Is Film Culture Really Dead?

As the New York Film Festival grinds away, movie snobs feel threatened by a world where cinema no longer exclusively belongs to them. 

Over at Salon Andrew O’Hehir has written a ‘think piece’ that is, on its surface, kind of compelling. He makes the argument (one that, to be fair, has been made ad nauseum since HBO changed the cable landscape) that television is where all of the smart, culturally important narrative stuff happens, leaving the cinema behind in an infantile wash of superheroes and sequels. It feels easy to agree, especially when he asks what movies have been as central to a certain kind of cultural conversation as The Wire. Once upon a time, he says, everybody got together to talk about Scorsese and Antonioni the way we now talk about Breaking Bad. Le cinema est mort!

Except I don’t know that I believe him. And the more I read his piece the more I wondered just from whence his central thesis sprang. Then I read this paragraph and realized he’s longing for the days when the life of a white intellectual was like what Woody Allen lampooned in the 70s:

Film culture — in my now-defunct Susan Sontag sense — has a history, and I think it pretty much ended with “Pulp Fiction,” the brief indie-film boom of the late ’90s and the rise of the Internet. It’s just taken us a while to realize it. When the NYFF was launched in 1963, the films of the French New Wave were the hottest things on roller skates, and the Mt. Rushmore Great Men of postwar art cinema – Bergman, Truffaut, Fellini, Kurosawa – were at or near their career peaks. Cocktail party debate among the chattering classes often revolved around existentially inflected, black-and-white works like “L’Avventura,” “Last Year at Marienbad” or violent, generationally-defined American films like “Easy Rider” and “Bonnie and Clyde,” along with the contentious reviews published by Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris and numerous others. Those who hadn’t seen such films, or hadn’t “gotten” them, felt not so subtly left out.

It seems that the piece isn’t quite bemoaning the loss of importance of the cinema, but rather the end of that world of tweedy cocktail parties (seriously, who goes to non-ironic cocktail parties anymore?). With all due respect to Mr. O’Hehir, fuck the ‘chattering classes.’ I for one don’t long for the days when New York intellectual society was all about snottily standing around sniffing over an article in the New York Review of Books.

That crowd never lived movies - hell, they barely lived at all. Uptight, dismissive and dull, they sought to make cinema exclusionary, something only for the hoity-toity, spitting on the hoi polloi. To hell with that. I just came from Fantastic Fest where deep, raucous, smart and funny conversations were had about brilliant films that will never pass before the eyeballs of the New York Film Festival cognoscenti.

What’s more, I’m not even sure about O’Hehir’s claim here:

For every oddball little movie that breaks through into the national conversation – so far in 2012 that list includes “Moonrise Kingdom” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” which are strikingly similar films – there are hundreds of others that briefly get hyped by people like me and then sink without a trace. Your average episode of “Breaking Bad” or “The Good Wife” or “Louie” will generate many times more debate and conversation – more actual excitement — than all except perhaps a half-dozen movies released this year (and most of those will involve superheroes).

Again, I think this is O’Hehir mourning the passing of a social class. Breaking Bad had 2.8 million viewers at this year’s mid-season finale, a fairly small number. Taking Moonrise Kingdom’s 45 million dollar domestic gross and dividing it by an average 10 dollar ticket price, that film was seen by more people than the way-hyped show.

Of course O’Hehir isn’t arguing more people see Louie than Beasts of the Southern Wild (they’re probably about neck and neck), but rather that more people talk about it. To some extent that’s true, but I think that’s more about the way the constant need for content drives internet discussion, and the fact that the internet has replaced Upper West Side living rooms as the place where discussion happens. You can mine lots out of Game of Thrones if you’re writing online, but Celeste and Jesse Forever is ripe only for a short time. The mistake here is assuming that every episode of The Good Wife is its own thing; in reality the entirety of The Good Wife is what's being discussed, only in bite sized segments each week. These half dozen shows equal, essentially, the half dozen movies that break out.

O’Hehir can name a handful of TV shows that get this kind of attention, some of which, like The Wire, were barely watched when they were actually on. The reality is that TV is crammed with worthless shit, and only a tiny handful of shows matter. It’s not even clear that there will be another show on the level of The Sopranos or Breaking Bad or The Wire ever again. It seems like the noise these shows make is disproportionate to their place in the larger cultural world. 

