There is no denying that over the years the American film industry has shifted it's focus to summer blockbusters (thank you George Lucas, thank you Stephen Spielberg) and shifted its target audience to 16-year-old boys of all ages (hello legions of comic book superheroes, welcome vampires).
Clearly, the nature of "film culture" has changed. Thanks to the "Always-Connected Internet/Smart Phone" society that places immediate gratification via constant connection at the top of the pyramid, cinema is now a commodity for i-Tunes and 3"x5" solo viewing, as people spend more and more time alone — connecting via superficial texting and Facebooking instead of real conversations.
In our little chunk of fly-over land, the film elitists cited below by Mssrs. O'Hehir and Faraci are endangered, if not downright extinct. One look at local mainstream 'plexes and the amount of commercial fare at the remaining art house and the effectiveness of film industry marketing is evident. Film snobs, like culture snobs in general, have a finite shelf life, as evolution of the art form eventually prevails.
But that's OK. The once monolithic film culture is now fragmented, but plenty of new works emerge that are worth talking about. Even though they may not fit traditional genres, at CWC we see this as an opportunity. Among the multitude of new films that routinely bypass this market there are plenty of quality works that merit investigation, screening, and yes, discussion. That's what our diverse film community is all about.
The era when movies ruled the culture is long over.
Film culture is dead, and Television is to blame.
One of the centerpiece events of the 50th New York Film Festival - an event which has consistently defined the American marketplace for the artiest and most prestigious grade of international cinema - is the world premiere of "The Sopranos" creator David Chase's "Not Fade Away," a 1960s-set suburban rock-band drama. Along with the rest of the movie world, I'm curious to see it (if there have been any screenings so far, they remain closely guarded industry secrets). But here's my halfway serious question for Chase: Why bother?
Given the undisputed cultural primacy of televised serial drama in the 21st century, making the switch to feature film seems almost as much of an exercise in nostalgia as the movie itself. I can't help drawing an analogy between Chase's foray into the supposed respectability of filmmaking and J.K. Rowling's recently published (and tepidly reviewed) adult literary novel. Both works are understood to be important entirely because the people who made them have been so successful in other far more popular genres. Otherwise, they would likely come and go without anyone paying much attention. As Chase must realize, there is no way on God's green earth that "Not Fade Away" - whether it's good, bad or indifferent - will have anywhere near the cultural currency or impact of "The Sopranos."
Oh, the movies themselves are still with us; I'm not implying otherwise. Despite declining attendance and lots of attendant public hand-wringing, Hollywood continues to turn a profit by cranking out massively expensive, effects-driven franchise pictures that can play around the world. As perverse as this sounds, we're arguably in a new golden age for global cinema, at least in aesthetic terms. With the cost of making a professional-looking movie dropping ever closer to zero, aspiring directors and ambitious new films are emerging from all corners of the globe and all sectors of society.
This year's NYFF lineup - which kicks off Friday night with the premiere of Ang Lee's 3-D "Life of Pi," a movie that admittedly might find a pretty big audience - features films made in Romania, Turkey, the Philippines, Zaire, Chile and Mexico, alongside your standard art-house fare from the heavy-hitter European nations. Based on everything I've seen so far and everything I've heard from others, it's an exceptionally strong sampler of global cinema. But let's be honest: Outside Manhattan and beyond a dwindling coterie of journalists, bloggers and obsessive film buffs, almost nobody will notice or care. The festival itself will be packed, but that's as much about its event status as a centerpiece of New York's fall calendar as anything else. Later on, films like Portuguese director Valeria Sarmiento's Napoleonic War epic "Lines of Wellington" or Chinese director Song Fang's intimate "Memories Look at Me" will be fortunate to get momentary theatrical runs in New York and Los Angeles. Other films in the festival may never again play on a big screen in the United States, going straight to VOD and DVD.
