The Decay of Cinema: Susan Sontag, Martin Scorsese & Their Lamentations on the Decline of Cinema Explored in a New Video Essay

This deep into the coronavirus pandemic, how many cinephiles haven’t yet got word of the bankruptcy or shuttering of a favorite movie theater? Though the coronavirus hasn’t quite killed filmgoing dead — at least not everywhere in the world — the culture of cinema itself had been showing signs of ill health long before any of us had heard the words “social distancing.” The previous plague, in the view of Martin Scorsese, was the Hollywood superhero-franchise blockbuster. “That’s not cinema,” the auteur-cinephile told Empire magazine in 2019. “Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks.”

This past March, Scorsese published an essay in Harper‘s called “Il Maestro.” Ostensibly a reflection on the work of Federico Fellini, it also pays tribute to Fellini’s heyday, when on any given night in New York a young movie fan could find himself torn between screenings of the likes of La Dolce Vita, François Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player, Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds, John Cassavetes’ Shadows, and the work of other masters besides. This was early in the time when, as New Yorker critic Anthony Lane puts it, “adventurous moviegoing was part of the agreed cultural duty, when the duty itself was more of a trip than a drag, and when a reviewer could, in the interests of cross-reference, mention the names ‘Dreyer’ or ‘Vigo’ without being accused of simply dropping them for show.”

Alas, writes Scorsese, today the art of cinema today is “systematically devalued, sidelined, demeaned, and reduced to its lowest common denominator, ‘content.'” Video essayist Daniel Simpson of Eyebrow Cinema calls this lament “more than an artist railing against a businessman’s terminology, but a yearning for a time when movies used to be special in and of themselves, not just as an extension of a streaming service.” In “The Decay of Cinema,” Simpson connects this cri de cinephilic coeur by the man who directed Taxi Driver and GoodFellas to a 25-year-old New York Times opinion piece by Susan Sontag. A midcentury-style film devotee if ever there was one, Sontag mourns “the conviction that cinema was an art unlike any other: quintessentially modern; distinctively accessible; poetic and mysterious and erotic and moral — all at the same time.”

Some may object to Sontag’s claim that truly great films had become “violations of the norms and practices that now govern movie making everywhere.” Just two weeks after her piece ran, Simpson points out, the Coen brothers’ Fargo opened; soon to come were acclaimed pictures by Mike Leigh and Lars von Trier, and the next few years would see the emergence of Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson both. But what of today’s masterpieces, like Chung Mong-hong’s A Sun? Though released before the havoc of COVID-19, it has nevertheless — “without a franchise, rock-star celebrities, or an elevator-pitch high concept” — languished on Netflix. And as for an event of such seemingly enormous cinematic import as the completion of Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind three decades after his death, the result wound up “simply dumped on the platform with everything else.”

In a time like this, when the many stuck at home have few options besides streaming services, one hesitates to accuse Netflix of killing either cinema or cinephilia. And yet Simpson sees a considerable difference between being a cinephile and being a “user,” a label that suggests “a customer to be satiated” (if not an addict to be granted a fix of his habit-forming commodity). “There’s only one problem with home cinema,” writes Lane. “It doesn’t exist.” Choice “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).” If we continue to do our viewing in algorithm-padded isolation, we surrender what Simpson describes as “the human connection to the film experience” — one of the things that, when all the social distancing ends, even formerly casual moviegoers may find themselves desperately craving.

Related Content:

Susan Sontag’s 50 Favorite Films (and Her Own Cinematic Creations)

Martin Scorsese Explains the Difference Between Cinema and Movies

Martin Scorsese on How “Diversity Guarantees Our Cultural Survival,” in Film and Everything Else

Watch the New Trailer for Orson Welles’ Lost Film, The Other Side of the Wind: A Glimpse of Footage from the Finally Completed Film

This Is Your Kids’ Brains on Internet Algorithms: A Chilling Case Study Shows What’s Wrong with the Internet Today

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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  • Don Smith says:

    I read Mr. Scorsese’s essay, and must admit that I too love the magic of Fellini. I love the magic that is created by so many of Mr. Scorcese’s curated films. I watch with glee as the releases come from his foundation’s World Cinema project. Films that he has recommended have changed my life with their beauty and wisdom.
    I however do not agree that the passing of this era of film, due to technology and economics, is necessarily all bad, though I believe I will miss it for a while. In the world where Mr. Scorsese’s ‘cinema’ exists, there is a vigorous rat race, to convince funders to materialize the vision of the latest gifted creator. In this world, or in the cinema of the peak of American hegemony, the entire riches of the world were laid bare at the feet of these gifted creators, in other countries, the finest things they could produce were offered up. These creators had their choice, to materialize their visions from a finite world’s peak performances and property, at the world’s peak of prosperity.
    Mr. Scorsese who is, and I use this term with no sarcasm, a gifted creator, got to live in an exclusive club which I believe we will talk about for hundreds of years to come. To say I am envious of this world is a vast understatement.
    The economic and technological innovations of our time have created a new world however. In this world, every home has a cinema, not merely Hearst’s San Simeon. Not only that, the price of some of the finest works of cinema past can be had for less than a meal at McDonalds, in a quality equal to what can be seen in theaters. We can now all be the traveling road show presenting Frankenstein like in ‘The Spirit of the Beehive’.
    Technology and economics have even gone further. Very soon, a gifted enthusiast will be able to command the images of the finest actors of the world using Deep Learning technology. Very soon any time and space that has been photographed will be able to be transformed into a set for these actors. The riches of the world will be offered to anyone with a little passion and technical acumen.
    Mr. Scorsese is right, some if not much of the content which we will watch may be odious, television for the background, or content at the lowest level. It will also be true however, that the entire world will have access to the literature and settings of the century of global cinema. I think that it is worth the price to lose the millions funneled to a gifted individual so that all who have passion and time will be permitted to join Mr. Scorsese’s exclusive club. We will still need curators, but they may work for less prestigious publications and instead resemble the majority of the planet.
    I think that it is perhaps the exclusivity which will disappear, hobnobbing at Cannes may disappear for these impoverished auteurs. For those of us who treasure the actual work product however, there will be plenty to choose from.

  • Karl Reitman says:

    I will not watch this, I’m not curious of people whinging about the present and pining for the past. Especially after having to sit through Scorcese’s The Irishman, a particularly bad (tedious, simplistic, cliched, overacted) piece of cinematic rubbish.

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