That, to some extent, was the case with movies like L’Avventura and Last Year at Marienbad, which nobody in the real world saw. It isn’t like you’d walk into a bar in 1967 and hear regular people talking about Godard’s Weekend. The culture isn’t just the bow tied, wall eyed cinemagoers at Lincoln Center. It’s bigger than that. It's the regular people too.

I think what’s bugging O’Hehir is that the ‘chattering class’ isn’t made up of the same people as in 1977 (he says that isn't the case, but when you pine for "old-fashioned, top-down genteel-chat sense inherited from Susan Sontag and 1963" it sounds like that's the case). I get the mourning for a lost niche, for a specialization democratized out of existence. It’s happening with geek culture right this very minute. All of a sudden liking the third highest grossing movie of all time makes you ‘a geek.’ That sucks. It sucks seeing the doorman overwhelmed and losing your special place in the world.

What O’Hehir is missing on a larger scale, though, is that the era of big, centralized culture is over. The culture is fragmented in a zillion pieces, and there’s nobody leading the way anymore. There’s very little that unites us around the water cooler. Even the biggest TV hits bring in a fraction of the ratings of old shows. The same goes for movies. I’m not sure that there ever will be another driving cultural force the way that movies were in the 1970s. So yes, I’ll give O’Hehir the point that the film was more culturally central in the 70s than it is now. Yes, to be intellectually hip you had to see the smart movies, the foreign movies, the interesting movies. But unless you long for a culture of poseurs, who cares? And beyond that, there is no cultural center anymore.

The fracturing of the culture comes as a result of the digital revolution; now we’re living a la carte entertainment lifestyles. I can have a radio channel that plays me only the exact sort of songs I like by the exact artists I like, and never have to be exposed to new stuff outside of my comfort zone. That new digital world is changing the way we consume movies, and as such our relationship with them. I complain about the internet a lot, and I’m not the biggest proponent of virtual democratization, but I like the way the web has taken the conversation out of the hands of the elite and let everybody have a say. Not everybody’s say is worth listening to, but just because someone was at the right cocktail parties in Manhattan also doesn’t make their say worth hearing. I think that maybe O'Hehir should try listening to those outside of the New York Film Festival crowd, though, before writing them off as 'fanboys.'

Because O'Hehir writes off so many as fanboys he doesn't look at the films that have hit the cultural nerve in the last few years. He grudgingly gives Lord of the Rings a go, but then says that he knows plenty of people who never bothered to catch The Dark Knight. Huh? Again, he's obviously talking about this hyper-refined, nose in the air crowd here. And it's too bad, because I've had tons of great discussion about The Dark Knight, and I'm not just talking about the Nolanites and Batjihadists who yell at me. Hell, Inception was a movie that people loved to dissect in depth, and it happened to be a blockbuster science fiction movie. It just may be that the wrong people are looking to dissect it in depth. And frankly, any year that has Holy Motors and Cloud Atlas in it is the wrong year to call time of death on film culture. I know we're going to see thrilling discussion coming from those films. I can't even find a mention of The Master in the piece.

O’Hehir’s piece takes a look at the changing world of film enthusiasm and recoils in fear. He seems to believe that film culture evolved to a perfect point in the late 70s and that any change from that is disastrous. He thinks that the removal of the cultural reins from a specific class of people is a terrible, terrible turn of events. I find the changes invigorating and exciting; what’s more I find many of the changes to be straight up positive. To be sure, before the Film Buffs came along cinema was not taken seriously, but in their wake there was an almost fatal divide between entertainment and art in the movies. There was a reactionary movement that seemed, to me, like the people who sought to elevate John Ford to the top of the pantheon forgot how awesome his movies were. In the last few years there’s been a healing, and I look forward to a time when movies can be smart and meaningful and deep and fun. I’m excited about Looper’s success this weekend because I think Rian Johnson has made a movie that is about characters, has great mise en scene and is also a kick-ass time at the theater. We can have it both ways, and I won’t cry for the loss of brainless tripe like the Transformers just like I won’t cry for the loss of film snobs.

I don’t know that I would have had as strong a reaction to this piece if I hadn’t just come from Fantastic Fest. Smart, critical, thoughtful, inquisitive, adventurous film fans are out there. I just spent nine days with them. O'Hehir and his ilk would never consider attending a fest like that because it threatens to remove the stuffiness of being a Film Buff, to remove the intellectual wanking and to allow in some old-fashioned fun. Film culture is alive and well and is being tended by people who want to live movies, to share them, not to hoard them for the aristocrat class.