I think it’s time to talk about the mutations that the art form of cinema has been going though in the past few years. We are in a swirl of forces that are changing everything from how films are produced, how they are financed, how they are consumed, how they are evaluated and how they achieve notoriety, and eventually cultural significance.
The financial crisis of the end of the Bush era caused a bunch of changes, and coincided with the explosion of streaming video which has edged out theatrical distribution and time-specific TV broadcast as the driving engines of motion pictures.
I use the term motion pictures in order to avoid terms like “Content,” “Programming,” or “Media,” in order to remind us that there has been a form that is highly developed, with narrative and literary breadth at a mature level long before any of these technologies existed. To call the great movies of the thirties and forties “Content” implies a secondary importance to the streaming service, or broadcast network.
The lines of evolution that created the cinema, the convergence of the popular theatre, orchestral music, and the narrative novel spawned a form of art that took from those disciplines the full flower of the maturity of their forms.
These were popular conventions at the scale of human experience over hours and lifetimes, with a growing class of artists, composers, and writers, that spoke to an equally growing class of audience, a middle class of aspirational participants in a new, complex economy that facilitated the habitual experience of millions of watchers of films that filled a thirst for highly developed stories, beautifully rendered.
The form congealed as the feature film that fit into the time slots of brick-and-mortar theatres that became the infrastructure of that form. The experience was rare enough to leave the house for, but not so rare as to be an obscure bauble for the elite.
As the nickels were collected in big bags at the box office, the ritual space was maintained, and for a generation, the movie experience was had by the transformative act of entering the theatre space through a dark and lushly carpeted corridor that evoked memories of magic and mystery.
Needless to say, the current viewing ritual is a brief tap on a phone, clicking past a number of ads to receive one of many hits of visual “content,” the equivalent of the fast-food meal, but more reduced in fact, since even a drive-thru meal takes the body some time to eat.
The strategy followed by all the digital plumbing is one of amassing “content” by the bushel, since the confluence of motives has created a market based on the excess of selection, with the prices racing to the bottom.
This can’t be sustained. This deep commodification removes the purpose itself of the theatrical medium. The creation of a significant event is the whole purpose of the thing. Significant events, if they exist, have now to be contrived.
Games have taken over the space that the movie signified in times past. Games are sport, and as sport, they have attracted an audience of hobbyist players, that create their own significant moments, through a kind of MLM leveling-up model of entertainment. There is no greater context other than the game; unless it’s a historical re-enactment game like a WWII Strategy game, for the most part the stories and the ritual events are contained withing the game.
The current generation has as its major icons, the bosses and characters in video games. A teen grows up with wordless monsters and weaponized heroes. For games are always about winning, however benign.
Motion pictures, on the other hand tell a story, a narrative about life. Games, as realism and complexity advance, are increasingly a substitute for it.
So there seems to be a gap between the human desire for theatrical narrative and the current popular convention of sport and spectacle. Perhaps the new sedentary life of the late 19th century created these forms-The modern theater, the orchestral concert, the large novel, as artifacts of a sedentary society.
Cinema was an aggregation of these endeavors, but also had an accelerating force, making the static kinetic, and bridging the evolution from sedentary observation to active participation.
When it comes down to it, is it anything more than nostalgia that makes us lament the cinematic experience? The experience is not vanishing, but the lament is really for the fact that it is no longer the cultural singularity that it once was.
Gamification has emerged from the carnivals and gymnasiums to the personal device, leapfrogging over the need for auditoriums and other public spaces. The movie theater was church, evolved from the medieval cathedrals. Electronic media is the rosary, the divine companionship one carries in one’s pocket.