It’s Award season in Hollywood again, and while it is true that ceremonies like The Golden Globes and the Independent Spirit Awards have grabbed some of the lustre, it is this weekend’s Oscars that carries all the weight for much of the industry. It is the ceremony where movie-people vote and award each other for achievements in film—it is usually billed as ‘Hollywood’s Biggest Night’ and that captures the way this event is seen inside and outside the industry.
Now I must confess a certain disinterest this year. This was not a good movie-year for me—it’s not that there weren’t enjoyable or meaningful films to watch—I just didn’t get around to seeing many of them, and the ones I did…I really didn’t find that compelling. I am not sure what accounted for my movie-lethargy, perhaps, like many I am falling prey to changing times and circumstances, sometimes I decide that I will wait until it becomes available on another platform like Netflix or iTunes where I can watch it on my own terms. Or perhaps I am one of those contributing to the ‘death of cinema’ by resorting to other avenues of movie-watching apart from the movie theater experience.
Recently the British Director Peter Greenaway gave a lecture at a Korean Film Festival at which he declared cinema dead and blamed it on the invention of the remote control. He said that cinema’s death could be dated as September 31, 1983 when the remote was introduced into the living room (September has only 30 days but we get the point!). His point was that cinema has been changed by technological innovations—new rules apply that demand cinema be interactive and multi-media experiences. Greenaway is a provocateur and has a history of making sweeping declarations destined to draw gasps from audiences, both in his own films and particularly with his proclamations about the art form itself.
It seems to me that there is something of Greenaway’s thinking at work in at least a couple of the films up for many awards right now. The Artist, which has already been deemed a shoe-in for multiple awards, is a unique film in that it is shot in black and white and is virtually without dialog—a homage to a by-gone era when what took place on the screen had to be felt and understood without the help of words. In this day and age a film like this uses those elements of sight and sound (or lack thereof) as devices, they are not borne of necessity but choice. What the film does is carry us back to another time, when going to the movies unfolded very differently, and it takes us on a journey of one man’s struggle to come to terms with changes in the movie industry as the ‘talkies’ threaten him with movie-star oblivion.
The second film is Hugo, Martin Scorsese’s first attempt at a film young daughter could watch—a children’s movie, that is essentially a wonderfully told tale of the movie business, a homage to the history of a medium for which Scorsese’s passion is virtually without peer.
I am not surprised that these films are so nominated, they might just be more than the sum total of their parts—expressions perhaps of the collective angst of an industry that is struggling to make the shift into the digital world and mourning the loss of certain kinds of film-making. It is quite striking that the site of the awards ceremony has been renamed from The Kodak Theater to the Hollywood and Vine Center due to the recent bankruptcy of Kodak, whose relationship to the movie industry is symbiotic. It seems to me that there is something of an industry desiring to hold onto something slipping from its grasp in the intense focus upon these films—don’t get me wrong, they are well-made films, but I think it is the content they both address in different ways that may be at the heart of their focus.
But there is a counter argument to be found I think in another nominated film, Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen’s homage to the city of lights. This, to me, is also a film that is more than the sum total of its parts—while I enjoyed the film, I was very conscious that I have seen these characters again and again in Allen’s movies. It is the story of a romance with the idea of a city and of certain ‘golden’ eras—the central character in love with idea of Paris in another time when Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald and other luminaries filled the cafes and nightlife with their presences. The interesting moral of Allen’s film is that no era is the golden era, each time has to stand on its own—yes, there is beauty in the past, but beauty can be found just as easily in the present—we just have to live in it.
Change is difficult whether it is personal or cultural or technological—it brings with it losses as well as gains. Hollywood, or at least some major parts of it, seem to be in a period of understandable mourning for what’s being lost (I realize this is a complex web of losses covering many things from economics to copyright to craftsmanship and do not mean to negate it in any way), but there is also a bright horizon. NYU Film School may have stopped teaching classes in film editing with ‘real film’ but the school is still filled with students eager to capture life and offer it back to us, and around the world, film-makers are creating amazing works and using new techniques and technologies and means of dissemination to enthrall audiences large and small with their creation.
Cinema is dead, long live cinema!