Wim Wenders and Celebrated Directors Talk About the Future of Cinema (1982)

His inter­est stoked by the sight of a majes­tic old tree beside the road to Cannes, one which lived before any­one made films and may well live after any­one makes films, Wim Wen­ders con­sult­ed fif­teen of his col­leagues for their thoughts on the future of cin­e­ma. This being the time and place of the 35th Cannes Film Fes­ti­val, he man­aged to round up cel­e­brat­ed inter­na­tion­al auteurs like Jean-Luc Godard, Wern­er Her­zog, Rain­er Wern­er Fass­binder, and Michelan­ge­lo Anto­nioni — names cinephiles now men­tion along­side Wen­ders’ own — as well as less­er-known film­mak­ers like Mike De Leon, Romain Goupil, and Ana Car­oli­na. Alone in a hotel room in front of the rolling cam­era, a tape recorder cap­tur­ing their voice to their right and a silent tele­vi­sion spout­ing images to their left, they each respond to ques­tions on a sheet that fol­low from the same prompt: “Is cin­e­ma a lan­guage about to get lost, an art about to die?” Their reac­tions make up Room 666, which you can watch free online.

You may be famil­iar with the hand-wring­ing hap­pen­ing over this ques­tion even today, 30 years on. While our cur­rent anx­i­ety has to do with whether on-demand, inter­net-based deliv­ery mech­a­nisms will ren­der movies as we know them obso­lete, sev­er­al of the film­mak­ing minds in Room 666 go straight to the then-loom­ing specter of home video. Some seem ner­vous about it; oth­ers — notably Goupil, who unhesi­tat­ing­ly denounces the incon­ve­nience of tra­di­tion­al pro­duc­tion tools, and Her­zog, who pref­aces his answer by tak­ing off his shoes and socks — seem untrou­bled. Late in the doc­u­men­tary, a cer­tain Steven Spiel­berg pops up to defend his posi­tion as “one of the last opti­mists” in cin­e­ma. Even more sur­pris­ing than his pres­ence, giv­en the con­text, is his view of the film artist’s strug­gle against the film indus­try. Hol­ly­wood, he claims, has always yearned to make that myth­i­cal, mon­ey-print­ing “movie for every­one.” He argues that, giv­en these demands, the trou­bled eco­nom­ic times, the strug­gling dol­lar, and the shaky atten­dance fig­ures — in 1982, remem­ber — film­mak­ers will just have to fight the good fight that much hard­er to tell their small, pecu­liar sto­ries in ways that seem big and broad­ly mar­ketable.

Pac­ing and ges­tic­u­lat­ing, Anto­nioni explains his con­fi­dence that mankind will adopt, adapt to, and improve upon whichev­er vari­ety of film­mak­ing tech­nol­o­gy comes its way, “mag­net­ic tape” or some­thing more futur­is­tic. But does this apply equal­ly to film­go­ers as to film­mak­ers? Anto­nioni and cer­tain oth­er of Wen­ders’ iso­lat­ed inter­vie­wees spec­u­late that, with the advent of per­son­al screen­ing tech­nolo­gies, the entire tra­di­tion­al cin­e­mat­ic view­ing infra­struc­ture — the­aters, pro­jec­tors, snack bars — will inevitably van­ish. When Two Lane Black­top direc­tor Monte Hell­man takes his seat in Room 666 and bemoans hav­ing taped hun­dreds of movies off tele­vi­sion with­out hav­ing watched a sin­gle one, he briefly comes off as more pre­scient, or at least as more of an illus­tra­tion of the future, than any­one else.

Yet in 2012’s mixed cin­e­mat­ic econ­o­my, amid an unprece­dent­ed­ly wide range of means to watch a movie, I still find myself in the­aters more often that not. In these the­aters, I often watch revivals of films by these very same film­mak­ers, or even by their elders. Since Antho­ny Lane wrote it in the New York­er, I’ve quot­ed it almost dai­ly: “There’s only one prob­lem with home cin­e­ma: it doesn’t exist. The very phrase is an oxy­moron. As you pause your film to answer the door or fetch a Coke, the expe­ri­ence ceas­es to be cin­e­ma. Even the act of choos­ing when to watch means you are no longer at the movies. Choice—preferably an exhaus­tive menu of it—pretty much defines our sta­tus as con­sumers, and has long been an unques­tioned tenet of the cap­i­tal­ist feast, but in fact carte blanche is no way to run a cul­tur­al life (or any kind of life, for that mat­ter), and one thing that has nour­ished the the­atri­cal expe­ri­ence, from the Athens of Aeschy­lus to the mul­ti­plex, is the ele­ment of com­pul­sion.” H/T Dan­ger­ous Minds

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

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