If the NYFF once seemed like a central, if rather snooty, landmark on the American cultural scene, it's now something closer to a marginal, high-culture preservation society, more akin than ever to its Lincoln Center neighbors, the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic. I have no problem with that; I love the opera and wish I could afford to go more often, as in ever. (If the film festival is pretty expensive, in moviegoing terms, at $20 to $25 for most tickets, that's still a bargain compared to the "Ring Cycle.") It's just that there's no point in pretending that movies play the same dominant role in our culture that they once did or that art-house movies of the sort the NYFF so lovingly curates have any impact at all on the American cultural mainstream.
Let me concede right now that I'm overstating the case a little for dramatic effect. But just a little. For every oddball little movie that breaks through into the national conversation - so far in 2012 that list includes "Moonrise Kingdom" and "Beasts of the Southern Wild," which are strikingly similar films - there are hundreds of others that briefly get hyped by people like me and then sink without a trace. Your average episode of "Breaking Bad" or "The Good Wife" or "Louie" will generate many times more debate and conversation - more actual excitement - than all except perhaps a half-dozen movies released this year (and most of those will involve superheroes).
Film culture, at least in the sense people once used that phrase, is dead or dying. Back in what we might call the Susan Sontag era, discussion and debate about movies was often perceived as the icy-cool cutting edge of American intellectual life. Today it's a moribund and desiccated leftover that's been cut off from ordinary life, from the mainstream of pop culture and even from what remains of highbrow or intellectual culture. While this becomes most obvious when discussing an overtly elitist phenomenon like the NYFF, it's also true on a bigger scale. Here are the last four best-picture winners at the Oscars: "The Artist," "The King's Speech," "The Hurt Locker" and "Slumdog Millionaire." How much time have you spent, cumulatively, talking about those movies with your friends?
Now, if you're about to protest that what I just wrote reflects my own bias and snobbery, let me cut you off at the pass. Celebrity gossip is still with us, of course, and as I think Jesus once said, always will be. But that has long been almost completely divorced from discussion of movies or any other specific cultural products. There are certainly areas of film culture that not merely remain alive but have thrived and metastasized beyond all reckoning, especially the heated and immensely detailed discussions of all things having to do with science fiction, fantasy and comic-book movies. (This is another parallel to what happened in the publishing world, where fantasy became the mainstream and literary fiction is, commercially speaking, an afterthought.) I usually strive to avoid the term "fanboy," but former Los Angeles Times blogger Geoff Boucher, a leading avatar in that realm, has embraced it without shame.
Then there are sites like Nikki Finke's Deadline and Sharon Waxman's The Wrap, which create a surprising amount of heat by covering the deal-making and backstage chessboard movements at the Hollywood studios, production companies and talent agencies. Given that film production is one of the few remaining profit centers of American industry, I certainly can't argue that stuff isn't newsworthy. But why anyone who isn't directly involved would be interested remains a little mysterious. One could argue that, in our era of consumer capitalism, films have been revealed as manufactured commodities rather than works of art, and people root for certain film franchises or producers or studios in the same way they root for Apple over Samsung, GM over Ford, or the Red Sox over the Yankees.
Film culture - in my now-defunct Susan Sontag sense - has a history, and I think it pretty much ended with "Pulp Fiction," the brief indie-film boom of the late '90s and the rise of the Internet. It's just taken us a while to realize it. When the NYFF was launched in 1963, the films of the French New Wave were the hottest things on roller skates, and the Mt. Rushmore Great Men of postwar art cinema - Bergman, Truffaut, Fellini, Kurosawa - were at or near their career peaks. Cocktail party debate among the chattering classes often revolved around existentially inflected, black-and-white works like "L'Avventura," "Last Year at Marienbad" or violent, generationally-defined American films like "Easy Rider" and "Bonnie and Clyde," along with the contentious reviews published by Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris and numerous others. Those who hadn't seen such films, or hadn't "gotten" them, felt not so subtly left out.
I'm not claiming, by the way, that the unquestioned elitism that underlay that kind of film culture was necessarily constructive. In fact, I would say that the New York-based media and intelligentsia had an outsized cultural influence that simply isn't possible today. But the point of those conversations was never supposed to be discussing the films in pure or formal terms; it was all about what they meant, what they told us about the human soul or the emptiness of contemporary existence or the evils of capitalism. (Or at least about the importance of getting laid, a reliable constant.)
