How do Movies Matter?

In Reinventing Cinema (and in probably half a dozen blog posts), I addressed the frequently-repeated discussion of the death of film criticism. Typically the complaints focused on the decline in the number of professional film critics working for major newspapers, a decline in jobs that is by no means trivial. However, a number of other critics also suggested that newspaper readers were also ignoring the advice of film critics and seeing Hollywood “dreck,” rather than watching more obscure movies that were more favorably reviewed, as if the goal of film criticism was to serve as little more than a consumer guide. I’ve generally responded to these complaints by pointing out that much of the best film criticism has migrated to the web and that many of the most influential critics have a much wider audience than ever before, thanks to online distribution. More crucially, these online conversations often contain a level of engagement that would be difficult to match in the limited column space in a physical newspaper. But there is another variation to this argument, one that shows up in a recent article by Stewart Klawans, in The Nation, where Klawans argues that cinema itself has been outmoded and that motion pictures no longer have the same political currency they once did. Given the recent changes in audiovisual culture–most notably the fragmentation of media choice–Klawans offers a tempting argument. But I think Klawans overstates the degree to which movies no longer have the social relevance they once did.

Klawans, a critic I typically enjoy reading, is responding to the recent publication of David Kehr’s When Movies Mattered: Reviews from a Transformative Decade, which Klawans reads as “a chronicle left by a vanished civilization,” documenting the lost cinema culture of the 1970s (I haven’t read Kehr’s book yet, but I hope to do so). In addition, Klawans defines film rather oddly, as “movies projected in public spaces large enough to accommodate a crowd.” Although theatrical moviegoing continues to be a common social activity, most of our movie consumption now takes place elsewhere–in our homes, on our computers, and even on our cell phones and iPads. All of this makes me think that Klawans (I won’t include Kehr in this argument) is looking in the wrong places. Rather than looking at the images on the slightly tattered screen in the half-empty theater at the local strip mall, doesn’t it make more sense to measure how movies matter by looking at how they circulate? Instead of offering a somewhat indifferent close reading of another disappointing indie film (as Klawans goes on to do with Tom McCarthy’s Win, Win), shouldn’t we be thinking about the ways in which the concept of cinema is circulating through all of the new distribution, exhibition, and reception channels out there?

Klawans’ comment about “movies projected in public spaces” does reflect an ongoing change in the film industry, especially as studios turn increasingly toward digital distribution and toward closing the “window” between the theatrical release date and digital distribution (VOD, DVD, etc).  The most recent shift entails current plans to offer films via video on demand just two months after their theatrical debut, albeit at the relatively hefty cost of $30 per rental. As Cinematical reports, Home Premiere is set to launch in the immediate future, with the Liam Neeson film, Unknown and the Adam Sandler flick, Just Go With It, serving as the first two films to be made available. For the most part, Cinematical addresses these issues primarily in terms of consumer choice: will viewers be willing to pay a premium to see a recent theatrical release? Or will audiences simply wait a month or two and see the film more cheaply? David Poland has a much more extensive take, one that traces out the implications not only for consumers, but also for theaters themselves, as well as the unionized employees who stand to lose financially due to the new distribution models. These debates about how movies will be distributed seem to to illustrate that movies do continue to matter, not simply because of their content but because of the “content” of the industry itself, the ways in which the movie industry seeks to capitalize on our continued fascination with audiovisual culture.

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