The Academy Awards, which aired a couple weeks ago, were an explicit ode to old Hollywood.
The evening’s host was Billy Crystal, a veteran whose wrinkled face seemed to wear the battle scars of hosting duties past; the night’s big winner was The Artist, a silent black-and-white movie about the advent of talkies. And apart from Angelina Jolie’s much-remarked leg slit (it even got its own Twitter account @Angie’s Right Leg), actresses’ dresses were mostly conservative and in the style of old Hollywood icons.
That the movie industry would try so desperately to cling to tradition is not surprising. As many critics, including New York Times writer A. O. Scott, have observed, “the relationship between cinema and its public … has hit a rough patch.”
A shockingly small number of people in the States even saw Best Picture winner The Artist (the movie grossed under $37.5 million domestically). And as statistics from Nielson show, movie ticket sales are declining annually.
Though Americans consume media at an unprecedented rate, the majority of that consumption is done on laptops and television sets — not in movie theaters.Film’s position at the top of the pop culture ladder, unchallenged until now, is growing precarious. The Oscar’s nostalgic vibes are indicative of a sense of uneasiness within the film community — a longing to return to better days.
It doesn’t look like this uneasiness will disappear anytime soon though. According to cultural critics, America’s “rough patch” with cinema is entirely merited. You have only to glance over a culture magazine or blog to see that “movies are irrelevant” is fast becoming a contemporary truism.
There are two main reasons why.
First, movies are unpopular; they are increasingly eclipsed by TV. In classrooms, offices, waiting rooms, on street corners people are busy talking about TV shows. I overhear enthusiastic conversations every day about last night’s episode of fill-in-the-blank, but I have yet to overhear anyone’talk about Jean Dujardin’s performance in The Artist with the same gusto.
To add insult to injury, critics add that TV is not only more popular than movies, but also better. Cable shows like those on HBO, Showtime or AMC have high-production values, big-name actors and all the raciness and edginess of movies (and often even more).
TV seems to run the gamut. There are shows with universal appeal that tap into our collective culture; there are cable shows that take risks films won’t and garner a small, but incredibly loyal following.
So why bother shelling out $10.50 or more to go to the movies? Indie films have half the daring of niche TV series and we can build a greater cultural community through our television sets than the silver screen.
Should we even care about movies anymore?
This is a question film critics are asking and one I often think about. A movie lover since birth, I am terrified by the thought that movies are becoming culturally irrelevant and stale.
And the worst of it is that I feel somewhat responsible. In my column every couple of weeks, I suggest a movie students can take out on DVD at the library. It’s a good premise, I think. But it may also be contributing to the problem of cinema’s downward spiral.
If you’re anything like me and I would imagine most college students are, taking out a DVD means an hour or two alone, laptop whirring away, headphones in. The experience is a very isolated and personal one.
That film can be personal is, of course, one of its best qualities. In fact, I’ve touted this very characteristic. But it would be wrong to forget that film is at heart a communal experience. As cinema’s origins in fairground tents attest to, movies are meant to be experienced collectively.
With films, amorphous “mass culture” starts with something much more tangible and physical — a dark movie theater with sticky floors and, most importantly, people sitting next to you.
This is, to unapologetically use a cliché, the “magic” of the movies. When we go to the movies we laugh, cry and eye roll in tandem with a group of strangers. It is an incredibly transfixing experience and one that we loose entirely when we watch DVDs.
The saving grace of cinema may, ironically, be to refuse innovation. Lose the experience of the movie theaterand you lose the one aspect of cinema that cannot be reproduced.
My intention in pointing out the centrality of the movie theater is certainly not to negate my own column’s small importance. But I feel it would be wrong to give the (false) impression that to watch a DVD is to understand movies’ cultural cache.
Compared to the community of a movie theater, the community TV produces falls flat. This is especially true as TV moves off our sets and onto our computer screens. Indicative of TV’s isolating nature, Hulu now even gives its viewers the chance to personalize the advertisements during a half-hour or hour TV segment. Television is a target audience of one — ideal for advertisers, and concerning to anyone invested in mass culture’s future.