By the following decade, the decade of the "Godfather" films and "The French Connection" and "Taxi Driver," the discussion had broadened to include American cinema both past and present. A new generation of young male filmmakers, each in his own way steeped in film culture, began to push for the magical combination of artistic legitimacy and popular success. In an odd way, that was the beginning of the end. Two of those young rebels, of course, were named George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, who are correctly credited with permanently shifting Hollywood's business model away from adult-oriented drama and toward teenage summer blockbusters.
Lucas and Spielberg are both devoted film lovers who have themselves made several cinematic landmarks and have inspired cult-like followings who study their work with monastic devotion. I guess it's ironic, then, that they also created the conditions under which movies became seen primarily as machine-made production units whose significance was best understood in external terms - profit or loss, tickets sold, awards won - rather than in internal, aesthetic and inherently subjective terms.
That tension between viewing movies as art and as commerce is as old as the medium itself. But the sense that cinema was where you could find the most engrossing stories and characters - as well as a level of artistic ambition that was adventurous but, let's say, not totally obscurantist - began to fade after the "Jaws" and "Star Wars" era, even though (or perhaps because) those were among the most discussed and most influential works in movie history. As I see it, film culture made a couple of last stands with the indie-film waves of the '80s and '90s, which brought us first Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch and Steven Soderbergh, and then Quentin Tarantino, the Coen brothers, David Fincher, Paul Thomas Anderson and Wes Anderson.
It's definitely not a coincidence that the biggest critic of those years and an important advocate for most of those filmmakers was Roger Ebert, who has turned the Internet to his advantage like almost no one else and has prospered both as a populist movie critic and all-purpose cultural commentator. It's also no coincidence that the mid-to-late '90s zone of movies like "Pulp Fiction" and "Fargo" and "Fight Club" overlaps with the explosion of Internet culture and the venture into original drama by the cable network formerly known as Home Box Office. I almost don't need to add that it preceded the birth of YouTube and the spread of mobile devices, developments that undercut the traditional hegemony of movies even more.
How many movies made since 1999 have captured the center of cultural discourse and made grownups feel like they needed to see them and needed to have an opinion about them the way that Chase's TV series or "The Wire" or "Six Feet Under" did? The "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, "The Dark Knight" and "Avatar"? I'll give you those, although I know plenty of people who never bothered to catch the latter two. "Black Swan" or "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" or "The Social Network"? Maybe, or almost. "Brokeback Mountain" or the "Harry Potter" movies? I don't think so.
I'm not saying that movies are now and forever irrelevant, nor am I switching sides in the great "cultural vegetables" debate of 2011 and arguing against the real or potential value of difficult and challenging works of art. (Trying to convince people to watch, you know, Béla Tarr movies instead of clips from last night's Jimmy Kimmel show, on the other hand, is a waste of everyone's time.) More than anything else, I'm looking in the mirror and thinking about the purpose of what I do, which is supposed to be communicating with people, sharing ideas and generating discussion.
Film culture in that old-fashioned, top-down genteel-chat sense inherited from Susan Sontag and 1963 doesn't provide a way to do that anymore, and hasn't for quite a while. That isn't the New York Film Festival's fault or the movie industry's fault or my fault, but it's no good pretending it isn't true. Do we need to find new ways to talk about movies that connect them to the real world and the media landscape as it actually exists? Do we need to get over the idea that the form or medium of cinema is somehow sacred? Will David Chase go back to TV? My magic eight-ball points to yes.
Is Film Culture Really Dead?
As the New York Film Festival grinds away, movie snobs feel threatened by a world where cinema no longer exclusively belongs to them.
Over at Salon Andrew O'Hehir has written a 'think piece' that is, on its surface, kind of compelling. He makes the argument (one that, to be fair, has been made ad nauseum since HBO changed the cable landscape) that television is where all of the smart, culturally important narrative stuff happens, leaving the cinema behind in an infantile wash of superheroes and sequels. It feels easy to agree, especially when he asks what movies have been as central to a certain kind of cultural conversation as The Wire. Once upon a time, he says, everybody got together to talk about Scorsese and Antonioni the way we now talk about Breaking Bad. Le cinema est mort!
