Sunday, August 9, 2009

Spectacles Public and Private

Movies seem bigger than ever and less relevant than ever. We're not falling in love with going to the movies. Because we don't go, certainly not as often. They're simply around too much. In too many sizes. "Star Trek" notwithstanding, and even that feels like a t.v. show that will translate well to my iPod.

The common lament since about "Star Wars" is that filmmaking stopped being an artform (as if it ever really was) and became only about selling tickets. No more cine-clubs discussing Bergman, Fellini or Pakula. But looking through the nostalgic fog of a past we read about but didn't live through, show business is about spectacle and always has been.

From the earliest days, the hits are those that are the biggest events - the ones that get our attention one way or the other. By electrocuting Jumbo, having sound for the first time, being in color, louder, more expensive, by simply being a new take on an old story, better.

Spectacle grabs people's attention. "Transformers" and "Harry Potter" would be at home in a theatre in 1977, but they're wrapped in 2009 digital fireworks. They're not so much films as controlled burns. The aggressive retro-new excess of something like Scorcese's "New York, New York" was its own film-nerd spectacle of its day, artschool indulgence writ large.

It didn't help anyone's career. It didn't help anyone other than the critical studies majors. But at the time it drew its own attention. Worth doing if not worth the price. A conundrum when we interrogate what and why studios produce what they do.

Nowadays business decisions take the ego and arrogance out of the equation. New modes of delivery mean new modes of audiences. What's old isn't new - it's simply new.

The spectacle is the way in which it is engaged in, modern, digital, and transformative. The content is less important than simply that there is some.

It's a bottom-up shift, driven by the public who simply don't buy a movie if they don't buy the hype, or buy a ticket in spite of all indications to the contrary if it's what they want to see. The studios are playing catch up and realizing the old ways aren't going to work much longer.

What is available always eventually reflects how people watch moving images. Soon, portably and in chunks, in low-definition - and most fatally - casually. Films won't matter anymore culturally because they won't have a cultural impact. Film will become the moving wallpaper of science fiction.

There will be space for spectacle, for CGI-candy. But Bergman and Pakula is over. They don't translate.

Some will appreciate the past and enjoy it privately. Maybe find a handful of other enlightened individual believers. We will not be watching the same screens.