I’m sorting through some ideas on a couple of writing projects today, and many of the essays, articles, and interviews I’ve been reading keep repeating the same narrative: cinema is dead. Or maybe dying. For the most part, I’ve seen this narrative as one narrative among many for describing what’s happening right now in the world of making, distributing, and consuming moving images, but the popularity of this narrative certainly begs the question: Why do so many people insist that cinema is dead (or dying)? And, a slightly different question, what are the desires involved in witnessing the death of cinema?
I have several examples in mind here, both academic and popular. A good place to start would be Jon Lewis’s provocatively titled collection, It’s the End of Cinema as We Know It, which linked 1990s millenial culture with a cinema industry in a state of transition (the birth of digital technologies, the “globalization” of Hollywood, etc), but it would also make sense to include Edward Jay Epstein’s The Big Picture, which seeks to document the transformation of the major studios.
But this imagined “death of cinema” seems to have a much longer history. Jean-Luc Godard is famous for pronouncing the death of cinema, at the end of his 1967 film, Weekend (“Fin de Cinéma”). And, of course, Pillow Book and Prospero’s Books director Peter Greenaway has joined those who wish to declare cinema dead (thanks to Matthew Clayfield’s BraintrustDV essay for the link). Godard and Greenaway’s claims are, of course, provocative, equally polemical and playful, at least in my reading.
Greenaway’s comments, however, do point towards one of the key signs of cinema’s imminent demise: the potential for interactivity offered by the remote control, essentially locating this so-called death of cinema in new modes of image consumption. To some extent, I find his arguments enticing, especially given the degree to which video-on-demand, iPod video, and other technologies multiply the locations where we can watch moving pictures (film now seems to be an imprecise term) and the degree to which spectators believe themselves to be in control over the viewing experience, and this is one question that I’m still working through. In a BraintrustDV interview with filmmaker Caveh Zehedi, the interviewee describes the experience of downloading one of Zahedi’s films and watching it in a coffeehouse (the comment is about halfway through the interview). There is clearly something new going on here (“private” viewing in a public space, etc), but it seems hasty to read such practices as signalling the obsolescence of seeing movies in theaters (note: Nick’s recent comments about “the vanishing screen” might also be relvant here). In fact, despite the ease of making digital films, distribution often remains a major hurdle, as this New York Times article illustrates (more on this article later).
This question is also informed by new modes of production. I’ve been spending a lot of time this afternoon reading essays on BraintrustDV, so I’ll just point out cinematographer Russ Alsobrook’s “Back to the Future” essay as one example illustrating this rhetoric as it appears in conversations about filming (recording?) with digital cameras. Here, of course, the reverse (negative?) image of the death of cinema appears in the guise of a “digital revolution” (a similar–and interesting–version of this narrative also appears in this essay by Keith Griffiths).
I don’t have any conclusions here, but the persistence of this death-of-cinema narrative is striking. Epstein’s efforts to link this story to economic interests are an obvious place to start. Obviously convenience and portability are major selling factors, at least in terms of marketing the death of cinema, but why are so many of us so willing to declare, along with Godard, “Fin de Cinéma?”