Apr 6, 2015

"The Decay of Cinema"? Nah.

It's almost twenty years now since Susan Sontag's piece, "The Decay of Cinema", appeared in the New York Times, and while I suppose we now have two decades more's worth of nitrate deterioration, vinegar syndrome, and sticky shed, it is not so that Cinema with a capital C -- the world and the experience of movies -- has rotted into so much dirt for planting flowers or books or crappy movies or what have you.

Sontag makes strong points about the devaluing of moving images through the ubiquity of in the form of television, the dance club walls, and JumboTrons, which are certainly far stronger even today, in an age when people watch TV on iPads on the subway.  But her central tenet that the out-to-the-movies experience is all but dead, and that seeing a film at home is inherently and "radically disrespectful of film" seems based largely on her own sense of nostalgia for the good old days.  It may be so that it is easier to watch distractedly at home than at the cinema, but if you view with a dedication to appropriate light levels, minimal distractions, and few or no pauses, the breadth of materials viewable at home can (it goes almost without saying) provide a rich and deeply cinematic exposure.  The characterizations made by Sontag of certain periods cannot possibly be accepted without the deliberate wearing of blinders.  Her contention that "all films of the silent era -- from the masterpieces of Feuillade, D. W. Griffith, Dziga Vertov, Pabst, Murnau and King Vidor to the most formula-ridden melodramas and comedies -- are on a very high artistic level, compared with most of what was to follow [until the mid-1950s]" is curious for its lack of cited titles of the allegedly artful dreck.  And the claim that "only in France were a large number of superb films produced" from 1930-55 artfully jumps over many of Hitchcock's greatest films, the emergence of a great national film industry in Japan, a lot of great Tarzan movies, nearly the entirety of Busby Berkeley's career, and much more.  Similarly, to argue that not many good films were still coming out in 1996 seems only baseable in curmudgeonly nostalgia.  Just in Hollywood releasing, 1996 was the year of Fargo, Independence Day, The Frighteners, The Rock, Fly Away Home, The Long Kiss Goodnight, Sling Blade, Mars Attacks!, and what I would argue still stands nineteen years after its release as a serious contender for the best live action musical of the past twenty years, Evita.

But I don't really want to give Susan Sontag the business about her nostalgia.  Lord knows we all have our moments of kvetching about kids these days and bemoaning the state of cinema, and in a lot of ways she was probably right.  Hollywood releasing can be downright depressing.  But for all that's wrong, I'm happy to say that with the rise of cinema culture on the internet, arguably also semi-dateable to 1996 and the founding of Ain't It Cool News, Sontag was just in time to be wrong when she complained that "you hardly find anymore, at least among the young, the distinctive cinephilic love of movies that is not simply love of but a certain taste in films (grounded in a vast appetite for seeing and reseeing as much as possible of cinema's glorious past)".  It was around then -- 1996, '97, '98 -- that I was myself becoming that sort of cinephile, and I have been blessed in my life to have known a lot more people like me in that regard than *I* ever would have imagined in those days.  For all of my beeves with the proliferation of film criticism today, online communities and digital releasing have enabled a new wave of cinephiles who I think fit the category that Susan Sontag bemoaned the loss of.  I hope we eventually made her proud.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.