over the last decade has revolutionized the way many watch films. A rapidly growing number of traditional moviegoers are as comfortable watching movies on laptops, HDTVs, and portable devices as they are in theaters, and their viewing options have expanded at an equally astonishing rate. Consider this:
- For only a bit more than it once cost to rent a pair of new releases at Blockbuster ($9.99), movie viewers can sign up for the Netflix “One-at-a-Time” plan. With a bit of skillful post-office work, one can now watch as many as nine films a month for the price of two f ro m the Artist-Formerly-Known-as-Blockbuster.
- FilmMovement, “a full-service North American distributor of critically acclaimed award-winning independent and foreign films,” has a DVD-of-the-Month club that features a fantastic slice of festival winners from around the globe ($12.50). Those of us who can’t attend international film festivals are now able to live vicariously through FilmMovement and its representatives. If their catalog is any indication, international cinema is most definitely alive and well. (Ostrov, my favorite “overlooked gem” from the past five years, was a FilmMovement offering; they continue to impress me with their offbeat, rewarding selections.)
- Hulu Plus recently acquired streaming rights to the complete Criterion Collection, the Holy Grail of cinephiles everywhere. Now, for barely $8 a month, viewers can watch more than 450 of the finest films ever made — an absolute must for the self-educated film lover.
Streaming content, in particular, is radically changing the way many of us experience cinema. While Netflix is certainly the market leader, Amazon Prime, RedBox, and a growing host of other competitors are making serious inroads. Nearly every DVD player, Blu-Ray player, and gaming console released in the last few years features a streaming component, and the arrival of such dedicated devices as Boxee and the Logitech Revue on the scene further underscore streaming videos’ status as an industry game changer.
All of this points to the best response I can offer Harris and others who fear for the survival of a serious, artistic cinematic community: For about $16 a month (roughly the price one will have to pay to watch James Cameron’s next 3D IMAX extravaganza), you can sit down to consecutive evenings of Army of Shadows, The Secret in Their Eyes, Firefly’s “Our Mrs. Reynolds,” Moon, The Seventh Seal, Battlestar Galactica’s “Kobol’s Last Gleaming,” Hobson’s Choice, and Bright Star. And that’s just barely scratching the surface.
That doesn’t look like the death of a medium; that looks like a Renaissance.
True, it takes a bit more self-motivation to find these films when compared to simply dropping in on your local movie theater. They are not likely to bring in the sort of dramatic and press-release worthy profits studios love from their tent poles, so getting them made and distributed will always be a challenge. The vagaries of each service’s library can be frustrating, particularly when searching for past masterpieces or more obscure current fare. And the supply-and-demand component of streaming success remains difficult to predict. For an expanding stable of great-but-obscure works to succeed, viewers must be willing to pay for movies without explosions (and, in some cases, without English) — a willingness that seems to be expanding every day, but which is still overshadowed by Harris’s concerns about Hollywood.
(Netflix’s recent willingness to invest in original content is a fascinating side note here. Could this signal a transition toward marketing content to a specific and self-selecting audience, rather than the carpet-bombing approach to distribution that Hollywood has been forced to employ for so many years? I suspect this story is far from finished.)
Finding great films — classics and modern works alike — is nowhere near as difficult as people think. Talented and committed filmmakers throughout the world are convinced that cinema is far from dead, and that conviction alone may prove sufficient to counterbalance Hollywood’s offerings to the contrary.
The impact of the shiny, empty blockbusters of Michael Bay, Jerry Bruckheimer, and their ilk on future generations of actors, writers, and directors cannot be ignored. And the lure of fame and fortune will always draw some of the “best and brightest” toward Hollywood and its profit-driven lack of imagination. Yet these same generations will grow up with greater access to the masterworks of the past and present than ever before; they will surely be influenced by what they see and love, just like every generation that has come before them. In the past, the entire body of work featured in the peerless Criterion Collection would have been unobtainable for the vast majority of cinephiles, let alone the average moviegoer. Now, young men and women drawn to the extraordinary world of film have access to hundreds of examples they can study and emulate. How can Bay and Co. possibly stand up to that?
We live in a time of unprecedented cinematic availability. Imagining that the medium and its artists will be unaffected by this fact is as unreasonable as assuming that Hollywood will stop making blockbusters. It’s time to stop lamenting the fading glories of past eras and embrace the exciting and unknown future ahead of us — a future that, thanks to streaming video, may well draw on that past more deeply and explicitly than ever before.
Movies aren’t dead. They’re simply growing in a different direction.
Image: Cinema Paradiso