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American Movies are Not Dead: They are Dying

AT THE START of August 2012, the world was hanging on election results. Well, not the entire world. The electorate in this case was under 850, though that was nearly four times the number of people who had voted in this election the last time, in 2002.

The London film magazine Sight & Sound was holding its international poll of critics and writers to determine the top ten films ever made, and the best one of all. Citizen Kane had held that position for fifty years. Its five victories were not questioned. Most people who had seen it agreed that Orson Welles’s debut feature from 1941 was a mighty work, unprecedented then and still startling. But those who run the poll, who vote and take the results seriously, were worried. Was it useful for any movie to have such prolonged tenure and supremacy in what was always considered a new medium, a medium for young people? Welles was twenty-five when he made his masterpiece. Where were the twenty-five-year-olds now?

And had success made a vote for Citizen Kane automatic and stale? Did anyone now watch it with the rapt attention that it once commanded? The editor of Sight & Sound admitted that he would not be dismayed to see a new champion. A change might revitalize film studies: you see, there has been a nagging suspicion lately that movies are dead. Others felt that Citizen Kane would endure at the top. After all, what had come along in the last ten or twenty years that was a worthy rival? But the enlargement of the electorate was seen as an attempt to include younger film critics—bloggers even.

Well, it worked. The seventy-one-year-old Citizen Kane was pushed into second place, 191 votes to 157, by Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, a mere fifty-four-year-old. Some tipsters were not surprised. If any film had a serious chance of toppling Citizen Kane, they said, it was Vertigo (which had placed second in the 2002 poll). The only other possible contender had been hobbled by an editorial ruling. The Godfather and The Godfather Part II had been treated as one film previously (The Godfather Part III being carefully overlooked). As such, the double film had been fourth in 2002, and it might have passed Welles and Hitchcock this year; but the unrefusable word went out that The Godfather was two films, requiring two of a voter’s ten calls. And so Coppola slipped out of the running, though The Godfather was twenty-first with forty-three votes and The Godfather Part II was thirty-first with thirty-eight.

You don’t care? It’s all a silly game, quickly forgotten? Fair enough, but the movies thrive on silly games—how else should we describe going into the dark for two hours to identify with an illusion of reality? Still, the winners had things in common worth studying. They were both a lot gloomier than Fred Astaire or Preston Sturges. Citizen Kane is the attempt by a dying man to find meaning in what seemed a famous and powerful life. It concludes that any answer stays so private as to be hypothetical. You can say “rosebud” until you’re out of breath, but no one hears it, and if they did hear it they would turn it into a sound-bite. Welles’s film is a rueful commentary on humanist hopes and every classical estimate of how we should measure a man. It is a tragedy. And Vertigo is still darker. It is an allegory about the entire process of trying to shape reality to your own dream and vision. It is now widely interpreted as a metaphor for the film-making process, for casting and directing performances in ways that extend obsessive fantasy and crush real life. For Hitchcock, it was his most wounded reflection on the dangers of movie-making itself, and was a flop that he later withdrew. That is something else that the top two have in common: they were failures when they opened.

Does it persuade anyone that movies are fresh again, contemporary and pushing the envelope, if the best film is not quite of pensionable age? It is actually possible to argue that Vertigo is more old-fashioned than Citizen Kane: it has back projections; its stealthy advance tries to mask wild implausibilities; its stress on voyeurism and self-pity rewarded and then punished is morbid; its cruelty is medieval; and its conclusion is a torment of neurotic guilt. But Citizen Kane has a nimble, tricky construction; its talk is fast and witty; and its study of American public personality is veiled in irony and fatalism. It never begs us to identify with anyone in its story. Hitchcock and Welles were both artists, but Welles was incomparably more worldly, intelligent, and modern.

That is simply opinion, and a game, even if 846 esteemed critics played it. More to the point, in the 2012 vote for the ten best films of all time Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, made in 1968, was the most recent film. In the top fifty, there were only two films from “our” century: Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000) and David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. (2001). The poll was organized with the best of intentions: to revivify film study, to declare that we’re not dead, are we?, and to promote Sight & Sound. But it was no more convincing than confetti at a funeral. If they are not quite dead, the cinema and the movies sink deeper than ever into their preoccupation with dying. Citizen Kane and Vertigo are both death-wish stories.

