This post is a mixed bag of ideas about cinema. Some are suggested by reading this weekend the Spanish version of Hadley Freeman’s pop essay Time of my Life (2015), a book about the pleasures of 1980s movies. Other ideas spring from the controversy at the Cannes Film Festival (which closed yesterday) on whether Netflix and Amazon films, which do not get theatrical releases, are cinema at all properly speaking.
Cinema is, roughly speaking, a century-old business which is possibly seeing its end as an art enjoyed in public. This is a situation that true cinema lovers bemoan, even though they (we) have been the first to desert our local cinemas. I am trying to return again but what puts me off is the discourteous behaviour of my fellow spectators.
As we all know, in cinemas people speak with each other in loud tones (or use their cell phones) as if they were in their own living room. Any complaint risks a really nasty incident, whereas in the pre-multiplex past ushers would invite obnoxious spectators out…. Then, I happen to abhor the smell of popcorn, which is a great inconvenient if you enjoy visiting cinemas; it can be worse in evening sessions mid-week, when bocatas de chorizo are a common snack. Also, my small size means that I am only truly comfortable in a handful of cinemas (a special recommendation for Balmes O.V. if you live in Barcelona). Many committed cinemagoers have chosen to attend the least popular sessions (here, Monday 16:00) but this is a sad solution to the basic problem of people’s inability to behave in cinemas. And, so, dear Pedro Almodóvar, president of the Cannes Festival Jury, and Netflix hater, here’s the explanation for why cinema is dying: spectators.
I don’t have a Netflix subscription but I have checked the monthly fees and, basically, they are the equivalent of a single cinema ticket. I paid 8.50 for my last film–Dancer, the wonderful documentary on ballet star Sergei Polunin–whereas a basic Netflix fee is 7.99 (standard 9.99; premium 11.99). Streaming requires, please remember, a good internet service (at least 40 euros a month) and, although you can watch films on tiny smartphone screens, ideally you should also possess a 50-inch television (which may cost thousands of euros). But, then, people pay anyway for these.
If you happen to be a teenager seeking to have a good time with your friends but only carry 15 euros in your pocket, you’re not going to spend them at the cinema–you’ll go to McDonalds (!?) and then use your parents’ subscription at home to see as many films as you want. Although, funnily, subscription channels like HBO and now internet services like Netflix are, essentially, platforms based on the appeal of television series, not films, which they have started to produce only a few years ago. Here is, Pedro Almodóvar, another question for you: is a film released on Netflix a TV movie? How come TV series are no longer really TV series, but internet series? But I digress…
To sum up: people are dragging their feet and thinking twice before going to the cinema because a) the other spectators are (mostly) obnoxious, b) the tickets are (relatively) expensive. A Netflix (or similar) subscription solves both problems at once: if you are still interested in films, you may enjoy them in the comfort of your home and for little money. You also get the series, of course. Cinemas lose business and we, who love cinema, lose the pleasure of the big screen. But, then, this pleasure seems to have been lost long ago, possibly with the introduction of the multiplex and the dismissal of the ushers to cut corners…
I had been avoiding the book by Hadley Freeman, Time of my Life, because the title is an allusion to Dirty Dancing and this is not the kind of 1980s cinema I enjoy. I’m an Aliens (1986) and Predator (1987) fan, rather, which I combined with art-house fare like Paris, Texas (1984) or Do the Right Thing (1989). Freeman doesn’t like Star Wars, and that’s all I need to say about our diverging tastes. In the 1980s I managed to avoid all the films by John Hughes, and although I find Ghostbusters (1984) fun, I really see no reason to see it many times as she has done. If I had written a book about 1980s cinema, Blade Runner (1982) would be all over the place. Ok, I grant that I also enjoy When Harry Met Sally… (1989)–and I would like to kill the incompetent person who translated ‘met’ as ‘encontró’ instead of ‘conoció’, as if Sally was a pebble on the beach.
What I appreciate about Freeman’s essay is the effort she makes to explain that, although not everything worked well in 1980s Hollywood movies (they could be blatantly misogynistic, homophobic and racist), many things are wrong today. Perhaps because she was a child in the 1980s, rather than a teenager, Freeman feels unencumbered by the generational loyalty and nostalgia that has led others to defend fanatically the cinema made in that decade. She’s, in short, more clear-headed and can number very accurately the problems of current cinema. These can be summed up in just one short sentence: Hollywood studios are working for the lowest common denominator and addressing a spectatorship they wrongly believe to be homogeneous.
