Netflix launched in Australia two weeks ago and I signed up on day one. Having already been a convert to on demand digital downloading of movies and TV shows from online stores such as iTunes, the promise of 24 hour, on-demand streaming (made simple) was impossible to resist. And what was the first piece of content I watched? House of Cards, Season 3; the entire season. To be clear, I didn’t binge-watch all 13 one-hour episodes in one go like every other Netflix tragic, but I did do it in four sessions, which I guess is bad enough! This sort of content, apart from being incredibly well made and told, makes for gripping viewing. It tells a great story, with delectable performances (particularly from Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright) and captures the imagination, even if its overall story and tone is quite dark; but then again, that’s what makes it so interesting.
In between sessions of House of Cards, and as I contemplated what the arrival of Netflix means for the industry as a whole, I came across some fascinating articles covering the “death of cinema”. Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill director Quentin Tarantino at last year’s Cannes Film Festival stated that digital projection in cinemas is “TV in Public”, an incredibly arrogant and condescending presumption that indicates that somehow digital technology itself has killed the art form. Digital screening is superior to traditional film projection, at least in my opinion; I’ll take perfect clear images that are the same on Day 1000 as Day 1 over scratchy film artefacts any day, with a print copy that degrades with use. And what about the ever increasing amount of mind-numbing blockbuster sequels and remakes produced by Hollywood in their never-ending pursuit for the youth dollar? Isn’t that the real problem? And is Tarantino actually suggesting that filmmakers like David Fincher and James Cameron are making TV in public with their films? And let’s not forget something: film is a technology and it made cinema happen. Digital technology is just the latest tool in the kit to make it happen. It’s not because the technology is garbage or is somehow inferior to traditional film. Digital technology is getting a bad reputation because the quality of the creative content being generated with those digital tools is so lackluster in today’s risk averse climate. To close on this point, somehow making and distributing movies exclusively on 35mm film won’t spontaneously generate quality films Quentin.
Jim Emerson over at Rogerebert.com had a more balanced view in his 2010 article “Who Killed The Movies?” in which he points out that the death of cinema has been called out many times in previous decades, and from my reading of it, is a generational determinant, where a generation will give up on cinema when they see the next generation’s cinema surpassing their own in terms of dominance (and consequently, not having the gravitas or substance of their own). At the end of Emerson’s article, he posed the question: “Has there been a movie, or a development in movies, that made you feel like saying ‘That’s it! I’m done!’? Where would you draw the line? What part of film history — past, present… or future — interests you most and why?”
I found these questions fascinating as it put in to perspective for me my own thoughts of cinema and why I seem to have disengaged with it in the past six or seven years. As I thought about it more, combined with the fact that I predominately watch streaming content these days, I realised that I could put a timeframe on the period of mainstream cinema that engaged me, and subsequently dis-engaged me: 1975-2008.
The film from 1975 that had the most profound impact on me was Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws”. It was the film that got me seriously interested in film and cinema. Although my first viewing of it was on television in the mid-80s, I still have memories of the first time I watched it, and how I was on the edge of my seat throughout all the thrills and scares, while simultaneously being carried away with the excellent performances from the lead actors, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfus and Roy Scheider. Although the film is credited as the beginning of the end of cinema (along with Star Wars) due to its position in ushering in the modern blockbuster, it was still in itself a great film. Many have derided films like Jaws as destroying cinema, but it is in fact what films like Jaws encouraged Hollywood to do later, which was to produce never ending inferior copies of movies like this. On a personal note, I still love the film; it still works today and I feel a glaring absence of this type of film in today’s cineplexes.