Except I don't know that I believe him. And the more I read his piece the more I wondered just from whence his central thesis sprang. Then I read this paragraph and realized he's longing for the days when the life of a white intellectual was like what Woody Allen lampooned in the 70s:
"Film culture - in my now-defunct Susan Sontag sense - has a history, and I think it pretty much ended with "Pulp Fiction," the brief indie-film boom of the late '90s and the rise of the Internet. It's just taken us a while to realize it. When the NYFF was launched in 1963, the films of the French New Wave were the hottest things on roller skates, and the Mt. Rushmore Great Men of postwar art cinema - Bergman, Truffaut, Fellini, Kurosawa - were at or near their career peaks. Cocktail party debate among the chattering classes often revolved around existentially inflected, black-and-white works like "L'Avventura," "Last Year at Marienbad" or violent, generationally-defined American films like "Easy Rider" and "Bonnie and Clyde," along with the contentious reviews published by Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris and numerous others. Those who hadn't seen such films, or hadn't "gotten" them, felt not so subtly left out."
It seems that the piece isn't quite bemoaning the loss of importance of the cinema, but rather the end of that world of tweedy cocktail parties (seriously, who goes to non-ironic cocktail parties anymore?). With all due respect to Mr. O'Hehir, fuck the 'chattering classes.' I for one don't long for the days when New York intellectual society was all about snottily standing around sniffing over an article in the New York Review of Books.
That crowd never lived movies - hell, they barely lived at all. Uptight, dismissive and dull, they sought to make cinema exclusionary, something only for the hoity-toity, spitting on the hoi polloi. To hell with that. I just came from Fantastic Fest where deep, raucous, smart and funny conversations were had about brilliant films that will never pass before the eyeballs of the New York Film Festival cognoscenti.
What's more, I'm not even sure about O'Hehir's claim here:
"For every oddball little movie that breaks through into the national conversation - so far in 2012 that list includes "Moonrise Kingdom" and "Beasts of the Southern Wild," which are strikingly similar films - there are hundreds of others that briefly get hyped by people like me and then sink without a trace. Your average episode of "Breaking Bad" or "The Good Wife" or "Louie" will generate many times more debate and conversation - more actual excitement - than all except perhaps a half-dozen movies released this year (and most of those will involve superheroes)."
Again, I think this is O'Hehir mourning the passing of a social class. Breaking Bad had 2.8 million viewers at this year's mid-season finale, a fairly small number. Taking Moonrise Kingdom's 45 million dollar domestic gross and dividing it by an average 10 dollar ticket price, that film was seen by more people than the way-hyped show.
Of course O'Hehir isn't arguing more people see Louie than Beasts of the Southern Wild (they're probably about neck and neck), but rather that more people talk about it. To some extent that's true, but I think that's more about the way the constant need for content drives internet discussion, and the fact that the internet has replaced Upper West Side living rooms as the place where discussion happens. You can mine lots out of Game of Thrones if you're writing online, but Celeste and Jesse Forever is ripe only for a short time. The mistake here is assuming that every episode of The Good Wife is its own thing; in reality the entirety of The Good Wife is what's being discussed, only in bite sized segments each week. These half dozen shows equal, essentially, the half dozen movies that break out.
O'Hehir can name a handful of TV shows that get this kind of attention, some of which, like The Wire, were barely watched when they were actually on. The reality is that TV is crammed with worthless shit, and only a tiny handful of shows matter. It's not even clear that there will be another show on the level of The Sopranos or Breaking Bad or The Wire ever again. It seems like the noise these shows make is disproportionate to their place in the larger cultural world.
That, to some extent, was the case with movies like L'Avventura and Last Year at Marienbad, which nobody in the real world saw. It isn't like you'd walk into a bar in 1967 and hear regular people talking about Godard's Weekend. The culture isn't just the bow tied, wall eyed cinemagoers at Lincoln Center. It's bigger than that. It's the regular people too.
