56: Cinema dying in the dark
Hello, I hope you’re well and keeping warm.
Happy new year and welcome to Border Crossing #56. Thank you very much for taking the time to read these — I hugely appreciate you, especially if you’re a subscriber.
This issue, I give up cinema.
After the weekend I’m starting a short solo writing retreat (a trial run) booked and organised partly with the DYCP award from ACE. It’s a cottage on the Suffolk coast near Lowestoft, devoid of people, to hear the sea at night. The plan is to stay offline, churn through notes and manuscripts to put some things in order. Partly to write as much as possible and seek out a better rhythm for writing. Partly to make some big decisions about what to focus on, to get finished and punted to publishers / agents this year. One way or another, it’ll be decisive. I’ll let you know how it goes. I’m hoping for a storm.
A quirky, fascinating, funny science talk on YouTube about The Phillips Machine. This is a contraption built from reclaimed wartime plumbing gear, which pumps water around to replicate the economy. For real. Here, it’s explained to some economists by the brilliant Allan McRobie. Hat tip Heather Allansdottir for mentioning the footage in her excellent interview on The Possibility Club: Five Big Questions series.
That audio series is going to be very worth a listen, by the way. Richard Freeman interviews leaders in business, politics and culture, asking them five big questions to help unpack how they’re going forward.
Hot music tip Pink Pantheress, who just won the Sound 2022 poll after launching her career on Tik Tok, has a fab little song called ‘Pain’ that helped break her last year. ‘Pain’ takes Erik Satie’s Gymnópedie No. 1 (that’s right boomers, the 1980s advert for Hamlet cigars) and does to it exactly, exactly what early 1990s squatter scene fraggle band Back To The Planet did on their breakthrough track ‘Daydream’. The vibe is so similar even the lyrical themes run parallel (sleep, dream, rhapsody over someone) and both artists devolve to a lyric-free ‘ooh’ when they hit the chorus. Pink Pantheress names all her samples and namechecks Satie’s original composition in the text on her YouTube channel. I just marvel, realising I’ve lasted long enough to witness pop actually eat itself. It’s fantastic. Most likely Pink Pantheress has never heard of Back To The Plant, we’re in different universes. Respect to the sheer staying power of Satie’s loping riff of two major-seventh chords.
There’s a scene in the current season of American legal and political satire The Good Fight in which a rogue judge recommends another character to read Franz Kafka’s short essay ‘Before The Law’, which was included in his story The Trial. The judge even proclaims ‘It’s only a page long!’ as encouragement. I couldn’t remember it, so I re-read it (here, online, for free) and it’s well worth a go. It’s only a page long!
The ‘community removal’ of statues reaches into our potato gems: a large sculpture of a potato has been torn down by angry locals on Cyprus. It looked too much like a penis.
If you fancy some Sondheim audio content after his passing, NPR’s Fresh Air went all in just before Christmas: they compiled a big three part memorial, including two interviews.
Beyond The Joke website interviewed Victoria Coren-Mitchell about her experience being beautifully rubbish at Taskmaster. I especially liked this question and answer:
What have you learned about yourself?
Nothing. I've learned nothing to my own benefit. I was happily cruising along under the assumption that I was quite good at mind games. It’s like, I've never written a novel, because for all the time I don't write a novel, I might be one of the world's great novelists. I might be a Phillip Roth or an Anne Tyler, I just haven’t tried it yet. As soon as I write a novel, that fantasy is over. I’ve had a very happy few years being a person thinking I could probably win Taskmaster if I ever did it. And now I know the truth. For me the lesson is that it’s better to quietly sit at home thinking about all the things you could be good at, instead of trying them. That’s my message to young people: squash your ambitions back into a can and just be happy.
Cinema dying in the dark
Long before the pandemic, there was already discussion among film writers and cinephiles about if — and how quickly — mainstream mass audience cinema might be on its way out. I had no strong opinion. I like going to the pictures but in some ways it’s the art-form (or at least the method of distributing an art-form) that I’m least invested in. Then, over the past three months, from Dune to West Side Story, I found myself solidly, if regretfully, on the side that believes it is essentially done. At least as a significant mainstream way to experience film, if not a mass medium altogether. If that sense turns out to be correct, it will have taken less than one quarter of the twenty-first century to replace the twentieth century’s single greatest, most innovative, device for storytelling.
Change trundles along slowly until bang, it already happened incredibly fast.
That doesn’t mean no more movies, or even no more brilliant, life-changing movies. But it’s increasingly clear that the shape of cinema to come, overall, looks like a long slide towards a niche experience and the cult appeal of the supplanted art discipline. Like, jazz, once rock’n’roll took hold (of which more later). A decline that is franchise-proof and genius-proof and exists at both ends of the supply chain.
