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:

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Martin Scorsese Explains the Difference Between Cinema and Movies

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

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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.

The Story of Stalker, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Troubled (and Even Deadly) Sci-Fi Masterpiece

Andrei Tarkovsky is a popular filmmaker. This will come as a surprise to those who know the Soviet master mostly by his reputation as a maker of movies so poetic, serious, and deliberate of pace that they alter their viewers’ relationship to time itself. Yet Stalker, which ranks among his very most poetic, serious, and deliberate works, was, as of the recording of the video essay above by Youtuber CinemaTyler, the most streamed movie on the Criterion Channel. Not only that, but the essay itself, Stalker (1979): The Sci-Fi Masterpiece That Killed Its Director,” has as of this writing racked up more than 1.6 million views.

As CinemaTyler’s most-seen episode, this Stalker exegesis outranks in popularity his analyses of classics like Blade RunnerNorth by Northwest, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It has also drawn more viewers than his many videos on the work of Stanley Kubrick, from The Shining and 2001: A Space Odyssey to Barry Lyndon and A Clockwork Orange. But for an auteur enthusiast of his kind, one can hardly begin discussing Kubrick without bringing up Tarkovsky, and vice versa. Some points of comparison are more obvious than others: CinemaTyler mentions Tarkovsky’s low opinion of 2001, which played a part in shaping the starkly different look and feel of his own first science-fiction picture Solaris.

There’s also a reference to “Kubrick/Tarkovsky,” a video essay previously featured here on Open Culture that catalogs the subtler visual resonances between their films. “Kubrick is one side of the brain,” as CinemaTyler puts it, “and Tarkovsky the other.” As much as they have in common on a deeper level, on the surface Kubrick and Tarkovsky’s oeuvres both oppose and complement each other. While Kubrick worked only in genres, Tarkovsky mostly eschewed them: Stalker, which came out seven years after Solaris, pulls sci-fi almost unrecognizably far into his own aesthetic territory.

This thrust Tarkovsky and his collaborators into their most arduous filmmaking effort yet: they had to execute complicated setups in real industrial wastelands, make several changes of cinematographer, and even shoot the entire movie twice after problems with the initial film stock. CinemaTyler recounts these difficulties and others, not ignoring the widely held suspicion that these poisonous locations ultimately caused the deaths of several of its creators, including Tarkovsky himself. Kubrick’s shoots were also notoriously difficult, of course, but none demanded quite the sacrifice Stalker did — and arguably, none produced quite an inexplicably compelling a cinematic experience.

You can pick up a copy of Stalker on Blu-ray.

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“Kubrick/Tarkovsky”: A Video Essay Explores the Visual Similarities Between the Two “Cinematic Giants”

Andrei Tarkovsky’s Masterpiece Stalker Gets Adapted into a Video Game

Tarkovsky’s Advice to Young Filmmakers: Sacrifice Yourself for Cinema

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.

The World of Wong Kar-Wai: How the Films of Hong Kong’s Most Acclaimed Auteur Have Stayed Thrilling

I’ve just seen the future of cinema.” So declared the American film critic Peter Brunette after stumbling, “still dazed,” from a screening at the 1995 Toronto International Film festival. “Oh,” replied TIFF Cinémathèque programmer (and respected authority on Asian cinema) James Quandt. “You’re just coming from the Wong Kar-wai film?” Brunette includes this story in his monograph on Wong’s work, which was published in 2005. At that point, his pictures like Days of Being WildChungking Express, and In the Mood for Love had already torn through global film culture, inspiring cinephiles and filmmakers alike to believe that an intoxicating range of cinematic possibilities still lay unexplored.

What’s more, they seemed to do it all of a sudden, having come out of nowhere. Of course, they came out of somewhere: Hong Kong, to be precise, a small but densely populated and economically mighty soon-to-be-former-colony whose distinctive cultural and industrial mixture produced a kind of modernity at once familiar and alien to beholders around the world.

Or at least it felt that way to those beholding it through Wong Kar-wai movies, which created their very own aesthetic world within the context of Hong Kong. That “neon-drenched” world in which “lonely souls drift around, desperately trying to make a meaningful connection, no matter how fleeting,” is the subject of the new BFI video essay at the top of the post.

