The Cinema Is Dead
(and the Best Seats Are in the Graveyard)

by Joel Wicklund

Automatons. They surrounded me. They were human in appearance but so dependent on their portable communications programs that their true, mechanical nature could not be hidden. Dozens of lights emitted from the tiny screens from which they received their instructions, if not the very essence of their beings. I managed to escape their clutches only to find hundreds more lined up outside, responding to the impulses implanted in their cognitive operating systems via television signals.

I was at the movies on a Friday night, month of June, year 2009.

Not long ago, Steven Van Zandt, guitarist in Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street band and host of the wonderful radio show "Little Steven’s Underground Garage," made this comment in passing on the air: “As we become every science fiction story we’ve ever read…”. He was just echoing what many sociologists and futurists have been saying since the dawn of the industrial era, but it’s hitting home with me now because, damn it, it’s ruining the movies.

The automatons were, of course, mainly teens and twenty-somethings (I’d say “young people” if it didn’t make me sound so freaking ancient) texting during a film. And mind you, it wasn’t during some leisurely paced, mature period drama, but during Sam Raimi’s wild, slam-bang, hilarious, gross-out horror film, Drag Me to Hell. If this sort of movie, which barely gives you a moment to breathe and offers non-stop sensory overload, can’t hold a crowd’s attention, all is truly lost. Combined with the near record-breaking crowds responding in Pavlovian fashion (to those televised impulses I mentioned—a marketing machine that long ago won its war on mainstream movie diversity) to see Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, there was only one conclusion: the cinema is dead.

Well…not really. There continues to be, and I imagine always will be, great motion pictures; wonderful, personal, and satisfyingly entertaining works committed to celluloid or digital video or whatever the preferred technology of the time is. Every year I see lots of films I like and a handful I really love, and that pattern seems consistent. And because, thank the gods, I live near one of the country’s largest cities, I can find the movie diversity that the marketing machine has pushed to the margins. There are enough so-called “art houses,” theaters specializing in independent or foreign films, colleges and other specialty venues, that I rarely have difficulty finding something I want to see.

Oh, and by the way, I still haunt the multiplexes regularly. I’m probably there more often than the specialty venues. So before anyone labels me some elitist crank, consider the fact that I was seeing Drag Me to Hell when the automatons drove me batty. In fact, it was my second time seeing Raimi’s return to “splat-stick” horror comedy, and thank goodness for that. If my initial viewing had been so disrupted, I might be behind bars for violence committed against the techno-Neanderthals sitting around me.

When it comes to movies, I’ve always tried to resist the divides between “art” and “entertainment” or “high” and “low” culture. Accepting any of those walls usually leads you into traps of snobbery or dunderheadism. Great art can be, and often is, great entertainment and, as far as I’m concerned, great entertainment is always great art. Tell me you won’t watch a movie with subtitles and I’m sure to roll my eyes. On the other hand, tell me Airplane or Duck Soup are somehow lesser creations than Rules of the Game or Citizen Kane and you’re itchin’ for an argument.

That said, I’m starting to very reluctantly agree with the doomsayers who saw the post-Lucas/Spielberg blockbuster era as the beginning of the end. Once movies began to be made, by and large, for teenagers, it was inevitable they would start to mirror the faster, more immediate technology that was to come: home video games and the internet. I know, I know…the internet is much more than a vapid time-waster. I’m not a “Tech-No.” I use the internet all the time and I’ve been known to occasionally enjoy a video game (though I’m such a dinosaur that I do it at the few arcades that survive). But for all the rich resources the ‘net ties you into, let’s not pretend it’s made us a more literate and patient society. The facts just don’t back it up.

Yeah, I realize there were obnoxious audiences even before television, chatting up a storm and running up and down the aisles (and, by the way, that annoyance, elevated to unbelievable levels, went along with the mass texting during Drag Me to Hell). But I’m old enough to remember when it was a lot less common. The time of a mass audience routinely transfixed by what is on the motion picture screen appears to be over.

Many years ago I got into the practice of trying to avoid big crowds at heavily marketed movies, especially on an opening weekend. There’s just no denying that over the last couple of decades mainstream movie crowds have largely devolved into a swarm of yammering idiots who believe the theater is their rec room. Going out to the movies has become a strategic exercise: knowing the type of movie you’re going to see, the kind of crowds a particular theater attracts, and the best time of day to avoid most irritants.

And, as many regular theatergoers know, setting your strategy can work pretty well. My bad Drag Me to Hell experience was a misjudgment. The movie had been out for several weeks and was long off the top 10 box office list, so normally it would have been a good time to check it out. I hadn’t counted on the Transformers overflow.

I strategize well enough that I’ve never seriously considered limiting my movie watching to the DVD player at home. Even if I had a gargantuan, high-def set with the sharpest resolution possible (and I don’t), I wouldn’t cut back on theatrical viewings. The simple act of going out to a movie, away from the familiarities of home and without the possibility of rewinding, focuses your attention. As for the old saw about the great communal experience of watching a movie with a big crowd…well, good luck with that. That pleasure is an increasingly rare thing, usually only enjoyed at film festivals or other special events where genuine cinephiles come out in droves. No, these days you are better off when a theater is less than a third full, which is pretty often if you avoid opening weekends for blockbusters or showtimes when the mall kids are out en masse.

The theater couldn’t have been less full when I went to see Tetro, just a half-hour after leaving Drag Me to Hell at the very same multiplex. I was the only person there. It was the opening weekend for this movie too, but I wasn’t worried about Transformers overflow here. I knew the crowd would be manageable, but I didn’t expect it to be non-existent. Much as I like to see films with friends, occasionally I like to engage my solitary side and see a couple of movies alone, as I was doing that evening. But as I sat in the middle of this vacant theater, my comfortable solitude turned into mild depression. It appeared the entire world was next door, waiting in an endless line for the Transformers sequel, while this poor movie had been abandoned like an unwanted child.

