Posted on Slate in late 2005. I’m sorry that the links no longer work. — J.R.
The New Global Movie Culture
Dec 29, 2005 4:52 PM
So many films and so little time! Consequently, I hope you’ll forgive me if I skate past most of the titles that we’ve all been citing lately and jump to some of the bigger issues broached by Tony in his first letter, and by David and Scott more recently —specifically, the transformations of film culture that are taking place these days thanks to DVDs, the Internet, globalization, and related pleasures, and conundrums.
In fact, David, I regard you as something of a pioneer in your inauguration of this Movie Club seven years ago. This helped to usher in the idea of critical exchanges in cyberspace that’s been developing so rapidly ever since that I find refreshing new instances of it virtually every day. The irreplaceable Dave Kehr reporting “from the lost continent of cinephilia” on his wonderful new blog and including responses from others is only one of the first examples that spring to mind. Another is the international, auteurist chat group over at Yahoo!, which has been around somewhat longer, where they’ve been raking me over the coals lately — and with a great deal of intelligence and pertinence, I might add — about my skeptical comments regarding Malick’s The New World, which I’ve been making in Movie Club as well as there. The debate to my mind is more a matter of philosophical and ideological differences (e.g., materialism versus transcendentalism) than a matter of aesthetics, but aesthetics certainly play a substantial role in the arguments, and as Jean-Luc Godard once pointed out, ethics and aesthetics are related to one another even linguistically. My point, in any case, is that a global community has grown up over the past few years on the Internet that discusses movies with a great deal of knowledge and sophistication as well as intensity — and I don’t just mean knowledge and sophistication about movies.
When David reported earlier about an irate communication from a reader who wanted him to write simply about Munich “just” as a movie — in other words, to betray even Spielberg’s intentions and reduce the movie to its Indiana Jones dimensions — I had to laugh out loud, because I’ve been getting blinkered letters and e-mails like that ever since I started writing for the Chicago Reader in 1987. But I hasten to add that I get far more letters and e-mails that actually engage with what I’m writing about, and that’s justification and vindication enough for me. It also explains why I haven’t returned to Slate’s Fray ever since I caught a few ugly glimpses of it a few years back. When people in such places bitch about any of us critics writing about movies they haven’t seen, what they’re really saying is that the only new “information” they find permissible — and please note that we have to keep “information” in quotes — is some form of advertising. For me it parallels in an eerie way how Bush tries so hard to limit what we can say about the occupation of Iraq. What they all should really be writing and saying is, “Don’t tell us anything we haven’t already heard.” To which I can only reply — or would reply, if I was back in the Fray—”Please roll over and go back to sleep. The rest of us are having a fruitful discussion.”
I don’t mean to deny that the Internet is a highly variable place, where misinformation is plainly more plentiful than the sort of facts you can trust. We all make mistakes because of this, pushed along by the very unreliable Internet Movie Database, which is OK as long as we know how to politely correct one another. (Which reminds me, Scott — Peter Watkins is English, not American. I know he taught for years at Columbia University — Jim Hoberman was one of his students —before he wound up in Lithuania and elsewhere. But he started his career with some terrific pseudodocumentaries made for British TV, including Culloden and The War Game. And check out, if you can, his early feature Privilege, a particular favorite of mine.) What seems far more important to me is the level of knowledge and intelligence that also can be found there, and often among the very young — meaning people in their teens and 20s, some of whose grasp of film history and aesthetics take my breath away.
This is because it’s no longer necessary to live in New York or Paris or London or Tokyo in order to discovery the history and variety of cinema. With a multiregional DVD player, you can be just about anywhere, as long as you have some idea about what to look at on it. This is pretty much where critics and lists become important. I’ve found that many of my most popular pieces, like the one about my hundred favorite American movies, were essentially list-driven, which is actually what inspired my last collection, Essential Cinema, which you were kind enough to mention, Tony — a book that concludes with a provisional list of my thousand favorite films. And one reason why it had to be provisional is that I knew there would be embarrassing oversights and omissions. The most spectacular of these, in fact, is one that I happened to stumble upon a few days ago while cruising the Internet: Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight. How could I have left that one out and then not even discover this howler until recently, and by accident? The crazy thing is that I just finished compiling a book of my pieces about Welles earlier this month. It’s called Discovering Orson Welles, and my embarrassing gaffe helps to explain why it’s called that. Figures like Welles who wound up working on the margins wind up getting marginalized by everyone, including some of his biggest fans. Significantly, the only easy way you can see Chimes at Midnight these days is to order a DVD of it from Spain—yet the fact that you can do this is no less significant. And you don’t have to e-mail me to find out how to do this, either; all it takes is a few easy trips via a search engine.
For some people, the social aspect of moviegoing has been brutally curtailed ever since Hollywood started focusing on the youth market and scaring away most other people. Apart from a few important initiatives, such as MoveOn’s organization of house parties around certain documentaries, DVDs aren’t regarded as social instruments yet in quite the same way as movie theaters, but it’s possible that this is only a question of time. Consider the potential options: Anybody can organize a film club with DVDs that can meet in storefronts, houses, flats, or just about anywhere else, and it isn’t even illegal if you don’t charge admission. Maybe someone will figure out a way of both charging admission and selling copies of the DVD after the screening, but even if they don’t, the social possibilities of viewing DVDs in surroundings that are more intimate and comfortable than theaters have barely been tapped. And what’s equally important is all the social activity that’s already been taking place around these movies on the Internet.
Another example of the sort of activity I’m celebrating is a letter that, if I’m not mistaken, literally began Scott’s career as a film critic. Correct me if I’m wrong, Scott, but the way I remember it is that you wrote a letter to Variety complaining abouta survey of film criticism that they published that didn’t mention either David or me, two critics you were very generous about praising, and your letter inspired an editor there to invite you over for a job interview. And in order to make my own mini-survey complete, the way I met you, Tony, was thanks to some remarks of yours in the Movie Club about my book Movie Wars, made shortly after you started your job at the Times, which led to an exchange of e-mails between us. In fact, we’ve still never met face to face, but I’m glad to hear you’re still reading me, because I read you religiously.
In any case, the point I’m trying to make is that none of us has to go looking for movie culture in quite the same way that one had to in the alleged Golden Age of the French New Wave. It’s all around us now, if we’re interested and go looking for it. And it’s only just getting started now — something that may be harder to see because we’re living through a transitional period. (The depressing figures that you cite, Scott, about foreign film distribution in the United States, applies only to theatrical showings; it doesn’t address the ease with which we already can or will be able to see about 95 percent of the films we’ve been discussing, including some of the most esoteric ones, on DVD.)
Happy New Year to you all,