Is cinema dead?

No! Long live cinema!

Me, caught like a deer in the headlights, by a talented director and friend Mikhail Red while at his film set last January.   

The debate on what “cinema” means today was revived late last year with an op-ed on The New York Times by veteran filmmaker Martin Scorsese.

In arguing that Marvel films are not “cinema,” Scorsese’s definition was grounded on the emotional and artistic risk that elevated filmmaking as an art form equal to music or literature. In contrast, the bottom-line for franchise films, he suggests, is a commercial one. This leaves many talented filmmakers in peril as theatres and streaming platforms preoccupy themselves with screening movies that are “market-researched, audience-tested, vetted, modified, revetted and remodified until they’re ready for consumption.”

To an extent, I agree with this sentiment: that we are saturated with an abundance of soulless content. Yet, that is not to say cinema is dying; it’s just not what it used to be. For example, the decline of celluloid and the advent of digital did not mean cinema fizzed out. This shapeless condition, like many art forms, is what cinema will always be: never what it was the day before.

At its core, cinema is about the moving image. In this newsletter, I will look at four other ways cinema manifests itself: through medium, taste, ethics and craft.

This is a torturous task for me. But, deep topics call for deep cuts, my friends.

Some housekeeping

The first motion to address: 103 SUBSCRIBERS! YAY! This is insane. Thank you, everyone, for keeping up with my shenanigans.

An aggregation of everything I consume as part of a healthy media diet, this newsletter also helps me conduct clinical trials on ideas. However, churning out “content” every week does take its toll. So, I am taking a break from this fortnightly bulletin to work on other projects.

This is absolutely not goodbye, I’m just stepping away from my desk. As any hard-working millennial will tell you, “I need a break.”  

I want to keep the conversation going, so I will put out discussion threads in the coming days after I publish this issue. These threads are a great feature as part of having my newsletter on Substack, so I’m excited to incorporate these discussions into Cultural Learnings.

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The cinematic experience in the age of coronavirus

The façade of the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles, California – a historic movie theatre owned by Quentin Tarantino since 2007.

Historically, cinema was understood in the context of the grand movie theatre. Streaming platforms challenge this understanding as our peripheral vision shrinks ever so small.

In this podcast episode of The Business, journalist Kim Masters is joined by former Disney head Jeffrey Katzenberg to discuss the launch of his billion-dollar brainchild, Quibi. Short for “quick bites,” Quibi offers short-form content that is 10 minutes or less, aimed at a generation brought up by YouTube stars and viral TikToks. Having delivered hits like The Little Mermaid and The Lion King, Katzenberg knows “good content” when he sees it. While I won’t be quick to jump on Thanks a Million featuring Jennifer Lopez, I have nothing but intrigue for Quibi.

The dizzying amount of choice from streaming platforms can be paralysing – a condition called “subscription fatigue.” This pandemic seriously taught me the value of the physical space which movie theatres so uniquely provide. Thomas Beller quotes his mother to describe why the closure of New York’s Lincoln Plaza Cinemas in 2018 felt like a terrible loss:

“It is not so much the physical place as it is the atmosphere. The level of the films. The world of the films selected that created, in turn, a world of its own that encompassed us. The physical space became dear to us. I want to hug it so it could not be taken away from us. But it is not hug-able. It is the elusive very special and unique something created by Daniel and Toby, by their personalities, humanity, special taste, intelligence.”

I see her point: The first time I saw Scorsese’s Taxi Driver was at the BFI Southbank in London. It was an “event” in the truest sense – one that cannot be replicated online. With this, in contemplating what he misses most about theatres during this pandemic, Richard Brody reminds us of “the pressing desire, even the duty, to remember, to cherish, to exalt, and to pass along what’s precious, while it’s available.”

So bad, it’s good

A film still from Kung Pow! Enter the Fist, directed by Steve Oedekerk – a delightfully terrible favourite for me.

Scorsese associates “cinema” with films of masterful craft and nuanced storytelling. Yet, there is an entire genre of films that are so profoundly terrible in both, they are considered good.

What is this phenomenon? There are many forms of art which ironically portray “bad taste” – an aesthetic that Susan Sontag explores in her seminal essay, Notes on Camp.

Sontag provided three points of relevance for understanding how films can be delightfully terrible.  Firstly, the “camp” sensibility believes taste is not wholly subjective nor outside the control of rational thought. Taste, she suggests, “governs every free – as opposed to rote – human responses,” including ideas, people, emotions, morality, and art.

Secondly, to say a film is “bad” in this context is not derogatory. Rather, these films are a celebration of our failed ambition, which we process comically — like, when we look back at something and “laugh about it.” It is for this reason why I think the Art Basel satire Velvet Buzzsaw was bad but not good, because it was too self-aware. On the other hand, something like The Room, “auteured” by Tommy Wiseau, deserves its cult status because it is vulgar, “extreme and irresponsible in their fantasy – and therefore touching and quite enjoyable.”