Tetro is the latest film by Francis Ford Coppola, a director who helped define the golden age of American movie mavericks in the 1970s. If you don’t know, he’s the man who made The Conversation, Apocalypse Now and The Godfather films; the first two of which are often cited as among the greatest films ever made. To be fair, a more erratic, sometimes lackluster output in the ‘80s and ‘90s tarnished his reputation. And until 2007’s Youth Without Youth, he had gone a decade without directing anything.

Then 68 years old, Coppola re-emerged, announcing he would now only make independent, personal movies, largely self-financed by his highly profitable winery. Tetro is the second of these films—an operatic family saga set in Buenos Aires starring the idiosyncratic Vincent Gallo. It’s not a film without problems. The plotting is overwrought and at times the movie crosses over into pretension. But man, is it ever beautiful! Shot mainly in black and white, on the latest and best HD video, it matches the striking contrasts of the best-looking black and white features created on celluloid. Moreover, Coppola composes each shot with painterly care and expressiveness. Aesthetically stunning, it’s also a distinctive narrative, regardless of its flaws. It is, in short, a passionate work of real filmmaking.

I haven’t seen either of the Transformers movies and have no intention of doing so. The director is Michael Bay and his resume reads like the progression of an incurable disease: Bad Boys, Armageddon, Pearl Harbor. Yikes. OK, I guess The Rock wasn’t so bad, but nor was it reason to celebrate. Add a slew of recent producing credits for abysmal horror remakes (The Amityville Horror, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday the 13th) and there’s a case to be made that he is everything wrong with contemporary filmmaking.

I was surprised to find a fair amount of seemingly good reviews, including some by reputable critics, for the first Transformers. But delving further into them, only a handful seemed to truly recommend the film. There was admiration for the effects and for more humor than expected and a general sense of “well, for a Michael Bay film, it’s an OK time-waster.” Hey, as a former newspaper film critic, I can relate. Get assigned to review enough crap and your standards have to shift a little. You start to grade on a curve, based on the most obnoxious and bombastic excrement you’ve sat through recently. Besides, too many reviews declaring, “the cinema is dead” will surely lead to unemployment.

Nobody seems to have much good to say about Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. But beyond reviews, where is the love for either film? OK, I don’t hang out with teenagers who, by box office measurements, seem to adore this franchise. But usually with a blockbuster hit you overhear people buzzing about the movie’s best scenes, most spectacular moments and favorite performances. For a movie that made nearly $300 million domestically, the first film seems to have generated very little affection. I know the teen crowd that saw the vampire romance Twilight legitimately, sincerely loved it, so I’m not claiming all hit movies aimed at a younger demographic are strictly marketing successes. But in the case of Transformers, as it is so often lately, the movie seems almost irrelevant. The kids seem happy being cogs in the wheel of commerce.

I can’t really blame Michael Bay. He is who he is—another music video trained hack who lives to please the industry and numb the audience. I blame his enablers, who in the case of Transformers include Steven Spielberg. Maybe it makes sense that one of the key figures in altering the movie landscape for the worse would sign off as executive producer on this franchise, but unlike his pal George Lucas, who drifted into creative insignificance after forgoing the directing chores on The Empire Strikes Back (the last worthwhile movie to which he made any significant contribution), Spielberg can still, on occasion, make a movie with real personality. He doesn’t always hit the mark, but you get a sense that whether making a popcorn movie or prestige drama, he’s still immersed in his craft. At this stage in his career, with an immense fortune and more commercial clout than any filmmaker will every likely enjoy again, he has no excuse for partaking in the Michael Bay business. If not on the same intimate scale, Spielberg should be doing what Coppola is doing—taking chances and treating audiences as more than potential box office receipts.

But the bigger blame for Bay and his like lies with a public all too aware of opening weekend takes, too eager to aid the major film corporations in limiting their options, and distressingly pleased with the shit shoveled their way. In its first five days, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen made over $200 million in the U.S. alone. That’s not a public embrace, that’s a cattle drive.

I don’t expect a movie like Tetro to do a hundredth of that kind of business, but for a movie by the director of The Godfather to play to an empty theater near Chicago on its opening weekend is an ominous sign. Especially as the epic toy commercial playing at 4,000-plus theaters (and a frightening estimate of 10,000 screens!) is attended as if it’s a one-time only showing of the Second Coming.

Like global warming, this trend doesn’t seem reversible. Selective movie fans will become like regulars at museums or art galleries, seeking out less bland or bombastic fare in limited runs, playing exclusively at a few theaters in a few big cities No matter how accessible those movies may be, without a fast food franchise tie-in, they won’t reach the multiplex audience.

Maybe it was inevitable. One of the reasons the late ‘60s and ‘70s were glory years to many film lovers was because of the industry’s commercial struggles. Having lost much of its audience to television and with the blockbuster marketing formula not yet perfected (you could mark Spielberg’s Jaws as that landmark), the powers that be were willing to try almost anything and filmmakers benefited from that liberty. So did audiences.

If this all sounds like an incredible bummer, I guess you need to look at the bright side. The theater I saw Tetro in was as empty as a graveyard, but once the lights went down, I couldn’t have asked for a better screening. The projection was perfect. There wasn’t a cell phone light to be seen. No yammering. No latecomers noisily stumbling up the stairs. Only the occasional dull rumble from another theater, where the Transformers crushed the audience into submission, reminded me that the price of this wonderful experience was the end of what going to the movies once was.

©2009 Joel Wicklund