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.
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.