Scott writes: "It is widely assumed, almost to the extent of being conventional wisdom, that movies have suffered an overall decline in quality and that the exceptions are outliers, holdovers, or happy accidents...Whatever your preferred golden age, one thing is certain: They just don't make them like they used to...Back then (whenever it was) the stars were more glamorous, the writing sharper, the stories more cogent, and the critics more powerful."
As Scott himself admits, it's a critique that we've all heard before. It's based on nostalgia, glorifying the past while not appreciating the present. There are plenty of great films being made by moviemakers such as Darren Aronofsky, Clint Eastwood, the Coen Brothers, Woody Allen, Christopher Nolan, and on and on. The debates over the merits of any new movies by Tim Burton, Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, Ridley Scott, Quentin Tarantino, Spike Lee, and countless others are really no different than what we heard decades ago about other directors. I've read old reviews that analyzed whether Alfred Hitchcock's later movies were as brilliant as his earlier work. I've come across critics of the time who actually despised Citizen Kane, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and The Empire Strikes Back. Plenty of people were making similar statements to what we are hearing today: films are changing for the worse and have lost that special magic from yesteryear. The method of filmmaking might be changing, but storytelling, for good or bad, still remains the same. Forget trends and gimmicks like 3-D or streaming video, the past, present, and future of film is, was, and will always be STORY, and there are still some excellent stories being told.
Yes, I do agree with Scott that the times they are a-changing. He writes: "If you go to a movie theater, you are less and less likely to see film in the traditional sense..." Celluloid, like print, may indeed be dying. Maybe it won't ever be totally gone, but its glory days of dominance are certainly a thing of the past. Cinema history is littered with similar shifts -- the end of the nickelodeon era, the end of the silent era, the end of the black-and-white era, the end of the movie palaces, the end of the drive-ins. Some of these sea-changes were obviously more dramatic than others, and probably none compare in scope to the current revolution in production, distribution, and exhibition, but as long as movies still tell interesting stories that grab viewers' imaginations, the medium (in one form or another) will survive.
Roger Ebert (whom I admire greatly) is one of the critics who recently declared "The Sudden Death of Film." He writes: "Was it only a few years ago that I was patiently explaining how video would never win over the ancient and familiar method of light projected through celluloid?...A great many multiplexes are no longer capable of projecting the 35mm format that has served faithfully since about 1895."
How the changing medium impacts audiences (emotionally, intellectually, socially, economically, physically) is a valid subject for academic study. (Cue the ghost of Marshall McLuhan whose theories still resonate now more than ever.) I still believe that the movie-going experience will live on. Film, even if that term itself becomes antiquated in this new digital age, will still be popular as one of the greatest forms of escapist entertainment. The same reason that live theater has survived all these centuries despite new-fangled distractions invading people's leisure time is the same reason that motion pictures will continue, no matter what the naysaying critics might say.
Back when digital moviemaking was beginning to hit the mainstream, I sounded an awful lot like Roger Ebert when he writes: "I persisted in preferring the look, the feel, the vibe of celluloid. Film had a wider range -- whiter whites, blacker blacks, richer colors." But, like Mr. Ebert, I have come to accept the inevitable, unable to deny the truth: "The day is here when most of the new movies I see are in digital. You and I both know how they look, and the fact is, they look pretty good."
We go to movies and will continue to go to movies for the communal experience. It's still a good way to spend time with friends and family, to break the ice with new acquaintances, to even spend some time alone in a public space, hearing others around us laugh at the same jokes, gasp at the same surprises, and sniff back tears at the same heart-tugging scenes.
Our home theaters continue to become more impressive and comfortable, our mobile devices continue to become more powerful tools to display content, but movies themselves, those shadowplays that have up until now been called "film," are as strong as ever. A.O. Scott concludes: "The birth of the talkies, it goes without saying, represents the first death of cinema...The movies survived sound, just as they survived television, the VCR, and every other terminal diagnosis. And they will survive the current upheavals as well."
David Kehr titled his recent book When Movies Mattered. I have no qualms in saying that movies still matter, now and forever.