Saturday, 20 August 2016

The Death of Cinema?

For as long as people have been writing about cinema, people have been writing about the death of cinema, something I have always put down to the fact that as multi-faceted a thing as the cinema invites so many personal readings of what the cinema must do that when someone invariably makes a film against that grain, it seems antithetical to you as a person. A case in point; Godard views film, largely, as a propaganda tool, and as an extension of his expression. Notions of entertainment in the traditional sense mean little to him, he is more experimental, and interested in what film can do to further the form of film.

This seems to be the opposite of his contemporary, Francois Truffaut, a much more commercially successful director who made films that were intensely personal, but also made with the wider audience in mind. They are all accessible, fun, funny, and so on. Godard himself attacked one of Truffaut's most popular films, "Day For Night", for being "dishonest", but what Godard really meant was that it was dishonest to him, and dishonest when measured up to his own personal subjective criterion for what qualifies as worthwhile cinema.

Here we have two directors, both rightfully considered great by critics and the public, at odds with one another, because of their different ideas as to what films should do. Ignoring the fact that the idea of film having a should highly contentious in itself, what can this tell us about film? It tells us, or it tells me, or I feel, that it means that any arguments for the death of cinema, or the evolution of cinema, should be taken with a pinch of salt, because the death of cinema for one critic or viewer could be the evolution for another. Truffaut, for example, didn't live to see the films of Harmony Korine, say, but we can infer from Truffaut's tendency to espouse moralism and fill his pictures with a moralistic bent, that he would likely have disapproved of the doe-eyed nihilism inherent in "Kids", a film which presents a tableaux of domestic and street-level cruelty in as plain a way as possible.

On the other hand, Godard later in his career came round to argue that Spielberg was dishonest, and that American cinema in general was a false use of the medium. The irony here, of course, is that it was American cinema in the first place which gave him the rules to break, and the standards to deviate from, when he and his contemporaries pioneered the French New Wave. But this is a criticism that has been lobbied at him often, that he seems to pay little attention to. From Godard's perspective, it is American cinema that has changed, not him, and his criticisms are valid; this is because Godard did not evolve along the lines of the American cinema, he carved his own path, and at some point his path diverged greatly from American cinema.

Godard and Truffaut, favourites though they are of mine, are not the only two to have strong opinions on this topic. Famously, Michael Haneke, another great director, has a great distaste for the Hollywood tendency to relish on depictions of violence, particularly of the Tarantino generation. He does not state that violence has no place in the cinema (Funny Games aside, "Amour" and "Caché contain scenes of startling violence), but that it has no place being depicted as it does. Both versions of Funny Games are horribly, horribly violent, but this is Haneke's aim; to make us hate the depiction of violence, as opposed to enjoy it.

Haneke, as far as I know, has never claimed that cinema died with the introduction of extreme violence in popular films, but he certainly holds in extreme disregard that tendency. There is nothing to say that this opinion is any more valid or invalid than that of the person who howls with laughter when Marvin gets shot in the face by John Travolta in Pulp Fiction, although it could be said that his argument is more coherent and comes from a place of care, whereas the Tarantino defence comes from a place of sneering, postmodern irony.

When Theodor Adorno famously announced the dictum of "no poetry after Auschwitz", even those who disagreed with the idea could not disagree with the underlying sentiment, because the post-war, post-Holocaust worldview was so bleak and hopeless that it is impossible to conceive of now. It is likely that the moralism of Truffaut, and the disdain of Haneke (an Austrian), come from living in the more immediate shadow of that most barbaric event (Godard is trickier, given the accusations of anti-Semitism levelled at him, but to me there is no evidence to suggest that he views the Holocaust as anything other than what is is; an atrocity).

And yet as the years have gone by, the shadow has faded, and just as it is not unreasonable to suggest that those directors were informed by those worldviews, it is also reasonable to suggest that Harmony Korine himself could not have had matters of the Holocaust and Adorno's assertions further from his mind; indeed, the main drive in his art is the squalor and torpor he encountered as a young man amongst the heroin junkies of New York (I am, myself, begrudgingly fond of Kids, by the way, but I am still saddened that a film that horrible could also be that true to life, if that makes sense).

What this means is that there are as many perspectives on the cinema as there are films, and that any proclamations on what the cinema can do and should do should (and I mean should) be measured and weighted equally against all of the other proclamations. Films are made by people, critics are people, and people are influenced by their immediate worldly experiences. Sometimes those experiences are good; more often than not, those experiences are bad, be it the Holocaust, the events of 9/11, or Korine's experiences in the squalor of New York.

The one thing that must be said, however, is that the frequent and persistent concern from various persons that the cinema might in some way be dying shows a care and fascination for its wellbeing, and a consideration that it is in fact alive in the first place. The cinema is immortal, until it isn't; some people might adorn it with tattoos, so to speak, or piercings, or a Savile Row suit, or a pair of Louis Vuitton shoes, but these will not be the things that kill it; what will kill it will be the day where people stop dressing it up in any way at all. As long as people disagree, however passionately, over the cinema and what it does, then the fact that there is something to disagree over stands as a beaming confirmation that the cinema is alive and well, and we're all the more better off for it.

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