FILM CRITICS OF certain age have been present, in spirit, at many of the same funerals for our medium. We know, as its lovers do everywhere, that movie, film, and cinema started dying a long time ago. Year after year, the funeral has been observed. But in show business every wake is a party—some of the great Hollywood romances began at such occasions. We all look good in black. So don’t be gloomy: Hamlet and his family die in every performance of his play, but he is a dead man walking and talking four hundred years after his creation. In “Tom and Jerry” cartoons, the cat was electrocuted, reduced to rubble, flattened, spifflicated, frozen, and shattered. Fade out/fade in, and there’s the frisky fellow back, looking for more, as if death were just fresh fish.

I am inclined to see the funny and positive sides in all this dying, but before we go any further, let us remember the fallen. Where do you begin? The cinema threatened daylight and the out-of-doors as primary pleasures. Nature itself took a body blow, and reality would never be the same again. We were so stricken by dignity and respectability that we let full-length feature films quash shorts—one- and two-reelers, maybe the natural length for film entertainment. We erased silence; we betrayed black-and-white; and when we had color we decided that Technicolor was too gaudy and too expensive. We grew too high-minded for B pictures, Westerns, and musicals. We wiped out the audience. No, not for real, but crowds of close to 100 million a week (in 1946, say) have been cut by three-quarters, though the population has doubled in the meantime.

That is enormous damage, all done in the name of progress. But something larger and more invasive has befallen us lately. As special effects burgeoned in the 1970s, so the computer and digital technology came to their aid, and photography itself was laid to rest. No protest can resist or slow such innovations, but veteran obituarists most decry the loss of light burning into the silver salts in the emulsion, and the spectacle of a face as the sun clouds over and darker suspicions seize the mind behind the face. The movies were always a dream and a fantasy, but for about five decades they were anchored in the lifelike nature of photography. It was a perilous link, of course: realized fantasy can make you think that love will last and that a real man must have a gun.

In hindsight, it’s easier to be impressed by movies from the 1930s and the war years, not just because the medium had acquired a technological immediacy closer to naturalism, but because the experience of Depression and war united the population and the audience. To take just the war years in America, that era produced some of our best work on screen: comedies oblivious of hardship and fear, such as His Girl Friday and The Lady Eve; dramas as varied as The Grapes of Wrath and The Ox-bow Incident; musicals such as Meet Me in St. Louis; Hope, Crosby, and Lamour on the road; headlong fantasies, such as Casablanca and To Have and Have Not, which could convince themselves as well as us that they were tough and adult. And Citizen Kane and Laura and Double Indemnity and The Best Years of Our Lives, a title that now seems to give entrance to the world of movies and not just to the theater of war. World War II produced a community at the movies, and an innocent immersion in fantasy when there was no shame or irony to curb it.

But the cinema was more than fantasy. In the late 1940s and the 1950s (a golden age that is seldom acknowledged as the arrival of television seems to be threatening everything), extraordinary films were made, founded in story, character, and the kind of threatened humanism we might have expected in the novel. There were the films of Robert Bresson and Max Ophüls; the late masterpieces of Jean Renoir; the best films by Jean-Pierre Melville; the gradual realization in America that in Japan Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, Ozu, and Naruse were making masterworks; Satyajit Ray in India, Luis Buñuel back in business in Mexico, Andrzej Wajda in Poland, Ingmar Bergman in Sweden, Antonioni and Fellini in Italy; and there had been the films of Michael Powell and Carol Reed and David Lean in Britain. Hitchcock was at his best—even without Vertigo, he made Rear Window and North by Northwest in that decade (and I’d rather see them tonight than Vertigo). There were Hollywood films worth remembering. John Ford made The Searchers and Howard Hawks did Rio Bravo, Billy Wilder made Sunset Boulevard and Some Like It Hot, Nicholas Ray directed They Live by Night and In a Lonely Place, Robert Aldrich created the fabulous shocker Kiss Me Deadly, Otto Preminger went from Laura to Anatomy of a Murder. And so on.

A theme runs through those films that is germane to the general anxiety about the longevity of cinema. So many of them harped on death. The Searchers is about a warped hero, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), who has a racist cancer in him. He may overcome it but only by consigning himself to a wandering, lonely life. The Nicholas Ray films are about the death of relationships. Sunset Boulevard is a story told by a dead man. In Laura, a murdered woman comes back as a living ghost. Kiss Me Deadly is about the annihilation of the world, done in so sardonic a way it still leaves you breathless.