As a part of Hong Kong’s “second new wave,” Wong found his cinematic voice by telling “highly atmospheric stories of restrained passion, using dazzling visuals, memorable songs, and unconventional narratives,” all the while “pushing the boundaries of Hong Kong genre cinema to create something fresh and inventive.” The West got its first big dose of it in 1994 through Chungking Express, whose worldwide release owed in part to the enthusiasm of Quentin Tarantino. In the clip above Tarantino does some enthusing about it and the rest of Wong’s oeuvre up to that point, which “has all that same energy that Hong Kong tends to bring to its cinema, but he’s also taking a cue from the French New Wave” — and especially Jean-Luc Godard, who showed how to “take genre pieces and break the rules.”

None of Wong’s films has made as much of an impact as 2000’s In the Mood for Love, the tale of a man and woman brought together — though not all the way together — by the fact that their spouses are cheating on them with each other. Evan Puschak, better known as the Nerdwriter, analyzes the movie’s power in the video essay “Frames within Frames.” Watching it, he says, “you can’t help but feel that you’re in the hands of somebody in complete control.” By restricting his cinematic language, Wong “echoes the restriction of action that plagues Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan in 1960s Hong Kong.” The recent 20th-anniversary restoration of In the Mood for Love and those of Wong’s other work are even now being screened around the globe. Having caught one such screening just last night, I feel like I’ve seen the future of cinema again.

Note: The Criterion Collection now offers a Wong Kar-wai box set that features seven blu-rays, including 4k digital restorations of Chungking Express, In the Mood for Love, Happy Together and more. Find it here.

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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.

Why Do Wes Anderson Movies Look Like That?

The dominant form of Hollywood and/or mainstream filmmaking has been realism, the sense that even in our wildest fantasy, sci-fi, and superhero films there’s still an attempt to hide the camera, the crew, and the lighting, and that what we’re seeing just *is*, that nothing has been constructed for us. Despite the tricks that editing and non-diegetic sound (music, etc.) play on us, we are still willing to believe that we are seeing a thing that happened.

There’s very few filmmakers that explicitly resist this and still make popular and successful Hollywood films, and Wes Anderson is one of them. Hence the above video essay from Thomas Flight, who recently visited Anderson’s films to pull out the more esoteric of his references.

Flight’s thesis runs thusly. Anderson chose to use real fur on the stop-motion puppets in the Fantastic Mr. Fox not despite the hair moving from the animators’ hands’ manipulation, but *because* of it. Showing the fingerprints as it were of the creators within the film itself is a constant stylistic choice in his cinema, and one that is also reflected in his use of flat, diorama-like frames. This is what critic Matt Zoller Seitz, who has written several beautiful coffee table books on Wes Anderson, calls Planimetric Composition. But it’s also there in the titles, use of theater curtains, of the numerous storybook and comic book references that shape Anderson’s work.

This is not new of course, if you follow any writing on Anderson. It’s a key to understanding his aesthetic. But Flight goes further to ask why. Why construct something so artificial and risk alienating audiences?

Flight comes to the point: it’s a risk worth taking. It’s a moment in childhood—he compares it to a parent reading a bedtime story. A parent is present, often the focus of the child’s attention (there might not even be a book) but at the same time so is the story. Words unfold in speech and also unfold in a child’s mind. Both exist in the same space, the artificial and the real.

So many Anderson films unfold like storybooks—we often see a hardback book with the same title in the film itself, or in the case of The Grand Budapest Hotel, a series of stories and books, all nestled inside each other. Flight doesn’t make the comparison, but it is worth doing so: Anderson’s films are like epistolary novels of the 19th century, such as Frankenstein or Wuthering Heights, stories within letters within stories.

But here’s the interesting part: when Anderson has a moment of heightened emotion in his films, where characters let down their guard and speak from the heart, the director will give us the classic realist shot/reverse shot. It’s fleeting but it’s there.