At the consumer end: the inexorable shift of the primary delivery mechanism that is already happening, away from large, crowded halls of excited strangers watching a big screen fifty feet away, towards a household, or someone alone, watching a much smaller (yet crucially, it doesn’t feel that much smaller) screen, eight feet away, with a remote control in hand and a kitchen full of vastly cheaper snacks. And no noisy twats on their phones, who you’re too scared to confront.
At the producer end: you’ve got peak television providing the world’s greatest writers, actors and directors with a better safety net and more reliable money, to tell stories over a longer, more complex, more expansive arc, exploring detail, taking risks, peeking into corners that any two hour film must leave unshared, with characters developing over time. Importantly, with no longer any damage to status for creative professionals, for doing it in the first place, nor for hiring in single-episode relief (such a team of different writers and directors) to ease the workload. This is surely a far more approachable scaffolding for new creative artists and specialist technicians to develop skills and ‘come up’ in?
Between those two poles, the consumer end and the producer end, there we find all the dissuasion factors: the domestic, instinctive, personal reasons for not going.
In Brighton we live just a couple hundred metres from one of England’s loveliest arthouse spaces, the still uniquely inviting (despite being owned by the icky Picturehouse chain) Duke Of York’s Cinema. In town, on the North Laine, it has a sibling venue, Dukes At Komedia, with two smaller screens. We have plenty of themed film festivals and art screenings. A twenty minute train ride away, right by Lewes railway station lives the plush new Depot arthouse indie, with cocktails and dinner. Plus a multiplex in town and another one out east on the Marina. We’re spoilt, is what I’m saying. Before 2020 (averaged over the previous five years) we were approximately an eleven or twelve cinema trips-per-year household. Including home viewing, we watched fifty-ish films, so roughly one-fifth of the films we saw were trips out.
In pandemic times, our film viewing shot up, so we averaged almost seventy films each year in 2020 and 2021, often in bursts where we’d do a bunch of related films over a couple of days, like when Rifa took me on a Hitchcock deep dive. But given the mayhem outdoors, we only saw two films in the cinema since Parasite just before the pandemic; Summer Of Soul and Marvel’s Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings.
Regardless all that, I needed to see Dune on the big screen. I grew up on the novels, so Herbert’s universe is familiar. Last summer we’d rewatched Lynch’s abysmal, amusing Sting In His Pants version and not so long ago I’d binge-watched the solid early 2000s TV series. Now this huge new version was exactly how I wanted Dune to look and feel, perhaps birthing a new franchise too. But Rifa was unexpectedly reluctant. Even though it was a relatively safe moment Covid-wise, she preferred to wait for it to show up on the Internet. But this is exactly the kind of film (“you have to see on the big screen”) that cinema is relying on to keep itself going. I got my coat.
It’s boring. I’ve got to sit with other people. It’s like school.
I saw it the week after release in a half-full Dukes At Komedia. Most people were masked but enough were unmasked and there were enough distracting noises around the small auditorium to be properly annoying. The film itself was perfectly fine, I was impressed by it, I didn’t mind the ponderous pace and serious vibe, it ticked all the boxes. But the cinema experience was uncomfortable and irritating enough to prevent immersion. I didn’t lose myself. Worse, the cinema screen itself had a kind of wrinkle along one edge, which probably wouldn’t matter during busy moments of a splashy action movie, or an intense personal drama, but strongly affected the slow-panning rust coloured vistas of the Arrakis deserts. Even without crisp munching and chatting and fear of everyone’s breath, this would’ve been enough on its own to drag one out of suspension of disbelief during a vast, slow movie experience.
By the time I left the cinema, I wished I’d saved it to watch at home. This is a sea-change for me. Even the most singularly ‘huge’ visual film of the year would’ve been better on our television screen. Why did I bother? Like, watching the sheer magic of Summer Of Soul three times at home, the music actually sounds better on our domestic speakers than it did on the big thundering things at the Odeon, just because of placement and balance.
After Dune that wonky screen and the crisp eaters made me so sad: this notion of the unique ‘spectacle’ of film seen in cinemas, which cinephiles use to defend the picture house, is now becoming an outdated notion. Already, it only applies to a particular group of films; actioners, Bond, Marvel and DC type franchises, big budget sci-fi — and very occasionally other kinds of film that know how to use the expanse of the canvas, made so vividly visual they fall into the category. Clio Barnard and Barry Jenkins and Parasite and such. But those are very rare treats. One or two a year. Simply the perceived ‘advantage’ of big screen-size and big speakers has been profoundly eroded, as personal entertainment systems get lower in price (and the equipment filters through second-hand markets). More and more people have bigger TVs and those wall projectors than anyone would’ve imagined fifteen years ago. Most of the time they’re gaming and watching boxsets.
