“Let’s not talk about the good old times, but the bad new ones.” – Bertolt Brecht
In recent years the cinema has frequently been talked about as a lost cause. Regardless of the fact that home viewing was first introduced to a large audience over 30 years ago and the cinema still exists, it seems a lot of people can’t get enough of those doomsday songs (to say it in the words of David Bowie). Talk about the catastrophic influence of the transition from analogue to digital has been around for nearly two decades – a long enough period to ask the question, can we really still talk about a transition that will at some point come to a conclusion? Or has perpetual change become a part of the cinema?
As film culture became more complex, cinephilia, too, became multi-faceted. Today’s cinephilia can be seen as divided between those who view it in a more traditional sense based largely on the cinephile archetype created in France during the 1960s and those who defend new and varied forms of film appreciation as equally valid. Whereas cinephilia used to be clearly aligned with one medium (the cinema), today’s cinephiles move swiftly and comfortably between an ever-expanding array of different platforms, media and places.
The debate is steeped in a rhetoric of crisis and death which disregards that we may be dealing with a continuation of the cinema rather than a replacement of it. Technological advances made possible new forms of film appreciation previously unavailable. The discussions that used to take place in Parisian ciné clubs still happen, but these communities are more likely to have moved online, opening up a global discussion that allows for more perspectives. With the advent of VHS, DVDs and Blu-rays film fans could not only watch and re-watch films, they could physically own and collect them. Virtually the entire history of film has become widely available to audiences who may otherwise never have access to it. In many ways, this is the best time to be a cinephile.
There is a tendency to blame everything that is wrong about film culture on the technological transition, piracy and the monster that is home viewing. Perhaps the problem lies precisely in this bleak perspective and resigned attitude. Denying its own part in the ‘crisis’, the industry places the blame on the consumer and positions itself as a victim of the times.
In a recent article with the Wall Street Journal British director Christopher Nolan points to this problem and criticises those on the production side for accepting the cinema’s role as “just another content platform, albeit with bigger screens and cupholders.” His call for a paradigm shift is a refreshing voice amongst the many eulogies. The industry has to produce strong material that gives audiences an incentive to see a film at the cinema. Just like Hollywood started producing visually stunning epics to counter the threat of television in the 1950s, the public now needs to be offered an experience home entertainment simply cannot give them.
The element of experience is crucial to the debate between traditional and new forms of cinephilia. Many critics like Susan Sontag or David Denby argue that the advent of home viewing has destroyed the magical and quasi-religious experience of going to the movies. Yet audiences have proven time and time again that they make an active choice about where they see a film.
There have been numerous examples over the last few years where viewers made the conscious decision to see certain visually strong films in the cinema rather than at home, knowing that it will offer them a better experience. These films include Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master or Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel.
The overwhelming success of film events like Secret Cinema, summer screens all over London as well as the growing interest in film festivals contradict this assertion. The public is still hungry for a movie as an experience. It is up to the industry whether it makes an effort to satisfy this demand by presenting a true alternative, which requires innovation rather than “cost-cutting exercises disguised as digital upgrades” that serve the sole purpose of justifying exorbitant ticket prices.
Just like a decline in ticket sales cannot be seen as the sole result of home entertainment and piracy, online viewing can’t be categorically dismissed as lacking in appreciation. One of the main arguments of those who claim ‘true’ cinephilia doesn’t exist anymore is the issue of experience. They argue that because our selection seems endless, film is nothing special anymore – an important point to make. We have all been there; you have two hours free and browse through the database of [insert streaming/on demand service of choice] to watch a film. Before you realise it, you have spent an hour trying to work out what to watch and run out of time to see an entire film. The knowledge that all these films are always available makes it very easy to postpone watching certain films endlessly, waiting for ‘the right mood’.
This common problem exposes some troublesome issues found in the majority of streaming websites, first and foremost the lack of curation. Films are recommended to people through algorithms based on the user’s previously viewed titles. More recently, this system has been complemented by the platforms’ seemingly arbitrary promotion of self-produced or exclusive titles such as Orange Is the New Black (Netflix). Whether these titles are of actual interest to the viewer is irrelevant.
One platform that proposes an interesting solution to the issue of curation and web-based cinephilia is MUBI. The platform uploads one film each day, subscribers have one month to watch it. Out of this manageable selection many of the recommended films are not particularly well known, which is why users see it as an opportunity to watch a film they might otherwise not come across. As you don’t have infinite time to watch it, MUBI preserves a classic cinephile tradition (films as events not to be missed) for the digital age.
In the battle between the digital vs. the analogue, neither is inherently good or bad. There is no point in nostalgically looking to the past and mourning the good old days. Similarly, the industry will have to free itself from its resigned fixation on past traditions and structures. The digital is here to stay. What is needed is not a knee-jerk condemnation, but an encouragement of film culture to grow with technology.