Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Why I am no longer a Cinephile

Just in time for The Oscars, a piece on movies, of sorts.

After a few decades of movie watching I must state here that for the most part the thrill is gone. It is not so much that good movies are not currently being made and there was some golden age in the past when the movies were better. (Though there may be truth to that if our criteria is a classically organized comedy or drama). Indeed in the current epoch some of the greatest movies that have ever been made are being made now: I can name names. Tsai Minh Liang (who made one of the greatest movies concerning movie watching, whose long durational end I post at the top of this entry) and Abbas Kiaorstami are two in Taiwan and Iran respectively. Anna Biller, Kelly Reichardt, Andrew Bujalski and Nina Menkes are a few in the United States. And these are just the fictional narrative ones. There are surely others and I apologize for not mentioning them all here.

Yet most Hollywood studio films are so terrible and terrible in so many ways, in terms of visual congestion and nonsense and auditory horror, that it would be a whole book to list and explain the sins. In my view Star Wars is the film that not only ruined cinema, in the sense of starting a mistaken course that continues to this day, but also ruined our whole culture in all sorts of ways, but that was a long time ago, in the late seventies.

There are many so-called documantaries that are excellent. The good documentaries are either self reflexive docs that interrogate the author and their own making (Sherman's March and Tarnation). Or they are the exact opposite: durational films in so-called "real time" that unfold with exacting observation. (Anything by Fred Wiseman). But most docs are terrible because they occupy a middlebrow middle ground of voice-over narration, dreary interviews and photographic stills to create some sense of usually baby boomer nostalgia.

In any case, I recognize no legitimate distinction between documentary and fictional film. That distinction serve to uphold narrow and glossy, "postcard pretty" notions of the "cinematic" on the one hand, (that fictional films are required to pereptuate in the studio system), and to uphold certain dubious notions about "the real" on the other hand (as if anything in representation, properly and broadly defined, weren't created and subjective affairs).

Films, like other arts, are but stylistic effects organized in various ways to create meaning (or, as is the case in work that might interest me more, something not bound by discursive and conceptual meaning). It is completely irrelevant at worst or trivial at best what the facts are in the world. I suppose an exception could be made for a teaching film to be shown in schools where the facts have to be right. I suppose I would get really offended by a Holocaust denialist documentary. But I could never suppose for a moment that I would want to hold movies to any standards separable from those I hold to a poem. I couldn't care less what millions of people love to look at. I know I don't like to look at what they seem to love, and I don't like to hear the boom and noise they are accustomed to enduring, or even loving.

Which brings me to my final observation. Since most of the movies I deeply love are at best marginal affairs, and do not seem to please, entertain, or hold the attention of that many people, I am no longer in any true sense a cinephile (if ever I were one). I am not interested in looking at edited images in consecutive succession merely to look at this or that old myth or narrative unfold in a new guise or setting. And I am no longer as interested as I once was in looking at actors doing what they do best in such a setting. (Because the setting, or sets, are in a bad way).

It always necessary to cleanse the palette, to turn away from a form or a style when it has no longer served one. I feel much that way about movies. Indeed I think the written word or live performance seems more interesting and more possible. Visual, moving images seem to me to be sprung out.

I have seen many movies. Certainly more than enough to know what is worth seeing. I do change my mind but I also have definite views as to what is perpetually valuable.

Newer modes of production and technologies have killed my cinephilia. I don't keep up so much with the latest, or hottest, or even the edgiest.

People in the current epoch are simply less interesting than in earlier times (!) They are less idiosyncratic, less daring, and less original. They may be brighter than in earlier times in terms of a certain kind of social or emotional intelligence, and maybe in literacy, but they are less passionate and more dull. It is hard to make great art out of them, whether they be the so-called professionaly trained or not. (The best movies today consist, in my view, wholly of non-professionals). I do like seeing the most boring people doing what they do for long periods of time if a sensitive filmmaker allows them to unfold and (un)blocks them in certain ways. Thus their "boring" status becomes heightened to utmost dignity. But this is increasingly rare, since they are usually forced to do conventionally dramatic things that had been done far better in an earlier epoch by performers like Jimmy Stewart or Barbara Stanwyck. In a curious irony, the problem with todays' movies is they don't allow the quotidian and banal to shine forth. (There are exceptions: Mike Leigh).

Above all, I blame the internet. We would do well to remember Marshall Mcluhan when he said that form - the medium - is what is important. People complaining about video games and porn, or heaven knows what else - (inaccurate Wiki entries?) - are forgetting that the world wide, epoch shaking phenomenon of simultaneity of goods and information, that is, the erasure of the need to travel from one loacation to another for separate and distinct kinds of experiences and states of consciousness, in short, the destruction of boundaries between one kind of thing and another (news and art, science and speculation, adult and child) is what has hurt all of the arts, (to say nothing of our lives), but none more than cinema which, as an electronic media to begin with, was more vulnerable to, as it were, infection.

I will continue to mention cinema in this blog. Indeed my next cinema entry might be on "talky cinema" like Rohmer, Cassavetes, and others. But cinephilia, at least in the present tense, is no longer a possibility for me in the current moment.

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