Cinema’s Dyin’…Who’s Got the Will?

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?”


  1. girish Said,

    November 20, 2005 @ 8:32 pm

    And here’s an interesting article by Stefan Jovanovic in Offscreen.

  2. Chuck Said,

    November 20, 2005 @ 8:38 pm

    Thanks for the tip! I’ll add it to the bibliography.

  3. Chuck Said,

    November 20, 2005 @ 9:04 pm

    And here’s a self-reminder about that Godfrey Cheshire essay I mentioned just a few weeks ago.

  4. Chuck Said,

    November 20, 2005 @ 9:36 pm

    From the footnotes of the Jovanovic essay, this Susan Sontag essay, “The Decay of Cinema.”

  5. Esoteric Rabbit Films Said,

    November 20, 2005 @ 11:47 pm

    A Cinema Exploded

    I don’t know how I missed this, but it seems my latest essay, ‘A Cinema Exploded: Notes on the Development of Some Post-Cinematic Forms’, is now online at BRAINTRUSTdv. I’m adamant that it’s not a death-of-cinema essay, but rather one on the emergence…

  6. Nick Said,

    November 22, 2005 @ 2:10 pm

    Thanks for bringing some of these essays together in your post. For my own part, I wonder what motivates the desire to deny that cinema is dead?

    The changes that are underway now–especially the relentless miniarization of the screen–probably don’t spell the “death” of cinema, but certainly a transformation that will leave it looking unlike anything before. For me, there is a sweet sadness about this that co-exists with my excitement about the changing screen, iPods, networked video, and all the rest. Is this sadness tinged with nostalgia? I’m sure it is; in fact, I know it is. And is there a fine line between nostalgia and reactionary-ness? No doubt. I think–I hope–it’s possible to try to capture some of this sadness in writing, without necessarily buying in to more extreme claims about the death of cinema.

    The big screen is dead! Long live the screen!

  7. Chuck Said,

    November 22, 2005 @ 2:38 pm

    I have a slightly different take on what’s happeneing. I think we’re seeing a simltaneous increase and decrease in screen size. Yes, we have the iPod video, but we also have big screen TVs that are now mass marketed to the degree that even middle-income families can afford them.

    Mltiplexes continue to increase screen size in order to make their films more appealing, in their desperate attempts to create a sensory experience unavailable in the home. What seems undeniable, though, is the individualzation of these screening experiences. The video iPod is designed for a single viewer (an audience of one), and the big screens, at least at the mltiplexes I frequent, seem designed to individualize the screening. You no longer have to worry about bumping elbows on a seat rest with the stranger sitting next to you. You don’t have to worry as much that someone will sit in your sight lines. Stadium seating takes care of that.

    Now, while I’m glad that I don’t have to worry about someone blocking my line of vision (after all, I’m somewhat short), this kind of screening seems designed to prevent, or discourage, interaction or at least to prevent the audience from seeing itself as a mass.

  8. Michael Said,

    November 22, 2005 @ 5:11 pm

    Some have been talking about the death of cinema in the way that others talk about the death of the novel, as if it’s almost a self-evident phenomenon. The Sontag essay you link to is one of the more nuanced and convincing (there’s a longer version of it in her anthology “Where the Stress Falls”); essentially, she’s saying that cinema no longer has the highly independent, revolutionary fervor it had attained in the 1960s, in part because the soaring production costs of the 1980s and the spread of Hollywood values has marginalized and defeated that earlier spirit.

    I think Sontag also attributed the decline of cinema to the advent of home video (and so that issue of screen size comes into play); great cinema cannot occur without a larger-than-life screen, while surrounded by other people. Home video sort of subverts this, by altering the very experience of the cinema by scaling it down, and thereby making it fundamentally different.

    Overall, I think there’s some truth to the argument, at least in the sense that many of today’s independent filmmakers don’t seem to be as conciously revolutionary (or as collectively revolutionary) as the filmmakers of the 1960s and 1970s were — and that cinema has become, as Sontag put it, a “combinatory and re-combinatory art.”

    Interestingly enough, though, Manohla Dargis wrote something a while back in The New York Times about how the “cinephilia” Sontag lamented is actually alive and well because of home video — the easiest way for many movie lovers to see foreign and independent films is, well, on the small screen. (Unfortunately, the article is behind the NY Times’ pay wall, but here’s the link anyway: link.)

  9. Chris Okum Said,

    November 22, 2005 @ 5:13 pm

    When I hear “The End of Cinema” I think what people are hoping for is that someday Cinema will be more than what it is, namely a product that has not been allowed to evolve by those who control the factories in which the product is produced. The ones who declare the end of cinema are the who ones have the most autonomy. They know that cinema is capable of meaning many different things to many different people. What they want is an expansion of cinema. The world we create for cinema and the one that we live are overlapping. One is not a reflection of the other anymore. We are our own shadows. So maybe it’s not a call for the end of cinema. Maybe there are those who can see around curves. Cinema is a product of a world that is barely able to get up on the morning. What comes next has yet to be identified. Someone will come up with a word for it and then it will appear in what we think is a puff of smoke.

  10. Nick Said,

    November 22, 2005 @ 5:59 pm

    Well put Chris. Poetically. Of course cinema will continue to evolve, despite what we say about it. It pays no attention to our endorsements or refusals. It’s how we say it that counts. The aphorism, the turn of phrase, the stringing together of words that makes you smile or clench your fists. After all, why shouldn’t our writing be as surprising–as exciting or infuriating–as the new screeens we are confronted with nearly every day? What comes next–after cinema–won’t be decided by the theorists. But they will write its history.

  11. Chuck Said,

    November 22, 2005 @ 9:25 pm

    Michael, I think Sontag’s version is more nuanced than most. As you suggest, her narrative more properly describes the end of a certain mode of cinephilia (Bertolucci’s nostalgia for this version of cinephilia in The Dreamers certainly resonates here).

    Home video is the complicating factor, of course. When I attended Purdue in the late 1990s, I could never have seen Godard, Ozu, and others without it, but the pleasures of the big screen are lost (again the cinephiles competing to sit close to the screen in The Dreamers might serve as a nice reference point).

    The link to a certain mode of revolutionary ethic/aesthetic also seems relevant. In that sense, I’d agree that the proclamations that cinema is dead are essentially calling for the expansion or renewal of cinema.

  12. Dick Said,

    January 2, 2006 @ 4:44 am

    Just to point out, and close an unwitting dislocation in this interesting thread, that Keith Griffith’s essay The Manipulated Image referred to by Chuck has for a long time been at this slightly different address.

    Also, although it is merely a curious coincidence which I hesitate to mention in such learned company because it was written for purely polemical purposes to do with film commissioning (of animation), our same site also carries an article entitled Death to Animation.

  13. Chuck Said,

    January 2, 2006 @ 12:07 pm

    Thanks for the link to both essays, Dick. I’ve written on the “bullet time” sequences in The Matrix, and I think you’re right to note that the concept of animation ought to be complicated in the ways you describe.

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