Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Long Live Cinema!

I have been looking over some books by Jonathan Rosenbaum. It has been a while since I read MOVIES WARS or ESSENTIAL CINEMA, and I was again stuck by this "death of cinema" notion. I have run into this subject at Ray Carney's website as well as a number of other places, and I would like to say something about it.

Is the cinema really dead?

Cinema has only been around for about 100 years. How can it be dead already? Perhaps we could spend the next fifty years or so just dealing with the works of Tarkovsky, Bresson and Ozu, before we bury cinema. Yes, each of us wants to deliver the cleverest and most heartbreaking eulogy, but let us wait just a little longer, at least until we figure out those three geniuses. Can any medium ever die? How can the theater be dead if some company somewhere is performing Shakespeare? Can the novel be dead if you have War and Peace, Absalom, Absalom!, and Wings of the Dove sitting on your bookshelf? It comes as little surprise that the voices announcing the death of cinema never mention that there are no more Tarkovskys, Bressons or Ozus in their laments. There are two kinds of writers that think the medium is finished, and both have paid little if any attention to the filmmakers listed above.

The mainstream reviewers, the hacks that serve as a pseudo-intellectual branch of promotional machinery for Hollywood, complain that Hollywood stars are not glamorous anymore. Tom Hanks is no Clark Gable. Jennifer Lopez is not Rita Hayworth and so forth. Movies are boring, predictable and no fun.The other group presents a more serious problem, because they are the academics and reviewers of art films. These are baby-boomers who miss the good old days of the public consumption of intellectual cinema like that of Godard and Bergman.

Jonathan Rosenbaum has done much to dispel the myth of this phenomenon.
For my part, I shall only add that that these critics never understood art in the first place. If they think movies are supposed to be intellectual they probably pronounced Bergman dead when he stopped making ponderous metaphysical allegories like Seventh Seal to pursue the human drama of Scenes from a Marriage.

It is true that there are no decent art house directors these days like Antonioni, Fellini, Godard or Bergman; they have been supplanted by mediocrities like Soderberg and Todd Solondz or popular left-wing cultural critics like Michael Moore. This means only that the bar has been lowered to achieve the status of a fashionable filmmaker.

We must also remember that as wonderful as Bergman and Antonioni are, they are lesser artist than Bresson and Ozu who were never fashionable. The difference today is that the gap between Antonioni and Ozu is not as wide as that between Soderberg, and for instance Tsai Ming-Liang. There are filmmakers on the caliber if Fellini and Bergman working today, they just aren’t popular. There are even a few on par with Tarkovsky and Dreyer, and they are even less well known.

In no particular order, here some great artists who work in this dead medium, every one of whom is alive and making movies or very recently deceased:

Theo Angelopoulos
Chantal Akerman
Abbas Kiarostami
Mohsen Makmahlbaf
Dardenne Brothers
Pedro Almodovar
Hou Hsiao-Hsien
Zhang Yimou
Ousman Sembene
Idrissa Sissako
Edward Yang
Wong Kar-Wai
Jim Jarmusch
Lars Von Trier
Harmony Korine
Werner Herzog
Alexander Sokurov
Jafar Panahi
Tsai Ming-Liang
Su Friedrich
Jay Rosenblatt
Bela Tarr
Takeshi Kitano
Kim Ki-Duk
Guy Maddin
Olivier Assayas
Atom Egoyan
Mike Leigh
David O. Russell
Ken Loach
Charles Burnett
Gillian Armstrong
Chris Marker
Andrew Bujalski
Duplass Brothers
William Greaves
Arnaud Desplechin

I would suggest the following additional bit of perspective on this list. Most film critics only write about film. In addition to film, I write a great deal about literature and a bit about painting, dance and performance art. I bring up my other areas of scholarship only to point out that it would be impossible for me to come up with a list of writers, painters or choreographers that is comparable to the above list of filmmakers. To take the example of literature, there are not 30 writers alive today who are as important in the history of literature as are these filmmakers in the history of film. Let me keep it short and demonstrative. Kiarostami, Leigh, Ackerman, Tsai and Angelopoulos are some of the greatest filmmakers ever, easily ranking alongside Tarkovsky, Dreyer, Bresson and Ozu. Are there any living novelists who are comparable to Henry James, Marcel Proust, Dostoevsky or Faulkner?