Lastly, exaggerating failure performs like theatre by the protagonists of these delightfully terrible films. Sontag defines a character as “a person being one, very intense thing” – someone who can push forward a certain, perhaps camp, sensibility. This short but revealing feature on James Franco’s biographical film The Disaster Artist gives us a glimpse of Wiseau, the enigma Franco was portraying – a “carefully constructed aura of mystery that swirls around him as thickly as if it were generated by a Hollywood fog machine.”

A more recent example of camp cinema is Tom Hopper’s film-rendition of the musical Cats, where actors, portraying cats with hands, both horrified and enticed viewers.

Separating the art from the artist

Artwork by Javier Zarracina for Vox.

What we call “cinema” is also tied to our own morality.

People could not believe I only watched Pulp Fiction for the first time last year – a Quentin Tarantino favourite and probably Harvey Weinstein’s most iconic production to date. I thought the way Woody Allen cast himself in Manhattan was delightfully strange; and Kevin Spacey was best, although, in retrospect, most exposed, in his role as the pervy Lester Burnam in American Beauty.

Yet, despite all the monstrous accusations faced by these men, it was difficult to reconcile my pleasure for their films with the “moral disgust” of their behaviour — as Constance Grady describes in this piece for Vox. To make this separation is not a self-evident truth. In the early 1920s, New Critics like T.S. Eliot separated art from the artist as a way of analysing poetry. To see the two as one and the same is to recognise how the art can make the artist complicit in their actions. Amanda Hess uses this rhetoric in The New York Times, illustrating how Weinstein wielded his corrupt power over actresses, using them as objects for mining Oscar gold. This is because “casting choices that feel like artistic decisions have almost always been economic ones.”

Yet, to take this moral high ground is to tell someone how to emotionally respond to a film or that we expect artists to be morally virtuous. This is why Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible, a revenge thriller told backwards, notorious for its 9-minute rape scene, is one of my favourite films of all-time. It is based on my affinity for cinéma du corps – a genre of transgressive, violent and quintessentially French cinema.

To me, the best description of cinéma du corps was written by Tim Palmer from his comprehensive book-length study of Irreversible, which I always come back to when I’m riddled with topics like cinema.

An actor prepares

Jeremy Strong in Succession, during the calm before the storm. Shot by Zach Dilgard for HBO.

I’ve been engrossed by the performance of Jeremy Strong in the HBO family drama Succession – a television series reminiscent of the infamous Murdoch media dynasty. Strong gives a visceral act as ugly duckling son Kendall Roy, convincing me he is the most underrated actor in Hollywood right now. This charismatic profile piece in GQ puts a face to the man behind the method, in which Strong describes his approach to acting as “hugging the cactus.”

A craft pioneered by Russian theatre director Konstantin Stanislavski, and popularised in Hollywood by the teacher and actor Lee Strasberg, method acting extrapolates deeply seated emotions from its students through intense introspection in the quest for authenticity – sometimes, at their own detriment. You can see this neurosis in Christian Bale as he switches between accents, depending on whether he is interviewed as Patrick Bateman or Bruce Wayne; or how Leonardo DiCaprio battled hypothermia and was thrown around like a rag doll in the crucial bear scene of The Revenant.

Producing real emotion on cue goes against the very thing actors are meant to do: act. While critics question whether the Method has become a destructive marketing ploy, I think those who decide to undergo it do not take it lightly. They are doing the impossible by pushing the limits of the human psyche, as the fictional diarist Kostya notes in Stanislavski’s book, An Actor Prepares:

“[Tommaso] Salvini said: The great actor should be full of feeling, and especially he should feel the thing he is portraying. He must feel an emotion not only once or twice while he is studying his part, but to a greater or lesser degree every time he plays it, no matter whether it is the first or thousandth time.” Unfortunately, this is not within our control. Our subconscious is inaccessible to our consciousness. We cannot enter into that realm. If for any reason we do penetrate into it, then the subconscious becomes conscious and dies.

‘The result is a predicament; we are supposed to create under inspiration; only our subconscious gives us inspiration; yet we apparently can use this subconscious only through our consciousness, which kills it.’”

Bits and bobs

Indiewire ambitiously details every film, TV show and event affected by the coronavirus outbreak.

Claudia Roth Pierpont wrote this excruciatingly detailed study of the legendary actor Marlon Brando and his journey with method acting.

If you’re intrigued by Jeremy Strong, Christina Jeurling Birro interviews him for this podcast episode of Pop Culture Confidential, which is extremely insightful.

Film critic Amy Nicholson sits down with Quentin Tarantino in this special three-part podcast series exploring the filmmaker’s career, life and movie obsessions.

This trailer of The Kentucky Fried Movie, a delightful collection of ridiculous spoofs and sketches, is a fucking camp classic.

Cultural Learnings is a newsletter written by Sai Villafuerte. You can support it by subscribing, sharing this post, emailing your thoughts or answering this survey.