And that works exactly because Anderson holds off on revealing it to us until that one moment. The storyteller knows it’s special and knows we’re going to find it special. At a time when the auteur theory is under attack from critics on one side and the capitalist machine, it’s good to know there’s a director like Anderson who doesn’t give us what we want, but gives us what we so sorely need.

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the Notes from the Shed podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

On “Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar” and the Female Buddy Comedy–Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast #87

The buddy comedy is a staple of American film, but using this to explore female friendship is still fresh ground. Erica, Mark, Brian, and Erica’s long-time friend Micah Greene (actor and nurse) discuss tropes and dynamics within this kind of film, focusing primarily on Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar, the 2021 release written and starring Kristin Wiig and Annie Mumolo as a couple of middle aged near-twin oddballs expanding their horizons in a surrealistic, gag-filled tropical venue.

While male pairings of this sort (Cheech and Chong, Bob and Doug McKenzie, Beavis and Butthead et al) stick to silly jokes, Barb and Star base their antics around their evolving relationship toward each other. As with the 2019 film Booksmart and many TV shows including Dead to Me, PEN15, and Grace and Frankie, the trend is toward dramedy as the dynamics of friendship are taken seriously. We also touch on Bridesmaids, Sisters, The Heat, BAPS, I Love You Man, and more.

A few relevant articles:

Hear more of this podcast at This episode includes bonus discussion that you can access by supporting the podcast at This podcast is part of the Partially Examined Life podcast network.

Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast is the first podcast curated by Open Culture. Browse all Pretty Much Pop posts.

What Andrei Tarkovsky’s Most Notorious Scene Tells Us About Time During the Pandemic: A Video Essay

In his films, Andrei Tarkovsky shows us things no other auteur does: an unbroken eight-minute shot, for example, of a man slowly walking a lit candle across an empty pool, starting over again whenever the flame goes out. One of the best-known (or at least most often mentioned) sequences in the Russian master’s oeuvre, it comes from Nostalghia, a late picture made during his final, exiled years in Italy. Some cite it as an example of all that’s wrong with Tarkovsky’s cinema; others as an example of all that’s right with it. But both the criticism and the praise are rooted in the director’s heightened sensitivity to and deliberate use of time — a resource about which we’ve all come to feel differently after a year of global pandemic.

“Our sense of time during the pandemic was just as warped as our sense of space,” says Evan Puschak, better known as the Nerdwriter, in his new video essay above, a follow-up to his previous exploration of how lockdowns turned cities around the world into de Chirico paintings.

At first, “time felt simultaneously slow and fast: hours dragged on at a snail’s pace, but weeks flew by. 2020 seemed endless while it was happening, but in retrospect it feels brief, shorter than a normal year.” But even under “normal” conditions, it holds true that “the more attention we give to time, the slower it feels.” And when we think back to our past experiences, “the more we can remember in a given period expands our sense of its length.”

Watching Nostalghia‘s candle-in-the-pool scene, “you become aware of the odd encounter you’re having with time itself. You can feel the texture of it, its presence, as if time were not only a concept, but a substance, stretching out in front of you, expanding and contracting with every breath. It’s beyond interest, beyond boredom.” Unlike most filmmakers, Tarkovsky doesn’t manipulate time to keep us on a pre-laid emotional track, but to make us aware of our own movement through it. “It’ll be the same for the pandemic,” says Puschak. “There are some rhythms we’ll be eager to get back to, and others, now that we’ve experienced their absence, we’ll be eager to leave behind.” Right now, we’d do well to question the new forms of nostalgia that have beset us. Or we could use the time still on our hands to hold Tarkovsky retrospectives of our own.

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Andrei Tarkovsky Answers the Essential Questions: What is Art & the Meaning of Life?

When Our World Became a de Chirico Painting: How the Avant-Garde Painter Foresaw the Empty City Streets of 2020

Why Time Seems to Speed Up as We Get Older: What the Research Says

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.

Watch the Classic Silent Film The Ten Commandments (1923) with a New Score by Steve Berlin (Los Lobos), Steven Drozd (Flaming Lips) & Scott Amendola

For Passover 2021, the culture nonprofit Reboot has released “a modern day score to Cecil B. Demille’s 1923 classic silent film The Ten Commandments with Steve Berlin (Los Lobos), Steven Drozd (Flaming Lips) and Scott Amendola.”

