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06/07/2016

TheDecayofCinema

February25,1996

TheDecayofCinema
BySUSANSONTAG

inema's100yearsseemtohavetheshapeofalifecycle:an
inevitablebirth,thesteadyaccumulationofgloriesandthe
onsetinthelastdecadeofanignominious,irreversibledecline.It's
notthatyoucan'tlookforwardanymoretonewfilmsthatyoucan
admire.Butsuchfilmsnotonlyhavetobeexceptionsthat'strue
ofgreatachievementsinanyart.Theyhavetobeactualviolations
ofthenormsandpracticesthatnowgovernmoviemaking
everywhereinthecapitalistandwouldbecapitalistworldwhich
istosay,everywhere.Andordinaryfilms,filmsmadepurelyfor
entertainment(thatis,commercial)purposes,areastonishingly
witlessthevastmajorityfailresoundinglytoappealtotheir
cynicallytargetedaudiences.Whilethepointofagreatfilmisnow,
morethanever,tobeaoneofakindachievement,thecommercial
cinemahassettledforapolicyofbloated,derivativefilmmaking,a
brazencombinatoryorrecombinatoryart,inthehopeof
reproducingpastsuccesses.Cinema,onceheraldedastheartofthe
20thcentury,seemsnow,asthecenturyclosesnumerically,tobea
decadentart.
Perhapsitisnotcinemathathasendedbutonlycinephiliathe
nameoftheveryspecifickindoflovethatcinemainspired.Eachart
breedsitsfanatics.Thelovethatcinemainspired,however,was
special.Itwasbornoftheconvictionthatcinemawasanartunlike
anyother:quintessentiallymoderndistinctivelyaccessiblepoetic
andmysteriousanderoticandmoralallatthesametime.Cinema
hadapostles.(Itwaslikereligion.)Cinemawasacrusade.For
cinephiles,themoviesencapsulatedeverything.Cinemawasboth
thebookofartandthebookoflife.
Asmanypeoplehavenoted,thestartofmoviemakingahundred
yearsagowas,conveniently,adoublestart.Inroughlytheyear
1895,twokindsoffilmsweremade,twomodesofwhatcinema
couldbeseemedtoemerge:cinemaasthetranscriptionofreal
unstagedlife(theLumierebrothers)andcinemaasinvention,
artifice,illusion,fantasy(Melies).Butthisisnotatrueopposition.
Thewholepointisthat,forthosefirstaudiences,thevery
transcriptionofthemostbanalrealitytheLumierebrothers
filming"TheArrivalofaTrainatLaCiotatStation"wasa
fantasticexperience.Cinemabeganinwonder,thewonderthat
realitycanbetranscribedwithsuchimmediacy.Allofcinemaisan
attempttoperpetuateandtoreinventthatsenseofwonder.
Everythingincinemabeginswiththatmoment,100yearsago,when
thetrainpulledintothestation.Peopletookmoviesintothemselves,
justasthepubliccriedoutwithexcitement,actuallyducked,asthe
trainseemedtomovetowardthem.Untiltheadventoftelevision
emptiedthemovietheaters,itwasfromaweeklyvisittothecinema
thatyoulearned(ortriedtolearn)howtowalk,tosmoke,tokiss,to
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TheDecayofCinema

