' ' Cinema Romantico: Living in the Future (part 2)

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Living in the Future (part 2)

This post (which, I think, remains unfinished, a bunch of thoughts not completely unified) is how I wrote my way into yesterday’s post. But rather than let it waste away in the drafts folder, I chose to publish it anyway. It’s my blog and I can do what I want to.


Last spring My Beautiful, Perspicacious Wife and I attended a matinee of Aaron Katz’s “Gemini” at the ArcLight. There were maybe three other people in the theater and dust had settled over the seats, so much that we had to brush it off before we sat down. It seemed emblematic, as if I had wound up in Anarene, Texas, the setting for Peter Bogdanovich’s beloved “The Last Picture Show” (1971), a beautiful, bittersweet, fundamentally paradoxical film that was part of the New Hollywood movement in the wake of the big studios collapsing in on themselves even as its setting – 1950 & ’51 – harkened back to the studio stranglehold of the Golden Age. “The Last Picture Show” was about many things, but it was mostly about being in the moment when one era is passing to the next, culminating in the closing of the local movie house with a screening of John Ford’s “Red River.”

“Red River”, as it happens, factored into a piece David Thomson wrote for Harper’s Weekly in 2015 about how the difficulty of maintaining physical film has led to so many films, of the Silent Era and beyond, being lost. Tucked within there, though, was also a lament for how a certain way of watching movies was being lost too. “‘Red River, ’” wrote Thomson, “was a river as much as a story, and forced you to stay with it. With a book, you could pause before the denouement and have a nap. The book would wait patiently. The music you liked was on a record; you could go back and revisit its immediacy until you knew it by heart. But a movie was wild and it went away.” Now, in the age of streaming, a movie can wait like a book, and you can go back revisit a movie like a record. This is not necessarily bad. New Yorker critic Richard Brody has emphasized the virtue of pausing a movie mid-stream to better soak up the experience, and rewatches of movies frequently open them up further in our minds, allowing us to really get a handle on how what a movie’s doing to make us love it so.

What Thomson is talking about is not really Slow Cinema, a style of filmmaking emphasizing flat visuals and long takes, but Slow Cinema’s intent to envelop you in the experience still cuts to the heart of what Thomson suggests is being lost. Paul Schrader, who made his recent film “First Reformed” in the Slow Cinema vein, noted in a recent Now interview how old movies look slow to us now because “We’ve retrained our brains to perceive imagery at (a hyper-speed) level,” a product of the unrelenting technological advances in our world, a progression that Thomson charted in his mammoth 2012 book “The Big Screen”, where he both grieved for what was, acknowledged inexorable change, and fretted over how that change is poised to leave movies not so much dead as dead as we currently know them; or, how we used to know them.

Therein lies the recent Netflix v Steven Spielberg debate that touched off a little while back when the latter implored the Motion Picture Academy to change its award guidelines so that only films with a minimum 4-week theatrical run would be considered Oscar-eligible. Spielberg is a populist, no doubt, and, who knows, he may well be seeking to discredit streaming entirely on its own terms. If so, that is a reductive stance, one that films such as “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”, one of last year’s finest releases in any format, whole-heartedly refutes. What’s more, streaming has leveled the playing field, with Ava DuVernay noting on Twitter that Netflix “distributes black work far/wide.” That’s a noble aim. And Netflix’s response cited the access it provides for those further from movie theaters.

But sometimes I wonder about Netflix, and I’m sure Spielberg does too. Its classic film stable, especially where streaming is concerned, is, as many have noted, not just lacking but downright pitiful. Archival of what’s past is vital and streaming entities like Netflix rarely make a point of such archival. This is why so many mourned the passing of FilmStruck late last year. Schrader might have been spiritually speaking for Spielberg when he told Vulture: “I suspect that Amazon and Netflix are not so much outside the box as they would like you to believe. Netflix, for example, operates under the theory of, if you liked this, you will like this. And of course, when you have a film that’s unique, that runs against the thinking of that model.”

Indeed, Netflix’s model is a burgeoning monolith, evoking shades of the old studio system. The studio system had myriad problems, absolutely, and needed to be broken, no questions asked, from a labor point-of-view, but they also knew how to craft movies. Netflix, frankly, is less about craft than filmmaking formula based on algorithms and flooding the marketplace with that algorithm-inspired content. Can you imagine Netflix giving rise to something as potent as Film Noir? Why do you think Netflix cuts off closing credits filled with the names of so many hard-working crew members to cue up the beginning of another film or TV show their calculations have ascertained you will might not enjoy?

That’s not to suggest the theatrical experience, which is on the downslope of its glory days anyway, is some guarantor of good tidings. Marvel runs a similar content-generating model to Netflix with a focus on theatrical blockbusters. In response to the Spielberg v Netflix kerfuffle, Schrader cited, on his Facebook page, the so-called “theatrical experience” as an original matter of “exhibition economics”, nothing more, laying bare the colloquialism (sometimes attributed to Spielberg) that the cinema is akin to church. Schrader noted that a filmmaker adapts to technology, and perhaps that is similar to movie fans, which Vulture film critic Emily Yoshida essentially noted when she tweeted: “I love movies. Movies are a big part of my life. Netflix can claim to feel love toward whatever it wants but I love Netflix the exact amount that I loved my VCR in 1995 and my DVD player in 2001.”

And I suppose that’s where I land. Means of distribution are not my wheelhouse; I just want good movies! And if the way they are being screened, and if the way they are being created, is metamorphosing, what’s the big deal so long as what is being created frequently achieves aesthetic lift off. “The fragmentation of movies that made video possible is not going to end,” Thomson wrote in “The Big Screen.” “It’s already advancing and taking us back to a wealth of short films.” He noted that no less an authority than Samuel Beckett “mistrusted the medium whenever it turned portentous. True depth of feeling, even tragedy, he felt, could be best found in brief comedies.”

That screening of “Gemini” began with “Aspirational”, a 2014 short film starring Kirsten Dunst skewering selfie art but also illustrating how so much of current culture is consumed through the screens in our hands. Two young women, spotting Dunst from their car, stop and get out to snap selfies with the undoubted intent of utilizing this celebrity encounter in their Instagram or Snapchat stories, suggesting narrative as the sort of Godard-ish fragmentary inserts that Thomson pinpoints as an early indication of where movies were headed all along – that is, here. I watch “Aspirational” and feel the jolt of its sun-dappled message and feel not only in lockstep with Dunst but Thomson too when he writes “If you really want to watch a film, you must be ready to recognize your own life slipping away.”

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