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The Death of Film Culture?

“Film culture, at least in the sense people once used that phrase, is dead or dying,” says Andrew O’Hehir, writing for Salon. “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 [New York Film Festival] so lovingly curates have any impact at all on the American cultural mainstream.” As a movie-loving New Yorker, O’Hehir raises some interesting points when he talks about the death of film culture, arguing that TV has taken film over as the primary means to developing our popular culture. But is he right? Is film culture dead?

The old days of the one-film-at-a-time cinemas are long gone. Now we have 3D films and soon-forgotten Oscar winners; cult-followings, chick-flicks, and box-office bombs. If you watch movies – and you probably do – then you have your own tastes and preferences regarding movies. O’Herir’s perspective is totally US-centric, but since American popular culture is the most widely known pop culture around the world, such arguments are largely relevant and interesting for other countries as well. O’Herir says this:

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?

[. . .] 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 [. . .] 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.

Much of what O’Herir says is bogged down in confusing prose, but it was interesting to see his take on some of the gradual changes of the film culture in recent decades, finally leading to George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.

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.

O’Herir argues that it’s shows like The Wire, Louie, The Good Wife, or Breaking Bad, which “are to blame” for the death of movie culture. But even he admits that he is “overstating the case a little for dramatic effect,” which I suspect is largely a way to proactively defend himself against the anticipated criticism of his article. One commenter to his piece on Salon said:

Is there a headline-writing editor at Salon obsessed with Louis C.K. killing things? Two days ago, it was “Did Louie kill the sit-com?” Now it’s “Louie killed the movies”…

Looks like Louie is killing everything in sight. He’s a mass-murderer. You wouldn’t know it from that pasty face, which appears more interested in eating pizza slices than in slaughtering media forms.

I’m going to guess there will be an upcoming Salon article titled, “Did Louie kill the radio star?”

In my opinion, it’s not entirely fair to compare a serial drama to a movie like O’Herir, simply because TV shows are longer. People generate more hype when they have time to do so. I’m sure if they stopped a 3-hour movie in the middle and waited a day, people would be talking about it (“What do you think will happen?”). But by the end of a movie, when the story wraps up and has satisfying closure, there often isn’t as much to talk about when they leave a theatre. Obviously it doesn’t take much for movie lovers to think of instances when this isn’t true, but this is why the last movie in a series is often so highly anticipated. A more fair comparison would be to get people to have two marathons (one watching all episodes of a TV show and another watching all movies in a series) with roughly equal lengths.

But I’m no film expert, so let’s turn to the Atlantic, where critic Jason Bailey discusses O’Herir’s article.

O’Hehir is one of our finest film writers, but this kind of bell-ringing and doom-saying has been going on for decades (see David Denby and David Thompson last month in The New Republic by and James Wolcottlast spring in Vanity Fair). And the idea that a vibrant film culture is dead was all but neutralized by the immediate tizzy the piece prompted on Twitter and the blogosphere—which was probably the aim to begin with. If there’s any revelation here, it’s that everyone fell for the taunt one more time.

Regarding O’Herir’s line on Pulp Fiction – marking the end of the movie culture – Bailey says:

The line caught my eye because it seemed so startlingly false: For many of us who were in our 20s and younger when Tarantino’s masterpiece exploded like a dirty bomb in theaters across the country, Pulp Fiction was the moment when film culture beganFiction was where our awareness of not only film’s rich history, but how that history could be reinterpreted, repurposed, and reinvigorated, came to a head. For O’Hehir (and Wolcott, and their ilk), their version of film culture may very well be dead. But film culture is not. It’s merely become something else that they don’t recognize.

[. . .] Pulp Fiction crystalized a pop sensibility that had been coursing through a thriving independent cinema since She’s Gotta Have It, and furthered the radical notion that art house movies didn’t just have to be structurally innovative or narratively experimental. They could also be enjoyable for a mass audience, and could attract that mass audience with traditional mainstream elements (guns, cars, drugs, Bruce Willis) that were as much a part of the filmmaker’s toolbox as nuanced characterization and off-kilter storytelling.