I think what's bugging O'Hehir is that the 'chattering class' isn't made up of the same people as in 1977 (he says that isn't the case, but when you pine for "old-fashioned, top-down genteel-chat sense inherited from Susan Sontag and 1963" it sounds like that's the case). I get the mourning for a lost niche, for a specialization democratized out of existence. It's happening with geek culture right this very minute. All of a sudden liking the third highest grossing movie of all time makes you 'a geek.' That sucks. It sucks seeing the doorman overwhelmed and losing your special place in the world.
What O'Hehir is missing on a larger scale, though, is that the era of big, centralized culture is over. The culture is fragmented in a zillion pieces, and there's nobody leading the way anymore. There's very little that unites us around the water cooler. Even the biggest TV hits bring in a fraction of the ratings of old shows. The same goes for movies. I'm not sure that there ever will be another driving cultural force the way that movies were in the 1970s. So yes, I'll give O'Hehir the point that the film was more culturally central in the 70s than it is now. Yes, to be intellectually hip you had to see the smart movies, the foreign movies, the interesting movies. But unless you long for a culture of poseurs, who cares? And beyond that, there is no cultural center anymore.
The fracturing of the culture comes as a result of the digital revolution; now we're living a la carte entertainment lifestyles. I can have a radio channel that plays me only the exact sort of songs I like by the exact artists I like, and never have to be exposed to new stuff outside of my comfort zone. That new digital world is changing the way we consume movies, and as such our relationship with them. I complain about the internet a lot, and I'm not the biggest proponent of virtual democratization, but I like the way the web has taken the conversation out of the hands of the elite and let everybody have a say. Not everybody's say is worth listening to, but just because someone was at the right cocktail parties in Manhattan also doesn't make their say worth hearing. I think that maybe O'Hehir should try listening to those outside of the New York Film Festival crowd, though, before writing them off as 'fanboys.'
Because O'Hehir writes off so many as fanboys he doesn't look at the films that have hit the cultural nerve in the last few years. He grudgingly gives Lord of the Rings a go, but then says that he knows plenty of people who never bothered to catch The Dark Knight. Huh? Again, he's obviously talking about this hyper-refined, nose in the air crowd here. And it's too bad, because I've had tons of great discussion about The Dark Knight, and I'm not just talking about the Nolanites and Batjihadists who yell at me. Hell, Inception was a movie that people loved to dissect in depth, and it happened to be a blockbuster science fiction movie. It just may be that the wrong people are looking to dissect it in depth. And frankly, any year that has Holy Motors and Cloud Atlas in it is the wrong year to call time of death on film culture. I know we're going to see thrilling discussion coming from those films. I can't even find a mention of The Master in the piece.
O'Hehir's piece takes a look at the changing world of film enthusiasm and recoils in fear. He seems to believe that film culture evolved to a perfect point in the late 70s and that any change from that is disastrous. He thinks that the removal of the cultural reins from a specific class of people is a terrible, terrible turn of events. I find the changes invigorating and exciting; what's more I find many of the changes to be straight up positive. To be sure, before the Film Buffs came along cinema was not taken seriously, but in their wake there was an almost fatal divide between entertainment and art in the movies. There was a reactionary movement that seemed, to me, like the people who sought to elevate John Ford to the top of the pantheon forgot how awesome his movies were. In the last few years there's been a healing, and I look forward to a time when movies can be smart and meaningful and deep and fun. I'm excited about Looper's success this weekend because I think Rian Johnson has made a movie that is about characters, has great mise en scene and is also a kick-ass time at the theater. We can have it both ways, and I won't cry for the loss of brainless tripe like the Transformers just like I won't cry for the loss of film snobs.
I don't know that I would have had as strong a reaction to this piece if I hadn't just come from Fantastic Fest. Smart, critical, thoughtful, inquisitive, adventurous film fans are out there. I just spent nine days with them. O'Hehir and his ilk would never consider attending a fest like that because it threatens to remove the stuffiness of being a Film Buff, to remove the intellectual wanking and to allow in some old-fashioned fun. Film culture is alive and well and is being tended by people who want to live movies, to share them, not to hoard them for the aristocrat class.