Meanwhile it’s undeniable… other people are annoying. Wrongly or rightly, we are becoming gradually, inexorably, less patient with sharing space, unless the experience we’re having succeeds in uniting us as a group. And that’s hard. More broadly (and very worryingly) I’d suggest it’s happening less, across all live performance arts.
One might even develop an argument that these more divisive times we live in make sharing cultural experience less palatable, and unified responses in the cinema less likely. On their beloved Radio 5 Live film show, Simon Mayo and Mark Kermode are doing sterling, righteous work passionately defending cinema and especially supporting smaller, independent picture houses in their fight for survival. It’s admirable. For the longest time I sort of assumed I was on their side, without thinking about it, believing optimistically we would return to normal at some point.
By the time Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story reboot rolled around, cinema felt riskier Covid-wise anyway. But it was near Christmas and perfect timing for a one-off trip out. My excitement to see it was the same as for Dune — deep familiarity with the original songs, appreciation of the craft of the new version — especially in the wake of Sondheim’s death and various Spielberg interviews where he explained how closely Sondheim had engaged with the reworking of material.
But when Rifa demurred I surprised myself by deciding to wait until it’s available to see at home. It wasn’t even a dilemma. And the moment passed. We’ll catch it whenever. Our attention moves on. Meanwhile, at least in the USA, West Side Story is an outright flop. People didn’t go. Winter came and Omicron brought back hesitancy with a vengeance. The new Spiderman was still apparently a hit, attracting so many people despite Covid that it would’ve been a reasonable smash even before the pandemic. So a certain kind of film (hello Marvel again, hello younger crowd) can still grab serious audience numbers. But the target demographic for West Side Story skews older and they (we) stayed home.
I’d put together most of this piece, when Stephen Metcalf went on a typically excellent diatribe, during Slate’s first ‘Culture Gabfest’ podcast of 2022. He found the summary I’d been looking for:
The loss of centrality of movies to American culture, I feel like it’s here. And it’s here because so much of the juice, the electricity, poured upon American cinema, Hollywood, because Hollywood brought together industrial production, idiosyncratic artistic vision, social relevance, eccentricity, stardom, and the conscious and unconscious desires of the culture since the great golden age of the 1930s. It just had been a magnet for our id, ego and superego… and six months ago I was like, oh, it’s definitively over. I don’t think this is nostalgia on my part. I don’t think this is declinism.
It’s just, if you don’t have the juice, you don’t have the juice.
And there will be great movies in the same way that there’s great jazz. But novels on TV have supplanted it. And when Hollywood went all-in on IP, they downgraded the power of the Movie Star, right? Acting has never been more wonderful. Actors really have never been better. But that is independent of ‘stardom’. Somehow that displacement of Marvel characters for the actors at some level, the primacy of the actors playing them, it somehow [loses] the glamour. Is that the word I’m looking for?
When Hollywood loses its glamour, the movies no longer occupy their traditional place in American life.
— Stephen Metcalf, speaking on Slate Culture Gabfest
I perked up especially fast when Metcalf mentioned jazz. I’ve used that jazz analogy for a while, not in reference to cinema but in reference to rock music (as performed by live bands with three or more members, playing guitar, bass and drums) which I’d argue has also passed sadly from mass market, cultural tentpole to peripheral minority cult art-form, largely without its practitioners noticing. Certainly rock is no longer anything to do with any active counter-culture. Rock doesn’t have the juice running down its leg anymore. That’s a whole nother essay though.
When Dunkirk came out, already they were promoting the sense that the standard cinema screening was a lesser version of what you’d see if you paid premium and went up a tier to a 70mm IMAX screening. At the time I thought: this means IMAX will survive, along with arthouse. So, IMAXes and indie arthouses survive but everything in between is dust in the darkness?
How about this question: when is the last time for you that being in a cinema was a magical experience in and of itself, rather than just the necessary backdrop to watching the film? Maybe for you it’s last week?
Honestly, for me it was I Am Not Your Negro, the James Baldwin documentary, screened in English with German subtitles, in the open air cinema in Hasenheide Park in Berlin. That was in Spring 2017. That’s the last time a local audience and breathtaking surroundings and good beer and a perfectly timed shower of rain over the credits contributed to The Cinema Experience for me, in a tangible, thrilling way. So, visual spectacle is already exposed as a myth of relativism, except at the very top end. Of course Dune on a high-end metropolitan 70mm IMAX screen will be an overwhelming experience. But Dune on a bog standard cinema screen... when I can’t even pause it for a wee... and that’s even without the annoying wrinkle?
get in touch
Border Crossing FPL league code: qi3116
New Folk Friday — weekly Spotify playlist for new releases in folk, psych, songwriting and americana, updated each Friday.
The Hudson Records Mixtape — Spotify playlist for the Sheffield record label, updated every few weeks.
Look after yourself and your people.
All my love and all good things, as always.