fight,togrieve.Moviesgaveyoutipsabouthowtobeattractive.
Example:Itlooksgoodtoweararaincoatevenwhenitisn'training.
Butwhateveryoutookhomewasonlyapartofthelarger
experienceofsubmergingyourselfinlivesthatwerenotyours.The
desiretoloseyourselfinotherpeople'slives...faces.Thisisa
larger,moreinclusiveformofdesireembodiedinthemovie
experience.Evenmorethanwhatyouappropriatedforyourselfwas
theexperienceofsurrenderto,ofbeingtransportedby,whatwason
thescreen.Youwantedtobekidnappedbythemovieandtobe
kidnappedwastobeoverwhelmedbythephysicalpresenceofthe
image.Theexperienceof"goingtothemovies"waspartofit.To
seeagreatfilmonlyontelevisionisn'ttohavereallyseenthatfilm.
It'snotonlyaquestionofthedimensionsoftheimage:thedisparity
betweenalargerthanyouimageinthetheaterandthelittleimage
ontheboxathome.Theconditionsofpayingattentionina
domesticspaceareradicallydisrespectfuloffilm.Nowthatafilm
nolongerhasastandardsize,homescreenscanbeasbigasliving
roomorbedroomwalls.Butyouarestillinalivingroomora
bedroom.Tobekidnapped,youhavetobeinamovietheater,seated
inthedarkamonganonymousstrangers.
Noamountofmourningwillrevivethevanishedritualserotic,
ruminativeofthedarkenedtheater.Thereductionofcinemato
assaultiveimages,andtheunprincipledmanipulationofimages
(fasterandfastercutting)tomakethemmoreattentiongrabbing,
hasproducedadisincarnated,lightweightcinemathatdoesn't
demandanyone'sfullattention.Imagesnowappearinanysizeand
onavarietyofsurfaces:onascreeninatheater,ondiscowallsand
onmegascreenshangingabovesportsarenas.Thesheerubiquityof
movingimageshassteadilyunderminedthestandardspeopleonce
hadbothforcinemaasartandforcinemaaspopularentertainment.
Inthefirstyearstherewas,essentially,nodifferencebetweenthese
twoforms.Andallfilmsofthesilenterafromthemasterpiecesof
Feuillade,D.W.Griffith,DzigaVertov,Pabst,MurnauandKing
Vidortothemostformulariddenmelodramasandcomediesare
onaveryhighartisticlevel,comparedwithmostofwhatwasto
follow.Withthecomingofsound,theimagemakinglostmuchof
itsbrillianceandpoetry,andcommercialstandardstightened.This
wayofmakingmoviestheHollywoodsystemdominatedfilm
makingforabout25years(roughlyfrom1930to1955).Themost
originaldirectors,likeErichvonStroheimandOrsonWelles,were
defeatedbythesystemandeventuallywentintoartisticexilein
Europewheremoreorlessthesamequalitydefeatingsystemwas
nowinplace,withlowerbudgetsonlyinFrancewerealarge
numberofsuperbfilmsproducedthroughoutthisperiod.Then,in
themid1950's,vanguardideastookholdagain,rootedintheideaof
cinemaasacraftpioneeredbytheItalianfilmsoftheimmediate
postwarperiod.Adazzlingnumberoforiginal,passionatefilmsof
thehighestseriousnessgotmade.
Itwasatthisspecificmomentinthe100yearhistoryofcinemathat
goingtomovies,thinkingaboutmovies,talkingaboutmovies
becameapassionamonguniversitystudentsandotheryoung
people.Youfellinlovenotjustwithactorsbutwithcinemaitself.
Cinephiliahadfirstbecomevisibleinthe1950'sinFrance:itsforum
wasthelegendaryfilmmagazineCahiersduCinema(followedby
similarlyferventmagazinesinGermany,Italy,GreatBritain,
Sweden,theUnitedStatesandCanada).Itstemples,asitspread
throughoutEuropeandtheAmericas,werethemanycinematheques
andclubsspecializinginfilmsfromthepastanddirectors'
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retrospectivesthatsprangup.The1960'sandearly1970'swasthe
feverishageofmoviegoing,withthefulltimecinephilealways
hopingtofindaseatascloseaspossibletothebigscreen,ideally
thethirdrowcenter."Onecan'tlivewithoutRossellini,"declaresa
characterinBertolucci's"BeforetheRevolution"(1964)and