There is only one paradise in the American films I listed, and it is Rio Bravo, but even there the stages of manhood include Stumpy (Walter Brennan), old, crippled, with not long to go. Hawks was only sixty-three when he made Rio Bravo, but sixty-three was on the edge of vulnerability back then. He was also a member of the generation who were kids as movies grew up: it contains Hitchcock, too, Wilder, Ford, Renoir, Fritz Lang, Mizoguchi and Ozu, Buñuel and Bresson. There has never been a generation to whom the movies meant more. If you like heroes and golden ages, this is inspiring stuff. But there is a consequence: later generations would be less captivated and more easily bored by the movies.

THOSE FILMS from the late 1950s had another sour attitude in common: they seemed to wonder whether the movies have gone on and on for long enough, so don’t we know every story by now? If you look at Rio Bravo (and this held even in 1959 when it opened), it offers a whimsical, affectionate example of a “suspenseful” Western. (Will the sheriff win? It was intended as a corrective to High Noon.) But that is perfunctory compared with its witty and digressive parody of such a Western, and its cheerful admission that this is really some actors, writers, and a director questioning and mocking the cockamamie routines and rituals of a Western. It isn’t a story, it’s a movie commentary, edging toward pastiche and camp. Similarly, Anatomy of a Murder is less an authentic trial story than variations on the hackneyed theme of the courtroom film. North by Northwest and Psycho tease us for believing in their absurd stories while delighting in the trickery that prompts that belief. As for Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, it was the first candid admission that movies came out of a madhouse, stupefied by inside references, but unaware and uninterested in any external reality.

How far did those directors understand the abandonment of narrative earnestness? I’m not sure, but it hardly matters. Film has always had a technological drive and a money habit that undermine the artistic solemnity of its auteurs. So when it comes to regretting the death of the movies and the way digital imagery and projection have put a blue-steel armor on the passion of light in photography, I have to insist that we were killing the medium long ago by grinding story down to sawdust, and encouraging the self-consciousness of disbelief, and undermining the innocence of sincere sentiment.

Suppose you watched two movies a week in 1950: that was three or four hours in the dark of a cinema. Very quickly, as the decade set in, it became apparent that people who liked watching (kids especially) might be sofa’d up six or seven hours a day. That comes to over twenty movies a week. If parents ever worked out the horror of those numbers, they said, “Oh, it’s all right. They’re not really watching. It’s just that the television is on.” A revolution was hiding in that homily. It condoned inattention—until it became a fashionable disorder; and it accepted that the movie illusion had become climatic more than climactic. Stories earned less respect, especially because television series knew no other way of working than copying movie scenarios, hiring veterans and rejects from the big screen, and establishing a weary cynicism that could no longer care or hang upon a story because it had been told so many times before.

That sign of lost confidence in Hollywood just preceded the deconstruction of genre, story, screen acting, narrative sequence, and the attitude of movies to the public enacted by Jean-Luc Godard in the early 1960s. Hollywood had flattered the audience, told it white lies, and tried to suggest that happiness was tomorrow. (Its affinity with advertising was glaring but ignored.) Godard (who once loved American movies) treated the audience with contempt. He was an unalarmed prophet of the end of the world, and by 1967, in Weekend, he concluded his picture with “End of film—End of cinema.” You see, death and dying have always been there.

But we live with this dying, the way Michael Myers keeps coming back in the Halloween pictures. The cunning thing about modern movie technology is that if you want to be a cinephile, instead of a moviegoer, it can be arranged. Cinephile is a classy word, one that suggests a careful superiority and the unquestioned notion that film or cinema is an art, to be preserved and enjoyed in the way Alistair Cooke once ushered in what was really “Masterpiece Television.” (Of course, the true energy of TV, like movies, was interested in sensation, not in masterpieces. “Laugh-In” and “Monty Python” were strokes of genius, but they were also manifestations of the remote control device, that wand of the urchin gods.)

So as the movies are dying, you can choose to ignore the awkward stink. Cinephiles watch Turner Classic Movies and subscribe to Netflix. They swear by Criterion. They may be within reach of a film museum, and even a repertory house. They go to silent screen festivals, and revel in the club-like mood of their packed houses. Cinephiles have their rows of DVDs, and we can watch our best Blu-Rays of the golden oldies, and nod in agreement to the admission in Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953, third place) that “life is disappointing, isn’t it?” In the directors’ poll that ran alongside the critics’ poll, directors said Tokyo Story was the best film ever made, leaving us to wonder why more directors don’t try to make sad, quiet, restrained films about family life instead of The Hunger Games or Killer Joe.

