You are Living in the Golden Years of Cinema

by Michael Barrett

23 July 2009

From The Diving Bell and the Butterfly 

The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, also called The Oscar People, has voted to expand the nominees for Best Picture to ten titles, thus “widening the field” and reflecting earlier practice during the first 15 years or so of the ceremony. I see that someone has finally gotten my memo.

True, I never sent it to anyone in particular, but my vibe was out there. I have many tentacles. Perhaps in a later column I’ll explain how I secretly run the world, but for now I wish to explain what I’ve been tirelessly telling a disbelieving circle of friends and strangers: We’re living in the Golden Age of Cinema.

What? I’ve lost you already?

Haven’t I read the sorrowful eulogies for cinema by Pauline Kael and Susan Sontag and all the other whiners, may they rest in peace?

Don’t I know that world cinema is dominated by Hollywood and that Hollywood is run by committees of craven accountants who throw together lowest-common-denominator concepts for over-caffeinated, under-educated teenagers? Don’t I know that the blockbuster mentality rules? Don’t I know it’s all about the opening weekend grosses?

Don’t I know that quality films go begging for distributors, that art houses are closing, that multiplexes show wall-to-wall sequels and remakes? Don’t I know that Hollywood went creatively bankrupt somewhere between Jaws and Star Wars and it’s all Steven Spielberg’s fault? Don’t I know everything is hype and buzz and dreck?

Actually I don’t, and proceeding from the principal that the truth is usually the opposite of what people think it is, I don’t believe any of that. Oh, some of it might have a grain of truth—a grain, mind you—but more important things are also true.

There’s never been a better time to see movies. I’ve never lived near a major city with revival houses and museums and festivals, and for that I felt sorry for my poor self, but no longer. I have access to great swathes of film history, from the earliest silents to Bollywood classics to the festival fodder of critical darlings like Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Hong Sang-Soo. I don’t care how many theatres are closing. Everything I want is on a big screen near my remote control, and that’s true whether I live in the big city or in a barn in Nebraska.

But you’re growing impatient. Yes, okay, a golden age of access, but how does that translate to creativity?

Well, do we think access to great art doesn’t translate to creating new art? Aspiring auteurs now have the inspirations, the means of production, and the means of distribution. Jean-Luc Godard, who made his earliest features in 16mm on the streets of Paris, once said the problem wasn’t getting your film made but getting it distributed. Today, after shooting your film digitally and editing on your laptop, you can burn your own discs and sell from your website. You stream it, download it, or put it on YouTube.

The new problem is getting it noticed amid all this overwhelming superfluity of access, but I submit that this is a much happier problem than not finding a distributor—of which there are a surprising number during this so-called decline, and an increasing number of festivals and labels and channels hungry for product. I said I didn’t live near a city with museums and festivals; that’s changing, but I haven’t moved!

You’re still restless. Okay, the hurrah-for-technology argument means every untalented jerk has the power to pollute the mediascape with self-indulgent spewings, but how does that signify a golden age of film? Surely I acknowledge that the general level of cinematic quality is in decline and that superior movies are few and far between?

Not at all. Excellent movies are thick on the ground. We’re tripping on them. If a Golden Age is four or five good new films a month, we’ve been hitting that for several years now. After all, for the first time in your life, isn’t it impossible to keep up with all the movies worth watching that you have at your fingertips? Haven’t they become like those stacks of unread books that taunt you from your shelves with an air of patient pity?

Now you’re finally getting annoyed, perhaps, at my stubborn, mulish perversity, the annoying rattle of my cup at your orthodoxies. And everyone from the average “serious” filmgoer to the most hollow-eyed film addicts and the most widely-viewed critics, all of whom should know better, take this axiom of decline to be self-evident. If it’s not a given that Hollywood has gone to hell in a handbasket, of what can we be certain? How can my assertions be true when my conclusion feels so wrong?

From Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

From Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

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