*You can read Sontag’s article “The Decay of Cinema” here.
The starting point for the apparent decay of cinema and the traditional movie-going experience: perhaps it was the advent of televisions; maybe the arrival of VHS (and subsequently DVD’s) really started it; if you’re an optimist, perhaps the invention of online streaming service. Whichever it may be, the question “is cinema dying (or in decline)?” seems to arise amongst those who care enough about the medium. Susan Sontag, one of America’s most recognisable public intellectuals and a renowned cinephile, declared as early as in 1996 (even before DVD’s arrived in the scene!!) the decay of cinema.
For Sontag, actually, it wasn’t so much the cinema itself as the love of cinema that was in decline—it should’ve been “The Decay of Cinephilia.” Well, she does point out in the article the failures of contemporary cinema (from North America and Europe in particular, it seems) on an industrial level. She asserts that “[great films] have to be actual violations of the norms and practices that now govern movie making everywhere in the capitalist and would-be capitalist world.” This statement seems to hold even greater truth in 2015 than it did in 1996. However, Sontag argues that while great works of cinema, though very sporadically, are still being made, cinephilia—a very specific kind of love devoted to cinema—is reduced to almost non-existence. And the very distinct component that constitutes her own brand of cinephilia is the experience of watching a film at a movie theatre.
“To see a great film only on television isn’t to have really seen that film. It’s not only a question of the dimensions of the image […] The conditions of paying attention in a domestic space are radically disrespectful of film.”
It is absolutely true that younger generations are getting used to watching films on small screens (be it televisions or laptops) just as they are to watching them at the cinema. More and more filmmakers and producers choose to distribute their films through theatrical release and on demand services side by side. The market for films that are made specifically for DVD’s and online streaming services has grown to a significant scale. However, for Sontag, the wonders of cinema take place when one is “kidnapped,” and “seated in the dark amongst anonymous strangers.” She insists that escapism from domestic sphere and the intimidation of “larger-than-you image” are integral to cinephilia; the traditional movie-going experience is to cinephiles what Eucharist is to Catholics.
“Cinema had apostles. (It was like religion.)”
The comparison between cinephilic love and religious fervour is entirely convincing; some of the most fanatical apostles of cinema include François Truffaut, Gilles Deleuze, and Martin Scorsese, to name a few. One example of the manifestation of such fervour in cinema’s history is the beginning of Cahiers du Cinéma and subsequent Nouvelle Vague. Under André Bazin—cinephiles’ Saint Peter—film was elevated to a ‘serious’ art form that deserved vigorous aesthetic studies and criticisms. Cahiers critics discussed Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Roberto Rossellini, and Jean Renoir in the sam way art, music and literary critics would discuss Rembrandt, Matisse, Mahler, and Faulkner. Their agenda also included the establishment of aesthetic criteria unique to cinema, thereby securing film’s place in the arts as a distinct, indepedent medium. These critics were unapologetic and militant in their approaches. Their role as critics, however, did not quench their thirst for cinema, and they soon moved on to become filmmakers themselves: the birth of Nouvelle Vague. Under the influence of intoxicating cinephilia, one becomes infatuated with films, and eventually desires director’s chair. Truffaut asked, “is the cinema more important than life?”—the very sign of ‘religious fanaticism.’
And of course, the founding apostles of Nouvelle Vague—Truffaut, Godard, Rivette, Rohmer, and Chabrol—caught the cinephilic fever, attending movie houses in Paris. The quintet got much of their film education at Cinémathèque Française, and their unofficial instructor was Henri Langlois. At the Cinémathèque they came in contact with the masterpieces of the silent era, as wells as talkies; Kenji Misoguchi’s and Yasujirō Ozu’s films were programmed alongside Lang’s and Welles’s work. An important thing to note here, however, is that this was possible because it was Paris. At the time, one had to be in either New York or Paris to live the life of a bona fide cinephile. Sontag, too, could be up to date with the new releases coming from all over the world, and familiar with the films from the bygone decades because she lived in New York. It was difficult, say, for someone living in suburban Virginia in the 60’s to find the screening of films by Alain Resnais and Satyajit Ray in the local area. Needless to say, cinephilia was even ‘less possbile’ in much of the developing world. Such geographical limitation, in a way, gave cinephilia sort of an ‘elitist’ edge.
I’ve got to admit it: I sympathise with Sontag lamenting the decay of traditional movie-going experience. I’m sure many cinephiles do, too. It’s undeniable that in most cases the best (and perhaps the most appropriate) way to see a film is to see it at the cinema. Yet, Sontag’s insistence on the old-fashioned movie-going experience as the only real way to see films seems all too narrow-minded and restrictive. While it’s true that cinema loses much of its magic in domestic settings, the role that home media played in the ‘dissemination’ of cinema across the world, I think, easily outweighs the loss. If anything, televisions, DVD’s (and Blu-ray’s), and on demand services helped expanding the size of cinephile communities on a global scale.