[. . .] In her deservedly immortal Harper’s essay “Trash, Art, and the Movies,” Pauline Kael wrote, “We generally become interested in movies because we enjoy them and what we enjoy them for has little to do with what we think of as art.” What’s more, Kael insisted that “if we don’t go to movies for excitement, if, even as children, we accept the cultural standards of refined adults, if we have so little drive that we accept ‘good taste,’ then we will probably never begin to care about movies at all.” Kael was no anti-intellectual; she wasn’t just looking for empty thrills. But she also wasn’t interested in emotion-free “cinema art,” which is what we often end up discussing when tossing around phrases like “film culture.” If that kind of thing is on the way out, then good riddance.

Indeed, O’Herir comes off as a little bit snobbish, giving a vibe that we’ve been doing it wrong all along. I saw Pulp Fiction for the first time a few months ago, and little did I know that every movie made after it which I had seen and loved were actually bad movies, and not to be considered art. If I had known that the film culture was dead, maybe I would have given up on the pointless and dead art of film.

…Say what?

Why do films need to be so complicated? Like music, films can mean different things for different people. The way you’ll be able to tell when film culture dies is when no one makes them anymore. This will probably never happen, though, because of two things: 1) the works that vast amounts of professionals have given us, which inspire further works, and 2) the stories that people feel need to be told. And you know what? Neither of these are getting any less prevalent as time goes on. I suppose O’Herir’s argument, then, would be that people would rather tell those stories in the form of TV shows rather than movies. But this is probably a bit disingenuous.

Film creators create films and people who make TV shows make TV shows (a radical statement, I know). While some of them do both, they are still very different professionals. It would be a big mistake to think that people who make TV shows are basically the same as those who make movies, just using a longer script. There are many differences, and it’s not the case that filmmakers will just up-and-decide to tell their story in a TV show instead of a movie. Each form has their own pros and cons which professionals are very aware of.

In short, O’Herir is probably in the minority of people who think that film culture is dead. I think this his argument is basically the same as when old people who continue to live in the past argue that music is dead, or that no new music is ever good. Considering it’s historically contextual and entirely subjective, I don’t understand why people can feel so qualified to make such qualitative judgments.

Ultimately, we’re a long way away from the old days of black and white silent films, but I think the art of films depends not just on the quality of the films but also on the audience who consume them. For some, movies are just a distraction or a way to fill the time. For others, it’s an event that spans well beyond the length of the film itself, or a cultural phenomenon that informs the current state of public discorse on something. But that doesn’t mean that film culture is dead, it’s just evolving, as it should. And yes, I acknowledge that movies sometimes feel like giant commercials, filled with product placement and such… but let’s not paint the entire industry with the same brush.

Forget the fact that most people (don’t even get me started on children) who would watch old movies today would find them horrendously boring – instead of wanting the old days to return, pop culture critics should be thinking of early movies as stepping stones, not the last of its kind. Classic early movies inspired more modern classics, and movies in general inspire contemporary viewers to do things every day. Movies might influence the job choices people make, their relationships, or even their own thoughts and feelings. How can a form that moves you to tears or lets you and your friends roar with laughter together be dead?

We shouldn’t understate the artistic quality of modern films (unless the lense with which you measure those films didn’t change along with the evolving medium itself). But it’s important to acknowledge that we wouldn’t have the cinematic richness of the modern age without the brilliance of our predecessors. It’s with this sentiment that one character from the film “The Majestic” had this to say about the experience at the movie theatre:

Any man, woman, child could buy their ticket, walk right in. Here they’d be, here we’d be. “Yes sir, yes ma’am. Enjoy the show.” And in they’d come entering a palace, like in a dream, like in heaven. Maybe you had worries and problems out there, but once you came through those doors, they didn’t matter anymore. And you know why? Chaplin, that’s why. And Keaton and Lloyd. Garbo, Gable, and Lombard, and Jimmy Stewart and Jimmy Cagney. Fred and Ginger. They were gods. And they lived up there. That was Olympus.

Would you remember if I told you how lucky we felt just to be here? To have the privilege of watching them. I mean, this television thing. Why would you want to stay at home and watch a little box? Because it’s convenient? Because you don’t have to get dressed up, because you could just sit there? I mean, how can you call that entertainment, alone in your living room? Where’s the other people? Where’s the audience? Where’s the magic? I’ll tell you, in a place like this, the magic is all around you. The trick is to see it.

–Harry Trimble (The Majestic, 2001)

Film culture is not dead; it’s just in the 21st century.

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