Saturday, December 5, 2020

Consuming Movies

A Year Without Movie Buzz

Richard Brody, The New Yorker

Richard Brody treats movie art and movie consumption as two unrelated things, but movie art (a social art for a social animal) and the way movies are viewed have always been intertwined, and the health of one is tied to the health of the other — which Brody hints at when he says that “the rising tide of publicity and its echoes seems to lift all boats.” With nobody going to theaters this year — the Plague Year — we’re all watching movies on our iPads and phones and TVs. It’s a new dimension of experience for audiences, as Brody says. But I don’t think that consuming movies only in private isolation is going to enrich a popular art. Maybe you can even find the same kind of degradation in pop music and attribute it to the same changing patterns.

Many movies, like The Godfather (1972) or The Conformist (1970) or Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan (1982) — you could go on and on listing such movies — are great, immersive experiences that unleash their full power only in a theater with an audience, where visual dimensions can be appreciated in cinematic terms. The silent comedies, for example (Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman [1928] or Seven Chances [1925], Harold Lloyd’s Speedy [1928] or The Kid Brother [1927], Chaplin’s The Gold Rush [1925]), certainly deserve to be seen in a theater, a collective setting for which they were specifically designed. Those moviemakers intended audiences to feed off the explosive, balletic inventiveness and bust up at the visual gags and camera tricks. Those gags developed in live theater and vaudeville and probably circuses, and were extended and perfected by these artist clowns to make full use of the new medium. And an audience’s enthusiasm for silent comedy has as much to do with the responses of fellow moviegoers as with what’s on screen.

But imagine watching movies only in privacy or on your personal thingamabobs for the rest of your life. That changes you and that changes movie art. When your reactions are isolated from the reactions of others, the things you’re responding to don’t resonate with the same power; the effects are deadened, and you’re likely to assume that the moviemaker has failed, somehow, to make you laugh. Sooner or later, that “failure” gets back to filmmakers, who make contrived modifications in later projects — usually in kinetic, dizzying extremes in camera work or incompetent scripts — and, slowly, there’s an erosion of quality and sensibility. Movies started as a communal art, although they may not end as one.

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