Cinema Without Cinemas: Watching Movies in 2021

Still from “Titane.”

Once upon a time those of us who considered ourselves “cinephiles” insisted on using the word “film,” as evidence of the degree of our aesthetic discernment over those who herded themselves into multiplexes to watch mere  “movies,” connoting the slop entertainment dished out weekly by Hollywood–even though our own cinematic heroes–Melville, Wajda, Godard, Wertmuller, Fassbinder, Kurosawa, and Fellini–all adored and reworked Hollywood’s slop. Pretense rarely pays attention to the law of consistency.

But do these highbrow distinctions have any meaning anymore? Are there even “films” now? There’s still (barely) a Film Forum in NYC, where I would regularly migrate to in the late 70s from college in “film” deprived DC. Fortunately, there’s still Film Comment, a safe space for lofty talk about the current “cinema.” There are even a few holdout directors who insist on shooting on film and having their films run through actual projectors and shown on large, arced screens before live audiences. But they’re mostly insufferable filmmakers–Tarantino, Nolan, Villeneuve, Scott–whose films are artistically attenuated, their visions much smaller than the screens they’re projected on.

The last film I saw in a theater was Tarantino’s bloated, self-infatuated and nasty Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and, as is so often with his movies, it was the soundtrack that kept me from hitting the exit after the first hour. The last “film” that rewarded the hassle of getting to the theater (or “cinema,” as we used to say)–no easy journey from the rim of our little canyon–was an immaculately restored copy of “Barry Lyndon” (empty, but sumptuous) shown in a less-than-immaculately restored old movie palace (but no worse for that). The film, like most of Kubrick’s work, was a financial flop. It’s something of a mystery to me as to how Kubrick kept raising money to make expensive visual feasts that were commercial failures. More power to him. But after Barry Lyndon the big screens were commandeered by even emptier, much less sumptuous films made by a pair of his young acolytes, Spielberg and Lucas, who knew how to make the big screens pay even if they didn’t know (or care) how to make them say anything.

Do I miss the social experience of watching a film in the dark with other anonymous members of our community, plunging into a collective dreamscape? Not really. Today’s Hollywood auteurs are algorithms developing plot lines culled from data-mining the obsessions of 16-year olds from four years ago, when the movies went into production, with all the aesthetic efficacy of a flu shot based on a four-year old virus. The movie house experience itself  isn’t what it once was. Instead of a seduction of the senses, they’re more like an assault. We used to go the movies to get away from commercials, now we’re bombarded by them, bound in our seats, forced to watch advertisements for cars and previews of movies (often hard to distinguish between the two), like Alex at the end of Clockwork Orange. The near constant chatter and fidgeting inside contemporary movie houses is probably more a sign of how boring and predictable most cinematic fare has become, rather than an indication that, thanks to the pushers in Big Pharma, half of America can’t wait to get their next fentanyl fix. Thankfully most theaters now have Barcalounger-style seats, which certainly makes it easier to fall comfortably asleep between chase scenes and bang-bang, though some movie goers should be encouraged to bring their CPAP machines to the theater so that their porcine inhalations don’t wake the rest of us up.

It’s impertinent that directors like Christopher Nolan are trying to dictate how their grossly over-budgeted films (many financed by oil sheiks) should be shown and where they should be watched. This is, shall we say, directorial behavior and it indicates just how deeply mired they remain in an outdated system that no one is really that nostalgic to recreate. This kind of encrusted thinking mediates against the possibilities of the medium itself. The new cinema is happening outside the entropic confines of these boxes, where you’re hit up for cash at every turn and cashiered for bringing your own water bottles. Enough.

I recall an interview Jean-Luc Godard gave more than a decade ago now, when he predicted that the iPhone was the future of cinema, a single hand-held device with which you could film, edit, distribute, and watch movies, while jettisoning the producers, censors, distributors, syndicators, and multiplexes. Who needs CGI’d special effects when the world is blowing up, burning out and melting down, all around us? The footage from hundreds of BLM protests have fulfilled Godard’s prophecy.

Film-making and film-watching have never been more democratic, more decentralized, cut off from those who would control what we watch and when and how we watch it. We’ve been liberated, as Foucault might’ve argued, by our confinement. In our imposed isolation and exclusion, movie-watching has become a more inclusive, shared, and international experience, with new films crossing borders and oceans faster than the latest viral mutations.

But capitalism is catching up fast. The walls of the new political economy of film are once again closing in on us, trying to box us in, herd us back through its turnstiles, metal and virtual. It is our task to refuse this new enclosure movement and to demand a cinema that is open and free of such constraints, a cinema that is turned outward onto the world around us. In that spirit, I offer a sampling of the, yes, let’s call them “movies” that forged a few cracks in the walls for me during year two of the plague that came and stayed.

Exterminate All the Brutes
Raoul Peck

In the Same Breath
Nanfu Wang

Bring Your Own Brigade
Lucy Walker

The Forever Prisoner
Alex Gibney

On These Grounds
Garrett Zevgetis

Summer of Soul
Questlove

Identifying Features
Fernanda Valadez

Rivers End: California’s Latest Water War
Jacob Morrison

Get Back
Peter Jackson

The Mauritanian
Kevin McDonald

The Card Counter
Paul Schrader

State Funeral
Sergei Loznitsa

Titane
Julia Ducournau

Fathom
Drew Xanthopoulos

Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time
Robert Weide and Don Argott

Detroit Will Breathe
Kate Levy

Mother Trees and the Social Forest
Suzanne Simard

 

 

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent books are Bernie and the Sandernistas: Field Notes From a Failed Revolution and The Big Heat: Earth on the Brink (with Joshua Frank) He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net or on Twitter @JeffreyStClair3