More specifically this means that, after the old studios became at the beginning of the 1990s tiny cogs in the wheels of massive corporations: a) the people deciding which movies are greenlighted are executives, not cinema lovers (or even producers…), b) there is a total fixation with the blockbuster, with the subsequent loss of the mid-budget film, c) the only demographic truly taken into account are 12-year-old males (but why?? they don’t even read comics), d) the weight of the foreign market has increased (hence the downplaying of nuanced local issues), f) women’s role as spectators and creators has sharply diminished (men don’t see women’s films, women see all kinds of films)…, g) racial and ethnic variety is decreasing (if you have noticed more Chinese actors in recent blockbusters, this is because China is now the main Hollywood market). In short, and I think she is right, When Harry Met Sally… would not be made today. Or it would be a Netflix series. With Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan recovering their lost popularity.
Please, notice that the current decline of Hollywood cinema also affects the blockbuster. The 1980s Aliens and Predator are excellent films which have no match today. Prequels, sequels and spin-offs simply show how scared everyone is of producing something fresh and new. Hundreds of millions of dollars are poured onto films impossible to watch and forgotten the next day: the plots are either confusing or inexistent, the action scenes are just sound and fury signifying nothing, poorly designed cgi only contributes to this sense of chaos and randomness. Now and then a popcorn film fulfils the task of keeping you entertained (The Fate of the Furious, part 8 of the Fast and Furious series). Yet most films are unendurable because despite being edited for spectators with a three-second attention span, they go on for more than two hours on average (films used to be a satisfying 90 minutes long). One might choose to be bored, if thus inclined, watching the grass grow in a French avant-garde film, as Woody Allen explained, but not, I’ll add, watching a blockbuster, which is supposed to thrill you.
One need not be very clever to notice that the current passion for watching series is very closely connected with the decadence of cinema. I need another post to explain how series are now about to enter their process of stagnation (perhaps not decline) but just let me say that the recent release of the new Twin Peaks, closes a cycle started by the old Twin Peaks in 1990. When HBO feels the need to go back to ABC to stay competitive it’s time to say that something smells rotten… Or, rather, very briefly: David Lynch’s quirky series was a product made for national American television, specifically ABC. The gauntlet of how to make eccentric quality series was then picked up by Chris Carter’s The X-Files (1993-2001), which was made for Fox–one of the first major TV channels to appear in the decade which saw film studios swallowed into the maws of greedy, blind corporations. While films studios were slowly eaten up from the inside, like teenagers in a bad horror movie, cable TV grew: hence HBO with The Sopranos (1999-2007) and Game of Thrones (2011-). Now it’s Netflix’s turn… which started film production in 2013.
What I am arguing is obvious. Film and series, whether TV or internet, are communicating vessels: there is only a certain amount of audiovisual narrative talent around and if this has migrated to the series, it is only because cinema started being destroyed in the early 1990s by the corporations that dominate the film studios. Indie cinema appeared as a counterweight but, precisely, the problems is that it is too light in business terms to truly offer an alternative. I must thank Freeman for making me realize what was missing in this evident argumentation: despite the gigantic budgets of series like Game of Thrones, cinema has lost to the series the mid-budget list. In 1990, The Handmaid’s Tale was a (quite good) mid-budget film, today it is a 10-part- series (second season announced). And the series is publicized as if the film never existed, though its makers are MGM.
The problem is that the series may kill but not replace films. Freeman notes, and I very much agree, that whereas one may see a favourite film dozens of times, this is less likely to happen with a 50-hour drama (e.g. The Wire). Also, I add, whereas a film is a self-enclosed product (even when it is part of a trilogy, etc), series are sprawling products that tend to last for as long as possible, even past the right time for closure (this is known as ‘jumping the shark’). It is now known, besides, that with the exception of a few A-list series, spectators tend to abandon series around the third season. It might well be that, eventually, series start dying of their own success and the mini-series become everyone’s favourite format.
What do we do with cinema, in the meantime? Pedro Almodóvar was adamant that only films released in cinemas count as proper cinema, whereas his fellow jury member at Cannes, actor Will Smith, argued that all forms of seeing films should co-exist to ensure maximum exposure. Theatre, after all, still exists and in ways more diversified than ever (is it because theatre-goers are better behaved than film-goers?). Possibly Smith is right but I will insist again that platforms like Netflix or Amazon are not the problem. I am really serious when I say that cinemas started dying the moment ushers were deprived of any authority in the new multiplexes and spectators started behaving as if they were at home. Hopefully, this rude breed will soon desert the cinemas for their own home cinemas and let us, film lovers, enjoy films again on the big screen.
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