Reboot writes: “Berlin, Drozd and Amendola created a momentous new score for the Exodus tale, musically following Moses out of Egypt and into the Dessert where he receives the Ten Commandments. Cecil B. DeMille’s first attempt at telling the Ten Commandments story was in the Silent era year of 1923. The film [now in the public domain] is broken up into two stories: the story of the Jewish Exodus from Egypt and a thinly related ‘present day’ melodrama.”

Enjoy it all above.

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via BoingBoing

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Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless: How World War II Changed Cinema & Helped Create the French New Wave

Did World War II help create the French New Wave? In a roundabout way, yes, according to this video essay by Nerdwriter. Although Jean-Luc Godard’s A Bout de Souffle (aka Breathless) was not technically the first Nouvelle Vague film, it was the film’s revolutionary look and feel, and Godard’s exquisite sense of how to work the promotional machine, that caused it to reverberate around the world. A few years later, many other countries would be launching their own New Waves: Britain, Germany, Eastern Europe, Australia, Japan, Brazil, Iran, and America. Each were particular to their own countries, but all sought to create an alternative to the dominant film culture, either Hollywood or their own country’s Hollywood-influenced film industries.

That decision did not come about in a vacuum, as the video points out. After the war, France was left with $2 billion in debt. Former Interim Prime Minister and then Ambassador Leon Blum signed an agreement with America’s Secretary of State James F. Byrnes to cancel debt and to start a new line of credit. One of the provisions of the 1946 Blum-Byrnes agreement was opening France up to American cultural product, in particular Hollywood films.

In French cinemas, four weeks out of every thirteen weeks would be devoted to French films. The other nine were reserved for foreign (i.e. mostly American) films. But the trade off included a tax on movie tickets, so the increased audience helped fund the French film industry.

Certain results came about that were not planned. A young cinephile generation was born, and its main journal was Cahiers du Cinema, edited by writer and theorist André Bazin. The French could not lay claim to an industry like Hollywood’s, but they could point to inventing movies as we now know them (Georges Méliès and the Lumière Brothers were French), and for treating film as an art form (by the Surrealists, by the Dadaists) before anybody else, and not just as entertainment.

The young critics who wrote for Cahiers du Cinema certainly loved the influx of American films, which they devoured daily in a city like Paris, especially at the Cinémathèque Française. Curated by Henri Langlois, this cinema/museum screened both new and old films, so much so that those critics began to see the artist behind the entertainment. The rise of the auteur theory, coined by Bazin among others, placed the director at the center of not just their one film, but demonstrated certain techniques and interests threading through all films that they directed.

Although there wasn’t a lot of money floating around, there was still enough to make short films and those critics—Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer, and others—would start to put into practice the theory that they had been writing.

After a few shorts, Godard directed A Bout de Souffle, and the world wasn’t really the same after it.

The film was shot on a handheld camera, by Raoul Cotard, who had used such a camera in the war for newsreels. They used available light. And the two actors, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg, improvised around a script that Godard would write the night before. Godard turned his brain inside-out, like emptying a bag across a table: all his cultural obsessions, not just in cinema, but in writers, philosophers, music, and more, all came out. If Godard was going to be an auteur, then this was how to do it. And yes, the jump-cut editing, as Nerdwriter points out, was shocking for the time. But so was seeing the actors walking around the actual streets of Paris. And so was hearing two people talk (and talk and talk) just like they do in real life. Even if a lot of those things have become common place these days, when everybody carries a movie camera in their pocket, Breathless still brims with life.

Over the course of the ‘60s Godard and his contemporaries would both honor, indulge, and then break away from Hollywood influences. The dominance of Hollywood product began to feel like imperialism, and America’s involvement in Vietnam and its overwhelming influence on consumer culture would lead to the events of 1968, and Godard’s outright rejection of Hollywood. He would end up killing his masters, so to speak. But that was still to come. There’s still Breathless, and there’s still 1960 in Paris.

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the Notes from the Shed podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

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