In this day and age, one no longer has to travel to big cities to watch, say, a new Nanni Moretti film; one no longer has to wait for the retrospectives—that might never come—to catch films by Robert Bresson and Erich von Stroheim. One may live in a small town that no one has heard of, and still is able to navigate through the entire history of cinema (if he/she has the means, of course). And do you really think that those who care to check out Carl Dreyer and Manoel de Oliveira are unaware of the qualitative superiority that watching a film at the cinema has over watching it at home?—utter nonsense! But, they can at least see those pictures now, and be (though with some limitations) spellbound by the magic of the films. No body, not even Sontag, can deny their cinephilic love just because their encounter with films takes place mainly at home; they are just as passionate about cinema as Truffaut and Rohmer were. If I may take the liberty to slightly twist Walter Benjamin’s idea, cinema, with the arrival of the home media technologies, took an even more radical turn to abolish ‘aura’ surrounding the films that most people had previously only ‘heard of,’ but never had the means to see. ‘Aristocracy’ in cinema has been abolished, and cinephilia is now open to ‘the people.’
Jonathan Rosenbaum, one of the greatest film critics alive, has commented that more than ever, he feels as though he belongs to one huge community of cinephiles. Through much of the 20th century, he says, it would take him good 6 months to meet another person who’d also watched, say, a new Maurice Pialat film. However, now, it’s almost instantaneous with the internet. The communal experience of watching films at the cinema may have declined, but the sense of community amongst cinephiles has, in fact, expanded, even beyond the borders.
“But you hardly find anymore, at least among the young, the distinctive cinephilic love of movies that is not simply love of but a certain taste in films (grounded in a vast appetite for seeing and reseeing as much as possible of cinema’s glorious past).”
Much of my personal experience with cinema took place in domestic settings, too. Had it not been for televisions and Criterion, I would never have discovered Sergei Eisenstein, Jean-Luc Godard, or Yasujirō Ozu. While I was lucky enough to check out much of Jean Eustache’s and Orson Welles’s works at the retrospectives, it was on my laptop where I first came in contact with Bresson and Abbas Kiarostami. Yes, I would’ve loved to see Au Hasard Balthazar and Taste of Cherry at the cinema, but even at home, great movies speak directly to one’s heart.
It’s preposterous to blame someone for going for the second best option rather than giving it all up. Without the VHS and television, for example, we wouldn’t have Quentin Tarantino and Bong Joon-ho—cinephile-turned-filmmakers—working today. Through videos and AFN, both filmmakers developed distinct tastes in films. Tarantino’s embraces the playful sensibility of the early Nouvelle Vague, Shaw Brothers action flicks, Howard Hawks, and Sergio Leone; Bong’s was shaped by the Asian masters like Shohei Immamura, Hou Hsia-hsien, Edward Yang, and Kim Ki-young, as well as the American genre films, particularly film noir and murder mystery movies. They could acquire such tastes only through “a vast appetite for seeing and reseeing as much as possible of cinema’s glorious past.”
In many ways, the global-scale ‘dissemination’ of cinema, which according to Sontag, supposedly occurred at the cost of the ‘decay of cinephilia,’ has given everyone who loves film a chance to create her own Histoire(s) du cinéma—Jean-Luc Godard’s magnum opus, as well as one of the most ambitious records of cinema’s history. In much of the capitalist world, people have access to the entire history of (world) cinema at their fingertips. Not only that, people can now create HD videos with their smartphones and DSLR’s. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that virtually every one, if she is willing to, has all the resources to become a cinephile, a film historian, and, ultimately, a filmmaker. The barriers that previously divided cinéastes, cinephiles, and ‘layman’ movie-goers seem meaningless in the 21st century.
A little note to Susan: cinema is very much alive and well today. True—people learn much of cinema’s history at home, but have not forgotten the power of watching films at the cinema. What’s more, now anyone can make films that reek of cinephilic craze, like Breathless and O Sangue if she wants to. You no longer have to live in New York or Paris to do that. I would say it’s the age of the international nouvelle vague for all. We all know how deeply in love you were with films. But, there are people out there who are just as passionate about cinema as you were; that they saw Bresson’s and Godard’s work on small screens of various size does not in any way reduce their passion for it. Try to think of it as the ‘democratization’ of films, if it helps. After all, you did not really want the cinema to end, did you? I’m sure you’d be happy to find what you had predicted 20 years ago turned out to be false.