meansit.
Forsome15yearstherewerenewmasterpieceseverymonth.How
farawaythateraseemsnow.Tobesure,therewasalwaysaconflict
betweencinemaasanindustryandcinemaasanart,cinemaas
routineandcinemaasexperiment.Buttheconflictwasnotsuchas
tomakeimpossiblethemakingofwonderfulfilms,sometimes
withinandsometimesoutsideofmainstreamcinema.Nowthe
balancehastippeddecisivelyinfavorofcinemaasanindustry.The
greatcinemaofthe1960'sand1970'shasbeenthoroughly
repudiated.Alreadyinthe1970'sHollywoodwasplagiarizingand
renderingbanaltheinnovationsinnarrativemethodandinthe
editingofsuccessfulnewEuropeanandevermarginalindependent
Americanfilms.Thencamethecatastrophicriseinproductioncosts
inthe1980's,whichsecuredtheworldwidereimpositionofindustry
standardsofmakinganddistributingfilmsonafarmorecoercive,
thistimetrulyglobalscale.Soaringproductoncostsmeantthata
filmhadtomakealotofmoneyrightaway,inthefirstmonthofits
release,ifitwastobeprofitableatallatrendthatfavoredthe
blockbusteroverthelowbudgetfilm,althoughmostblockbusters
wereflopsandtherewerealwaysafew"small"filmsthatsurprised
everyonebytheirappeal.Thetheatricalreleasetimeofmovies
becameshorterandshorter(liketheshelflifeofbooksin
bookstores)manymoviesweredesignedtogodirectlyintovideo.
Movietheaterscontinuedtoclosemanytownsnolongerhave
evenoneasmoviesbecame,mainly,oneofavarietyofhabit
forminghomeentertainments.
Inthiscountry,theloweringofexpectationsforqualityandthe
inflationofexpectationsforprofithavemadeitvirtuallyimpossible
forartisticallyambitiousAmericandirectors,likeFrancisFord
CoppolaandPaulSchrader,toworkattheirbestlevel.Abroad,the
resultcanbeseeninthemelancholyfateofsomeofthegreatest
directorsofthelastdecades.Whatplaceistheretodayfora
mavericklikeHansJurgenSyberberg,whohasstoppedmaking
filmsaltogether,orforthegreatGodard,whonowmakesfilms
aboutthehistoryoffilm,onvideo?Considersomeothercases.The
internationalizingoffinancingandthereforeofcastsweredisastrous
forAndreiTarkovskyinthelasttwofilmsofhisstupendous(and
tragicallyabbreviated)career.AndhowwillAleksandrSokurov
findthemoneytogoonmakinghissublimefilms,undertherude
conditionsofRussiancapitalism?
Predictably,theloveofcinemahaswaned.Peoplestilllikegoingto
themovies,andsomepeoplestillcareaboutandexpectsomething
special,necessaryfromafilm.Andwonderfulfilmsarestillbeing
made:MikeLeigh's"Naked,"GianniAmelio's"Lamerica,"Fred
Kelemen's"Fate."Butyouhardlyfindanymore,atleastamongthe
young,thedistinctivecinephilicloveofmoviesthatisnotsimply
loveofbutacertaintasteinfilms(groundedinavastappetitefor
seeingandreseeingasmuchaspossibleofcinema'sgloriouspast).
Cinephiliaitselfhascomeunderattack,assomethingquaint,
outmoded,snobbish.Forcinephiliaimpliesthatfilmsareunique,
unrepeatable,magicexperiences.Cinephiliatellsusthatthe
HollywoodremakeofGodard's"Breathless"cannotbeasgoodas
theoriginal.Cinephiliahasnoroleintheeraofhyperindustrial
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films.Forcinephiliacannothelp,bytheveryrangeandeclecticism
ofitspassions,fromsponsoringtheideaofthefilmas,firstofall,a
poeticobjectandcannothelpfromincitingthoseoutsidethemovie
industry,likepaintersandwriters,towanttomakefilms,too.Itis
preciselythisnotionthathasbeendefeated.
Ifcinephiliaisdead,thenmoviesaredeadtoo...nomatterhow
manymovies,evenverygoodones,goonbeingmade.Ifcinema
canberesurrected,itwillonlybethroughthebirthofanewkindof
cinelove.
SusanSontagistheauthor,mostrecently,of"TheVolcanoLover,"a
novel,and"AliceinBed,"aplay.
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