And why 2008 as the end of the era? Well, that was the year Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” arrived in cinemas. Similar to Jaws in terms of its ability to engross an audience, but on a more complex storytelling level, this film epitomised to me everything about the Hollywood blockbuster promise to the audience; great storytelling, Oscar worthy performances, within the package of big screen excitement and scale that only Hollywood can deliver. It also marked for me the end of the era of quality Hollywood filmmaking as in my view they stopped making this type of film with any regularity after 2008. Sure, there have been a handful of exceptions, with 2013’s “Gravity” being an excellent example, but by and large, Hollywood films have since become completely committee-driven exercises, beholden to marketing departments with studios taking over the vision of the product, and not trusting directors to put their stamp on any one film. One might argue this has always been the case, but in the 1975-2008 era, there were still many unique films interspersed among the “corporate/product” films that had something to say. An excellent example is 1993’s “Philadelphia”; a film dealing with AIDS, homophobia and the law, it was the type of film that would generate serious cultural discussion long after people left the cinema. Do you see this type of film being made by Hollywood today as a mainstream film? Or what about a genre film like 1991’s “The Silence Of The Lambs”, whose entire success rested on the performances of its lead actors Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster (and became the year’s best film, with Oscars for both actors and the film itself)? No Hollywood film today will take the chance of its success residing in any one actor’s performance; it’s too risky. Better to throw as many disjointed computer generated images in two-second cuts on the screen in order to not give the audience enough time to think. And while you’re at it, just make sure the cast is great-looking; they don’t need to know how to act if there’s stuff exploding and computer generated cities to behold. That’s what the mainstream audience wants today isn’t it? (All right, I know I’m whining now!).
There are many, many films from the 1975-2008 period that fall in to this category and are standouts for me, almost too many to mention. I recently re-watched 1984’s The NeverEnding Story, which any child of the 80s will instantly remember with fondness, despite the fact that it is very dated now (and that title song is really cheesy). It was this film that I recalled during my first viewing of the first Lord of the Rings films, which in 2001 seemed to capture that same style of fantasy magic. Or what about 1993’s The Fugitive, which granted was a remake of a television show, but was such a well executed chase thriller that I still feel tempted to pull it out every now and then to relive the viewing experience and Tommy Lee Jones’ Oscar-winning performance. And remember M. Night Shyamalan’s breakthrough film from 1999, The Sixth Sense? Incredible storytelling in a film designed more like an indie film than something mainstream. Despite the fact that Shyamalan never reclaimed the heights he reached with this film, and has in general become a laughing stock with a succession of incredibly bad films, he delivered a truly eerie film in The Sixth Sense that not only delivered the chills expected from such a film, but also had something to say about the human relationship with death. I could go on and on about all these types of films from this period but it would be the subject of a book, not a blog post!
Sadly, these types of films are absent from the cinematic landscape these days, which brings me back to Jim Emerson’s article on cinematic periods in history. I’m of the generation that grew up on Spielberg, Lucas, the 90s festival circuit that produced many indie filmmakers, and the like. Unfortunately, that era has now ended as Hollywood does not tolerate the Director’s vision any more in mainstream cinema, as promised in the late 1960s with the American New Wave (Easy Rider and the like). I’ve picked the year 2008 as the end for me, but that is entirely subjective; it’s based on the idea that I haven’t really been moved by the mainstream cinema experience since then.
I should point out that there are many films prior to 1975 that I love also; Citizen Kane from 1941, Psycho from 1960 and anything in general from Alfred Hitchcock. However, the one aspect I’m not so in to with these films is the technical quality of the production, which of course was a limitation of the era in which they were made. As amazing as the camera moves are in Citizen Kane, or the sheer ingenuity of the editing and sound in films like Psycho, I still prefer the technical proficiency of the 1975-2008 period. It goes without saying of course that many of today’s films could take queues from Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock in terms of how to tell a proper story through film.
Returning to Netflix, what I’ve discovered in today’s world is that the story-telling quality of the 1975-2008 period can now be found in the high-budget television series found on streaming services and other studios such as HBO and Showtime. And when you consider that watching four episodes of an hour-long drama series is roughly equivalent to going to the cinema to watch a three hour film, I don’t really see the point of going to the cinema to see a blockbuster regurgitating the same old crap when you can get great quality, original and innovative story-telling at home, and on demand.
To further illustrate this point, I want the three hours of my life back that I lost to “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies”, an absolutely soulless travesty of a film that makes a mockery of the previous Lord of the Rings trilogy (incidentally both crafted by Peter Jackson who probably should have known better). Or the two and a half hours that was “The Amazing Spider-Man 2”, an absolutely silly film that was quite obviously made by a committee that didn’t know what it wanted or what it was doing. The only consolation prize to Hollywood rubbish like this is streaming a four-hour session of “Mad Men”, “Game of Thrones” or “Breaking Bad”. In that sense, on demand streaming companies are offering a whole new world of entertainment, and the best part is that we can watch what we want, when we want it, on the device we want to watch it on.
In closing, I’d like to propose a similar question that Jim Emerson asked his readers: “What period of cinema history interest you the most? When did cinema end for you? Was there a particular film that marked the end of cinema for you? Or are you still in to it?