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Professor Echo Written by Professor Echo
Mar. 15, 2008 | 12:47 AM

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By Professor Echo (c)

How willing are you to not only invest your emotions and intellect into a film, but to actually feel compelled to do so, to absorb a film instead of merely watching it?

Are cinephiles getting to be more and more rare these days? Is our disposable society infecting our appreciation of art as just one more throwaway feeling? How does it happen that you walk out of a truly masterful film and think only, “Well, that was that. What’s next?” Yet it happens all the time, more so now than it used to be, I think, partly because current films are anything but masterful and partly because many audiences today don’t want to challenge themselves beyond movies as entertainment or a mere extension of a greater media onslaught the goal of which seeks only to pass your time, not fill it.

Film isn’t just an art form; it’s an ESSENTIAL art form. What is art? Shared life. Art is someone else’s vision that tries to communicate to you that you are not alone in the world, that someone is there with you and this is what they see. Then you must look at their sight and measure it against your own, deciding if there is anything there you can judge, learn from, befriend, debate, wonder over. Film as art is imagination collected, at its best it represents a group concentration toward one goal, to tell this story with these characters and make us all feel less alone.

But are those of us who allow films to penetrate our very soul a dying breed? I have seen so many film societies around the world come and go and even online while there are hundreds of sites devoted to films, filmmakers and filmmaking, how many are truly interested in the art of films and their reflection and inspection of humanity? The three approaches to film for most cinephiles are usually qualified as HISTORICAL, CRITICAL and THEORETICAL, with the nominal emphasis being on the first two. Yet even with the thousands of online journals, blogs and review sites about movies, are we any closer to understanding the depths of it as art? I wonder. 

Don’t misunderstand me; I’m not trying to be a snob about it all or declaring that I am among the elite in my inherent passion for learned discourse about movies as art. It just saddens me that there do not seem to be more kindred spirits who at the very least feel so affected by film that they can’t stop trying to explore why.  Often it’s not the discovery itself that inspires revelation, it’s the quest, what you discern about yourself as you journey between the art, your imagination and the immersion of both into your everyday. 

Are genuine cinephiles fading out?

I think for me the experience came with seeing BONNIE AND CLYDE for the first time when I was 9 years old. I had never seen anything like that before and it stayed with me or perhaps more correctly haunted me for days after. Of course, at 9 I couldn’t quite ferret out why or articulate what I was feeling to any degree, but I knew within that this was more than just a movie. It had to be for me to have been dwelling on it as much as I did. 

For many cinephiles there is the memory of that seminal moment, the film that caused your perspective to blossom and encourage a commensurate introspection, no matter how mature or sensitive your outlook was at the time.  If you look back on the movies you saw previous to it you may be able to recognize little instances here and there where your inner cinephile was beginning to take root, but in most of us there really is that catalyst which seemed to elevate you to another level, one of new curiosity, complexity and, to risk a contradiction in terms, ambiguous truth.

While there is a tendency to isolate the terms of films being art and define only a select few as such, l subscribe to the idea that all movies have the capability of being art no matter how sullied they may render that denomination in the majority view.  I don’t believe it matters what movies people are affected by, the important thing is that they are affected by it, even if they can never express or expound on just why or how it disrupted their days or daydreams. I used to be on a softball team with a guy who had seen ROCKY III in a theater 9 times in two weeks! When I asked him why all he could really muster was: “I don’t know, man, I just really like it.” This was a guy that didn’t read, was probably never in a museum in his life, never listened to classical music, would probably live to be a hundred and never hear of Ozu, yet something about this movie rocked his conscious and sub-conscious so much he couldn’t get enough of it. Does that make ROCKY III art? Definitely.

I sometimes use December 1974 and the release of THE GODFATHER PART II as the peak of all American popular culture. Although great things would come after and continue to be produced from time to time, it serves as a good cut off point for me because I witnessed first hand the downward spiral of so much of American culture after that. Obviously NASHVILLE in 1976 was still near enough the peak even if it was on the other side, but with the release of STAR WARS one year later the decline hastened. That’s probably a subject for another essay, so I won’t elaborate on it any further in this space other than to use it as an illustration of where my personal indulgence in the art of film began to wane a bit.

Suffice to say that at least in terms of the film medium (though one could also apply it to popular music, stage and other 20th century media), from the release of SUNRISE in 1927 to THE GODFATHER PART II in 1974, the sublime quality of movies was consistent in ways we may never see again.

This is obviously open to impassioned debate.  Anytime one retroactively deems a specific period as a particularly favored one is perhaps a designation lost in the original time. One must wonder if people in 1939 or 1974 were consciously aware of just how many significant films were being released and even if such a perception existed, it’s doubtful anyone attached any profound relevance to it. 

But that it is precisely the situation which existed for much of the history of 20th century filmmaking. There often was such a plethora of artistic accomplishment, most just took it for granted as being the norm. This blanket acceptance and inherently confident, even blas?, approach to the movie industry has certainly faded away in the last twenty-plus years. Now interesting and innovative and insightful films are the exception and without question few and far between. When you look at some of the best films of the early 70’s they were major studio releases, not independents, and the deterioration of that method has seriously eroded the quality in the years since 1977, when STAR WARS changed forever the way movies would be made and accepted. 

The decades since the 70’s will be analyzed and reappraised at varying times in the future and with as many varied interpretations or conclusions. However, having been alive and an active moviegoer throughout the last forty years, I can say that at no time was there ever a level of preference for earlier periods of film history than exists now. And it’s more than just nostalgia because for many current cinephiles they did not experience the eras first hand. When the Bogart revival scene happened in the mid-late 60’s and carrying over to the resurgence of the Marx Brothers and other icons of past cinema glory, it was an exciting time, but it never usurped the idea that the then contemporary 1960’s films were inferior. That’s what we face now, not just attention and affection for earlier movies, but a decided preference for them over new releases. 

That is not being an old fogey or a curmudgeon with a built-in bias against anything new; I have met teenagers and 20-somethings who detest new films and feel their time and effort is better spent immersing themselves in a hundred years of cinema history rather than allowing the corporate dictated, inferior, derivative, essentially mindless and insulting crap that is released to theaters week after week. The majority of new films in this decade can really be narrowed down to two different types: Those that are largely aimed at teenage boys and those that are trolling for Oscars in order to profit from the (dubious) prestige. 

The industry is in decline and though, as I have often said, great films are still being made and will continue to be made, every form of communication, artistic or otherwise, suffers from an ephemeral technology and a seriously challenged attention span. My take is that movies will go the way of the iPod and be both produced and released for individual downloads until the technology once again surpasses that. Movies will be made much more cheaply and the choices will be as incredibly diverse as music. Due to the gloriously spectacular democratic nature of the internet and its transcendent measures of global communication, we will be inundated with both professional and amateur creators and “movies” of all shapes and sizes. YouTUBE and its copycats will lead the way and the best publicity for new movies will be the buzz generated by cyber word of mouth, not some corporate advertising boardroom bullshit. In essence, the history of film making will have come full circle, with anyone who has the technology being able to shoot whatever they want, ala the Lumiere Brothers, the Edison shorts and the rest of all the unknown, unsung pioneers who launched the medium over a hundred years ago.

One can only hope that the opportunities are not inordinately wasted and we have a bounty of innovative and invigorating communication to once again satiate our desire to bond with art, allowing it to help guide us through the dark passages of all our wonder.