It is to avoid the vulgarity and the violence of those films (to say nothing of the chatty young audience) that older cinephiles stay at home nursing their Criterion securities. They have never had it so good, or so misleading. But they need to know that the investment in their Blu-Rays is allowing the companies that hold the negatives and the prints to treat those things with mounting disdain. That’s how digital projection is taking over, and why good projectors and projectionists are hard to find. Inevitably, this will lead to foreclosure for most theaters. But don’t worry: new movies will be released on any Pad you have, streaming, screaming, and available for interruptions of all sorts. “Moviegoing” may become as quaint a term as “home theatricals.”

IT'S NOT THAT the instinct for worthwhile film-making has stopped. There are still humane pictures made modestly on absorbing stories with a feeling for fictional lives that can be overwhelming. In just this century, in theaters (for a moment in some cases) you could see Winter’s Bone, The Arbor, The Lives of Others, The Piano Teacher, A Prophet, There Will Be Blood, A Separation, and several others. (I wanted to say many others, but it’s hard.) There have even been large, adventurous Hollywood films such as Inception, which may feature in a Sight & Sound poll by 2032.

You see how positive I am being, even if sometimes seeing the best new movies, and the old, is a little like eating caviar while watching TV footage of the latest famine in Darfur, Pandora, or wherever. The Sight & Sound poll did not transform the pantheon. For the most part, old favorites shuffled places. But there was one surprise, and perhaps the mark of so many younger critics voting. Not that it benefited a new film: instead, Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera came from “nowhere” and took eighth place. This is a silent film, sixty-eight minutes, first released in January 1929, and part of the Soviet enthusiasm for documentary and propaganda and how kino might educate the world.

Not that Vertov’s picture is as partisan as most Soviet documentaries. It is a portrait of the city as a kind of machine (so much more cheerful about it than Chaplin’s Modern Times) in which the proletarian hero is the cameraman climbing to great heights, taking risks, dogged, brave, and ingenious in his pursuit of imagery, with the camera as just one more machine. This is a film in which the essential human right is to take a camera anywhere and show the results to the people. So it is a forerunner of newsreel and surveillance. It is a vibrant, lyrical movie, and it has lasted because it is more in love with movie-making than with the exact texture of a Soviet city (or its economy) in 1929.

Around 1930, there was an exhilaration in many film-makers at what the medium could do. Seeing, or watching closely, were easily taken as measures of social commitment. Dziga Vertov was not a real name. It means “spinning top,” a pretty good nutshell appreciation. He was also David Kaufman. One of his brothers, Mikhail, was the cameraman in the film, while another, Boris, went first to France, where he shot Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934 and twelfth in 2012), and eventually to America, where he photographed many classics, including On the Waterfront, 12 Angry Men, and Long Day’s Journey into Night. The example of the Kaufmans thrilled buffs for decades as a proof of the world community of film. Equally, Man with a Movie Camera and Dziga Vertov were revered, even if few people had seen many of Vertov’s other films.

AS I SAY, Man with a Movie Camera had never before penetrated the Sight & Sound top ten; indeed, it had never figured much in the voting. But now it is in a list that no longer includes Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (fourth in 1952; sixth in 1962; third in 1972; sixth again in 1982 and 1992; seventh in 2002; and now, eleventh). What has happened? Is this a swap? What does the belated arrival of man and movie camera mean? First of all, it is as ever a wonderful film to watch, an inspiration to young filmmakers and as deserving of a spot in the top ten as, say, a thousand other films. More intriguing, it is the one picture in the 2012 top ten that works through editing or montage, rather than sequence cinema. Sequence cinema is a way of using the camera to tell a story that is reasonably faithful to spatial and temporal reality, to performance and mood, and to the illusion that we are watching a real event like a spy. This is patently true of Vertigo and the long sequence in which James Stewart follows Kim Novak through San Francisco, but it applies as easily to Citizen Kane, Tokyo Story, La Règle du Jeu, The Searchers, Sunrise, and even 2001, where space and time are not quite familiar but still are pursued with obsessive exactness.

The more a film is edited, the more it exploits montage, the more clearly we see that space and time are conditions on the screen more than in a real world. Famously, this was the dynamic of much Soviet cinema, notably Battleship Potemkin, which managed to be furiously fabricated and emotionally devastating. But that style did not have much influence. In Soviet Russia it was determined to be formalistic, and in the rest of the world it yielded to long takes, a moving camera, spatial perspective, and a feeling for real time. Those qualities apply not just to the top ten films of 2012 but also to the work of Ophüls, Rossellini, Anthony Mann, Mizoguchi, Antonioni, and Abbas Kiarostami, among others.

