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.

by | Permalink | Comments (2) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (2)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • 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.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.