Alan Jacobs wonders when fiction was “king” and suggests that it was quite a while ago, having long since been displaced by new media. Well, the king of those new media was cinema, and we’re now a good thirty years into worries about the death of that medium. Can movies still matter?
Cue A. O. Scott:
By the end of this year, The New York Times will have reviewed more than 800 movies, establishing 2012, at least by one measure, as a new benchmark in the annals of cinematic abundance. The number (determined by this newspaper’s policy of reviewing everything that opens for at least a week on a commercial screen in Brooklyn, Manhattan or Los Angeles) has ballooned over the past decade. The sheer quantity of movies in theaters has now reached a level not seen since the heroic age of Classical Hollywood. But instead of breaking into a chorus of “Happy Days Are Here Again,” much of the film world has been shuffling to the sad beat of a funeral march.
He starts off blaming this mournful chorus simply on age – “The afterglow of your unique, youthful experiences — the kisses and cigarettes and cups of espresso that followed the movie, as much as the film itself — cast a harsh, flat light on the present, when you sit at home watching a DVD with a cup of herbal tea as your spouse dozes next to you on the couch. But don’t blame Hollywood for that!” But then he admits that there has been meaningful change in movies themselves:
This is not to say that the sense of loss is not real, or that the changes that create it are inconsequential. Film as a medium — a photochemical process that magically marries the physical and the ethereal — is quickly being displaced by digital cinema, and the implications of this shift are still being explored. There are filmmakers, critics and archivists who have rallied in defense of the beauty and utility of celluloid, while others celebrate the flexibility and low cost of the pixel-based way of doing it. As in every other domain of digital culture, anxiety and enthusiasm go hand in hand, and cherished customs and artifacts are threatened. What if people stop going to the movies, and surrender to the hypnotic lure of portable screens and endless streams? Where will we find the beauty and spectacle, the glamour and emotion we remember so fondly?
Look around! And yet the astonishing cinematic bounty that surrounds us contributes, in its own way, to the malaise. The movies are too much with us, late and soon. If there are so many films, then how can any one film count? If the audience is so fractured and distracted, how can the interesting arguments develop? But the thing is, they do — about “Lincoln” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” about “The Master” and “Argo,” about “Moonrise Kingdom” and “Amour” and “Holy Motors” and a dozen more in this year alone. That’s a pretty wild party, even if some of the guests insist on calling it a wake.
Yes, it is a wild party – but it’s not the same wild party it was in 1939 or 1979. And that’s fine. Movies do not have the same place in the culture they did when they were the principal form of mass entertainment. Nor do they have the same place in the culture they did when a single film could appear to symbolize everything, good and bad, about an era. I thought “The Master” was a great film, and I, frankly, liked it better than “Apocalypse Now.” But it would be insane to suggest that it, or anything produced in 2012, “matters” in the way that “Apocalypse Now” did.
But so what? “Mattering” isn’t all that matters. Significant revivals in art forms that have lost their cultural centrality can still affect the culture profoundly. When Alexander Pope wrote, you had to read him – if you were literate, you simply had to. Wallace Stevens, by contrast, wrote his verse in a time when poetry had lost its throne, long since displaced by other art forms – the novel, the opera – with greater cultural resonance. Plenty of people still read poetry, of course – but Stevens had nothing like the audience that Pope had. But did he matter? Of course he mattered! He mattered enormously! He had a massive influence not only on subsequent poetry but on the sensibilities of all kinds of writers.
The pictures may have gotten small, but that doesn’t make them irrelevant, much less dead or dying. There is no contradiction between saying that this was a great year for film and that films don’t have the immediate cultural reach that they did decades ago. We don’t judge the health or beauty of a garden merely by the size of its blooms.