Another famous figure has declared cinema’s extinction.
Following the conclusion of HBO’s The Night Of, mediocre novelist and recrudescent social media gadfly Bret Easton Ellis fired up his artisanal hot take machine to issue this fiat on Twitter:
“It happened: HBO’s brilliant THE NIGHT OF effectively eradicates the notion of the 2-hour American theatrical movie.”
While this tweet offers the full Ellis experience (vacuous, badly written, wildly overblown) it’s similar to a sentiment that’s coalesced across a thousand think pieces ever since the recent-ish proclamation of the Golden Age of TV, that prestige TV has supplanted the artistic place once occupied by the theatrical film. Prestige TV thus joins a parade of would-be movie killers – video games, the internet, TV in general, antitrust rulings, sound, the French – stretching back to the dawn of the medium. None have killed movies, and indeed, per Nietzsche (by way of Kanye West), all have in some way or other made movies stronger.
Although cinema is going nowhere – until fully immersive virtual reality comes along, and even then I’m not so sure – this relentless, seemingly constant insistence on its terminal illness or death does raise the question: why do so many people seem to want movies to die? My guess is that, of the forms of art that get the most serious critical attention, cinema is the newest (television, artistically, is similar enough to be a variety of cinema rather than a separate form, and video games will be at some point but at this point are on the cusp and not quite there yet). There may be a resentment, conscious or not, because it doesn’t extend back to the beginning of time like painting, music, dance, poetry, and sculpture. The new has always been suspect, because relying on consensus is easier than making up one’s own mind. There’s also the issue of, because of the exceedingly high costs in the commercial movie industry, insufficient creative risks taken, leading to a sense that there are finite limits to what can be done within cinema.
We’re All Killing All the Movies
I think the problem lies with people not seeing enough movies. More movies exist than it is possible to see in a normal lifetime, so seeing them all is an impractical goal, but a common thread in the proclamations of cinema’s imminent or recent death is that the sample size of movies under consideration is disingenuously or ignorantly small. The arguments are framed like “Why is Mad Men good but movies are bad because I just saw a superhero sequel that confused me because I didn’t see the three previous movies with all the backstory?” Comparing unlike terms – one of the four or five highest artistic achievements in one form versus a randomly selected entertainment in another – is never going to yield any kind of useful result. It’s certainly nothing to condemn an entire art form to oblivion over.
At this particular moment, the rush to hammer a stake through cinema’s chest has to do more with personal reassurance than with any extant evidence. Movies cost not insignificant sums of money to see in the theater, which is leaving out the ordeal of even getting to a movie theater in the first place. This isn’t sarcasm: I’ve actually felt it quite acutely in the last year-plus in which I’ve lived outside a city. Add to the equation the absurd amount of overwork American corporate culture demands of workers, and you have a large number of people who in past generations would have devoted a certain amount of their leisure time to seeing movies in theaters, but who now are too worn out to go out. So, they watch more TV. But, cultural prejudices linger. And, the type of people who hold or subconsciously internalize those cultural prejudices don’t want to seem uncultured. Thus, when told “the thing that you’re doing . . . it’s good” it’s natural to say “a ha! TV, the thing that I watch more of, is better than that thing that I no longer do as much of!”
Steven Spielberg Is Wrong About the Death of Superhero Movies
The novel did not kill the short story, and neither killed the poem. Longform cinema, screened on television, will not kill shorts, and it will not kill the novella that is the theatrical feature. The movie industry does a thing where it puts out big loud things in the summer when people are on vacation, and they promote them heavily because they need to make their sizable investments back with the help of ticket sales, but those are not the only movies that exist. There is no need to resent movies one does not see in theaters for whatever reason. A thing does not disappear because you shut your eyes.