The alternative is not just a matter of fast, rhythmic cutting. It is also a feeling for infinite coexistence that has motivated such “in the round” pictures as Altman’s Short Cuts and Anderson’s Magnolia, in which divergence or digression begins to accumulate. The word “cut” has always had rich ambiguities: it is a severing, but a joining, too; a creative juxtaposition. Moreover, it is a way of experiencing the screen’s variety that has come back into use with television, the remote control device, and the frenzy for bits, bites, fragments, and scattered glimpses that iPhones, iPads, laptops, and YouTube offer.

Elderly cinephiles deplore these tiny thumbnail screens and urge the retention of theater screens as large as houses. “You can’t see or feel a movie when it’s two inches by three” has been the refrain. But it has had little effect. Our screens have shrunk and an old adage (about television) has been renewed: “it’s radio with pictures.” In other words, the visceral or neurological contact with the movie does not now depend on our being dominated or spellbound by visual attention so much as it depends on a kind of self-interrupting scanning that keeps aural contact with the film’s streaming. Our regular movies cut far more frequently, but that is a forlorn attempt to match the restless changeability of electronic screens, the unfocused nervous energy that is making wrecks of us. So Dziga Vertov’s 1929 film is the single work in the new top ten that seems to understand that nervy mixture of interruption and unexpected association.

Man with a Movie Camera has always had an order—it was artfully edited by Vertov’s wife, Yelizaveta Svilova. But more than with any other film in the top ten, that order could be changed. The film has no inevitable narrative shape; the formal connectedness of imagery is its glue, but anyone could experiment with it. You could easily start that process—and some may have done so—because the film is now available on YouTube.

And it has had another kind of rescue. In 1929, Vertov left notes about the music he would like to have played with his film. In 1995, the Alloy Orchestra worked that material into a score that they played as live accompaniment to a screening. In the last decade, Man with a Movie Camera has had several accompaniments—another is by Michael Nyman—and unless you have experienced such a screening you cannot grasp the theatrical excitement. All of a sudden the phantom detachment of movies is offset by those busy players under the screen. So Vertov has come back to life and inspired fresh critical writing. Above all, this new setting for Man with a Movie Camera has returned some people to the childlike amazement—the wonder—that has always been vital to the movies.

SO YOU SEE, I am trying to be cheerful. I do so in the face of the prospect that there will be no thirty-five-millimeter prints of the great films, no projectors, no projectionists, and no theaters, and thus fewer films being made in that great tradition. But just as Leavis’s hallowed novelistic tradition (Austen, George Eliot, James, Conrad) deserved to be invaded by modern upstarts (Flann O’Brien, Nabokov, Foster Wallace, Bolaño, James Salter—vary the names according to taste), so I foresee a film culture of increasingly short, insolent, and fragmentary films for which we hardly know the name of the director.

Within the last year or two, I have been delighted with these things: a scene (it later proved to be part of The Trip) in which two actors, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, did competing Michael Caine impersonations. This wasn’t just funny; it had the bonus of showing what an elegant fraud Caine is, and born to be imitated. Then there was a ninety-eight-second remake of Brian De Palma’s Scarface (the Al Pacino version) that consisted of nothing except every use of the word “fuck” in the movie. This is as revelatory as it is entertaining, for it leaves one incapable of watching the De Palma film again. I would praise also another brief montage, this one in which still photographs of Lindsay Lohan taken over the course of her life were dissolved together. It is lovely and poignant and the best thing she has done—except that she didn’t really do it. But in a very short time it captures the ebbing half-life of figments such as Lohan or Marilyn Monroe.

Are these bits and pieces as “good” as La Règle du Jeu and The Passion of Joan of Arc? Of course not. But if you’ve seen the Renoir and the Dreyer pictures enough times to keep them in the top ten for so many decades, aren’t you open to a naughty new trick like “fuck Scarface”? It’s an unanswerable question that only suggests how foolish and enjoyable a game the top ten is. But young people can do these remakes in an hour or two. Their action may be illegal as well as impertinent, but the technology has always ignored such niceties. We are returning, in this fertile ever-dying state, to a condition of film such as existed before 1914, when audiences watched a ragbag of bits and pieces, jokes, marvels, naughty things, spurts of violence, and just light on a screen. The medium is not dead, it is just dying. This morbidity is familiar to us all. I think I can bear not to be here for later ballots in which jokes and outrages vie with surveillance footage and pornographic highlights. If you study kids and their screens these days, the lessons may be disconcerting, but the interaction is full of dying life with kill counts flickering in the corner of the screen like stock market hysteria.

David Thomson is a contributing editor for The New Republic. This article appeared in the October 4, 2012 issue of the magazine.