Currently, the most popular film in America is a non-interactive video game entitled 300, which seeks to recreate a comic book about the Battle of Thermopylae as noisily as possible. The second most popular film in America is a Tim Allen vehicle/ rip off of City Slickers. I think my normal response to news like this is to sigh loudly and obnoxiously, or perhaps stare wistfully at the Criterion Collection website.
I'd like to say that I blame 'Hollywood' for the dearth of great films in recent years. However, as a devoted cinephile- I watch at least one movie a day- I can't honestly say that independent films are any more original, artistic, or challenging than the usual Hollywood fare. In fact, what's so startling about films of the last few decades is how totally referential they are- primarily to other films. Even independent movies that are budgeted at less than $1 mil., in other words, the sorts of films that have the freedom to be unique and original, almost never are anymore. "Indie" as a genre is as formulaic as the Western. Foreign cinema is only slightly less derivative. Cinema has become an echo chamber.
This brings us back to Susan Sontag's argument about the death of cinema. Back in 1996 Sontag pronounced, with a standard flourish of Sontagisme, that Cinema had become a decadent art form, hemmed in by the mandates of late capitalism and the end of social cinephilia, and all but over. Great films would still be made, however they would be not only have to be the exception to the norm, but in active resistance to the way that films are now created.
Sontag mused that films have always blended the fantastic and the true-to-life, which we could argue are already blended in the human psyche. In a very real sense then, the cinema is able to capture aspects of human existence that other art forms cannot. And this has always been a goal of the auteurs; they were supposedly at odds with the showmen, who just wanted to "make movies". Some have suggested that the contrast is between films that are entertaining and films that are challenging. This definition doesn't seem correct though. In the first place, we can all think of films that are both challenging and entertaining, and often in the same ways. Also, I'm not sure that the word "challenging" doesn't suggest that films that are thought-provoking are somehow assaultive or painful. Can't a provocative film also be poetic, enlightening, or enriching? Is La Strada 'challenging'?
Perhaps a better way of describing it is that films can be entertaining and/or thought-provoking. The best ones tend to fit into both categories. However, there are certainly provocative films that aren't entertaining in the sense of being pleasant to watch, and yet are still a worthwhile experience. Certainly Requiem for a Dream wasn't the feel-good date movie of the summer, but it was definitely worth watching! Films that are purely entertaining, we can characterize as "pop", a word that isn't used as frequently as it should be.
Cinema is a narrative art form. It follows in the line of theatre and novels. Even films that are character-driven, as opposed to plot-driven, tend to have a narrative of some sort. And even experimental films, such as those of Kenneth Anger or David Lynch, also tend to have a narrative, often modelled after the narrative of dreams. The simple fact that the images follow each other in sequence allows the mind to impose a narrative, even if the filmmaker hasn't.
In literature, theatre, and film, and all storytelling hitherto, narrative has served to illuminate some aspect of human existence. Human beings do not come with an instruction manual, and narratives have traditionally served to explain what it means to be human in some greater detail. Classical theatre tended to explain aspects of human nature in relation to fate. Christian narrative describes aspects of human nature in relation to God. Modernist narratives tend to describe human nature in relation to human psychology. It is only with late modernity (often incorrectly called post-modernity) that narrative about human nature comes to relate only to narrative itself. One of the reasons that Quentin Tarantino is often called a "postmodern" filmmaker is that his films have almost nothing to say about human beings, and quite a bit to say about characters in other films.
In fact, Tarantino is representative of the contemporary filmmaker, worldwide, in that he draws from a well that contains nothing but shimmering celuloid; one wonders if he has had any personal experiences whatsoever. He seems appropriate for an era in which we can no longer be sure if others have had any significant experiences. However, he isn't alone. There seem to be a number of filmmakers whose films are perhaps ironically derivative, but derivative nonetheless. One might argue that great filmmakers have always paid homage; Francois Truffaut payed overt homage to the American gangster films of the 50s, for example. But Truffaut, whatever we might think of him, drew from films, but also from political texts, philosophy, and his own life. Agnès Varda modeled Le Bonheur, an extended philosophical meditation on the nature of love and fidelity, on the paintings of Renoir. Contemporary filmmakers seem to draw primarily from films. Genre rules have determined what a film should look and sound like, how it should move, and their "experimentation" tends to be little more than making ironic commentary on those rules while slavishly obeying them.
And moviegoers demand more of the same, only louder. Sontag also bemoaned the loss of cinephilia, removing the demand for artistic films. In the 60s, exhibitors could still show the latest Godard or Bergman film and expect a decent crowd of aspiring sophisticates to turn out. "Art film" was a cultivated taste- an adult taste- and it seems to have gone the way of all other adult tastes. Pornography is infantile; calling it 'adult film' is incorrect. And adults have largely abandonned moviegoing altogether, finding ticket prices inflated and theatres full of nattering teenaged brutes. Besides, when the multiplexes are showing computer animated versions of comic books, is it any wonder that non-parental adults don't want to go to the cinemas?
In a sense, the decline of cinema is overstated; surely, movies have always been a mass product, geared more towards turning a profit than creating art. The Frankfurt School was making these same complaints about film back in the 1940s. And, given the fact that most films cost in the millions to make, it is easy to understand that filmmakers would shy away from aiming at revealing some truth about humanity when the audiences come out for the tits and explosions. Surely, if paintings cost millions of dollars to produce, there never would have been a Van Gogh.
However, alongside the Frankfurt scourges, there have always been people like myself who believe that, at their best, films really are an art form, comparable to any other. Of course, the films that achieved the level of art, the masterpieces, have always been rare. But, they've gotten rarer and what seems to have changed are two things:
1) There really has been a decline in the number of devoted cinephiles who will champion those rare auteurs, sit in rapt attention in the darkened theatres, and devote themselves to the cause of cinema. In the contemporary culture, indifference is what gets passed off as sophistication, not exuberance. Devotion to anything, even art, seems naive to young people.
2) There has been a parallel decline in the number of filmmakers who actually deserve our attention, a lack of films that don't distract us with rapid editing, CGI, or the other tricks of the talentless; but instead hold us in rapt attention of the human face. Again, the idea that cinema could be taken seriously as an art form seems a bit embarassing to both filmgoers and filmmakers. The average independent or foreign film is no less trite than 300 for this reason. Cramped spirits don't aim very high.
Sontag is right that the balance has tipped and cinema has become solely an industry. But, what's even more striking twelve years later is the number of filmmakers and filmgoers who are oblivious to the idea that it could be anything but.