Nick Leshi

Nick Leshi
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Writer, actor, media professional, fan of entertainment, pop culture, and speculative fiction. Contact nickleshi@aol.com for more info.

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NOVEMBER 21, 2011 11:52PM

Movies Still Matter

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This past Sunday, the New York Times film critic (and former host of At the Movies) A.O. Scott wrote an interesting rebuttal to all the recent pronouncements that film is dead.  Titled "Film Is Dead? What Else Is New?," it wasn't so much a rebuke of the cinematic doomsayers as it was a shoulder-shrugging acknowledgement that the argument had been heard before and will likely be heard again as long as the medium is part of mainstream culture.  It is true that critics are always proclaiming that we are on the precipice of the end of one age and the start of another no matter what time period, now we're arguably seeing a real shift from the classic days of traditional celluloid motion pictures to a new era of digital storytelling that extends beyond the physical theater.  As cinephiles gnash their teeth, pull their hair, and slit their wrists, many film buffs such as myself are not panicking.  We recognize that this isn't necessarily a deathblow to cinematic art, just another stage in its evolution. 

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.

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Interesting article Nick. Sometimes these "death of ..." read like an old person's lament. I have no way of knowing if that's true of Ebert, a critic I usually enjoy. But I agree they'll be having this debate long after we have shuffled off this mortal coil.
Books are dead, the sitcom is dead, rock and roll is dead, etc. It's all been proclaimed at one time or another. But every form goes through its ups and downs and its transformations. "Movies are dead" just means that films created for adults are less likely to show in the multiplex and more likely to use a new method of distribution. They're still being made. And the nay-sayers conveniently forget that the years that "Citizen Kane" and "2001" came out, there were a lot of crappy movies made too.

For example, I've been a skeptic about 3-D (didn't care for "Avatar" that much) and vowed I'd never see another one. Well, now both Scorsese and Speilberg have 3-D films coming out and I've had to re-evaluate my snap judgment.

Despite all the new formats, like being able to stream movies on your computer, there is nothing like sitting in a theater with 200 other people and watching a film without any distractions. Comedies especially are more enjoyable when you share the laughs. The multiplexes are still packed every weekend. I don't see that changing.
People who say film doesn't matter are idiots. It's like running into the person at a party who declares that sex isn't important...and the whole time you're thinking "They've obviously NEVER had good sex!"
Yep. Absolutely. What I continue to find interesting is how captivating television has become. I watch movies on netflix streaming, but I get the dvds sent for tv series almost exclusively (Breaking Bad, The Wire, currently catching up on Deadwood). Who said television was a wasteland? I can't remember. It was a while ago.
Maurene, great point. I've been to so many screenings in the past few years of movies by independent filmmakers who don't have the backing of a major studio or a big distribution deal. But their movies are still amazing. The new digital age is making it easier for people with a dream to produce a film and then show it to a lot of people, especially online -- options that were not available a decade ago. Movies are far from dead. But things are certainly changing for the status quo, so in the old guards eyes, yes, the old ways are dying. But that's not necessarily a bad thing.
Who's glorifying the past? 97.5% of movies last year were re-boots, sequels or screen adaptations of TV shows, or POPULAR plays or books or...wait for it - COMIC BOOKS.

There were almost ZERO original screenplays and the ones that did make it were almost exclusively forced to lament in an art house theater where they died slow and painful deaths.

Music is suffering right now as well. I listened to a top 40 station for fun on a little road trip the other day and in 2 cycles through their playlist, I did not hear one song that I didn't hear 8 months ago (last time I listened to top 40). I understand top 40 isn't where the great music will be (thus my once ever 8 month policy with the format), but there is usually something new and fresh every 3 months...ONE SONG.

These idiots who fund the movies and record industry have no friggin clue how to market in the internet era, so they go for the easy buck - kids movies, or kid friendly movies, a la Green Lantern or whatever the superhero du jour is.

I'm not saying movies are dead, but that industry is going through a transition whether it realizes it or not. My guess is that you will see Netflix start to greenlight some projects, and along with HBO and Showtime, that's where the movies for people who like movies will come from (and, I like a good superhero blockbuster as much as the next guy, but I can't handle a steady diet of cotton candy year round...that's what August is for... the industry is fucked right now and needs to get its shit together, or it will die for a time.)
Malcolm, but is this really anything new? Think of the glory year of cinema, 1938, the movies that everyone lauds as some of the best that Hollywood ever made. Gone with the Wind. The Wizard of Oz. Guess what, both ADAPTATIONS based on existing properties. Hollywood will always look for some great pre-existing idea. It still will depend on the story and execution. This year I thought there were some great movies based on comics (Thor, Captain America, X-Men First Class) and some surprisingly good sequels (yes I actually enjoyed Transformers Dark of the Moon), and prequels (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) but let's not forget the really good ORIGINAL movies -- Super 8, Source Code. Great movies this year by Woody Allen, Clint Eastwood, and coming up Martin Scorsese.
Don't take my Kodachrome away -- Paul Simon.
At the movies like on TV: a lot of stuff comprised of an abundance of "crap" but also a lot of good stories made with the latest in technology which exhalts the contents.......and like on the tube where you can just switch to another channel or turn the thing off, at the various multiplexes you choose which one to enter.
Il Cinema (is) Paradiso!
This is my favorite time of year. I try to go to at least a film a week, cramming them all in before Oscar announcements. Film isn't dead in our house.
As a film fan and former board member of the Minnesota Film Center, I was delighted to see this piece. Your arguments are sound. And the movies will not leave us anytime soon. They may just be in different formats. Great piece and much deserved EP.
Thanks, all. Happy moviewatching! Long may it live.
juno, litle miss sunshine, five pieces, momento, the matrix (1st one only), rock candy, blues brothers, uhf...

the 60s and 70s were the hay day of movies, not the 40s...c'mon...
This is my fondness time of year. I try to go to at least a cinema a week, cramming them all in holi status before Oscar announcements. Film isn't dead in our house.
I've been to so numerous screenings in the historical few years of movies by non symbiotic sweet facebook status filmmakers who don't mortal the approving of a outstanding studio or a big distribution mint.
I'm getting tired of the spam.
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,pikavipp
The movies survived sound, just as they survived television, the VCR,sexy girls
But I agree they'll be having this debate long after we have shuffled off this mortal coil.virginia seo company
I listened to a top 40 station for fun on a little road trip the other day and inforex ecn broker account trading platform
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.topes para estacionamiento
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. Zmey Biz Relationships
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