By Ray Pride
“Cinema is not dead, but it is telling that this summer I saw the [fewest] studio movies in a long time,” filmmaker and lifelong cinephile Edgar Wright wrote on Twitter after Labor Day, “And I used to see everything.”
Wright’s remark came in the wake of online responses, largely on Twitter, to two newspaper pieces that had run online, the first by longtime Boston Globe film critic Ty Burr, published as the fall film festival season began with the rarefied (and costly) Telluride Film Festival over that weekend, and the Toronto International Film Festival that runs through September 8. In response, “Can we please kill the talk about the death of movies?” was A. O. Scott’s lede to his wrap-up of Telluride attractions and trends for the New York Times.
“Someday we may look back on 2016 as the year the movies died,” Burr asserted with click-through-strength confidence. “That’s a blanket statement, but nothing that came out of the multiplex [emphasis added] this summer contradicts it. There were blockbuster hits, and a couple of them were even good, but by far the majority were soulless, noisy, and dull—pure product from an industry that has lost the ability to speak in any meaningful way to a mass audience.”
Scott countered with this: “Yes, it was a dreary summer… The box office was weak and the big Hollywood releases were weaker. Critics were grumpy. Audiences seemed indifferent. There was so much good television. And so the band struck up the funeral march, as it does every year, and the obituaries circulated on social media. Cinema is dead. (Again.) The donning of sackcloth and ashes for this once-mighty art form is an annual ritual.”
Scott linked to a 2011 GQ essay by longtime trend observer Mark Harris that sounded similar peals: “For the studios, a good new idea has become just too scary a road to travel,” Harris wrote. Harris’ commentary also echoed what Columbia studio head Amy Pascal had said offhandedly after the modest success of 1994’s “Little Women”: that kind of movie is “execution-dependent,” and at higher rates of fiscal risk, you can’t venture that. Harris continued, “’Inception,’ they will tell you, is an exceptional movie. And movies that need to be exceptional to succeed are bad business. ‘The scab you’re picking at is called execution,’ says legendary producer Scott Rudin. Studios are hardwired not to bet on execution, and the terrible thing is, they’re right. Because in terms of execution, most movies disappoint.”
Festivals from Sundance to Cannes, plus the fall releases, mean that the season of smaller-scale, grown-up fare is upon us. Whether seeking awards recognition as “free media” versus advertising expenses, most of the releases will be the kind of work that is indeed execution-dependent, more artistically minded movies that speak to the strength of the feature-length storytelling format versus television binging. I’ll leave aside the distinction of what gets seen on a theater screen and what’s streaming onto small and smaller screens. For the survival of the industry, it’s an important issue, of course. There’s no economic future where an audience is led to believe that $8.99 monthly Netflix fees will cover the cost of any and all movies to continue to be made, or when piracy obliterates the box office of the smallest movies. Terrence Malick’s “Knight of Cups” was one such victim, not so much because of its elusive-to-most esthetics, but because of a Swiss DVD release being torrented months before its U.S. theatrical turn. Another factor for a separate conversation: a downturn for indie distribution worldwide. As Marcus Hu, co-founder of indie Strand Releasing, told Indiewire on September 7 on the eve of Toronto’s epic marketplace, “It’s a clear indication of the marketplace where those high-end, niche art films just aren’t working globally. Territories aren’t buying those kinds of movies anymore.”
But what about the films themselves? Three movies in September from directors in their seventies start to raise the bar: Clint Eastwood’s “Sully” is his most cogent in years, straight as an arrow and bent as memory; Werner Herzog’s “Into the Inferno,” a discussion on volcanoes that’s going straight to Netflix; and Oliver Stone’s reach for romance and politics in the modern moment of “Snowden.” And the fifty-fourth Chicago International Film Festival has announced its first attractions, including a 4K digital restoration of John McNaughton’s “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” and first Chicago showings of films well-received at earlier festivals, including Paul Verhoeven’s “Elle,” a showcase for Isabelle Huppert to show the extremes of her talent; Steve James’ “Abacus,” a documentary about the only banker to be punished after the 2008 financial collapse; Barry Jenkins’ second feature, “Moonlight,” a lyrical look at three stages of the life of a young gay black man in Miami; Pablo Larrain’s cubist-sounding portrait of the poet “Neruda” and Mia Hansen-Love’s “Things to Come,” which is a showcase for Isabelle Huppert to show opposite extremes of her estimable talent.
In the meantime, there are smaller pictures of equal and greater beauty, particularly “The Thoughts That Once We Had,” in which film essayist Thom Andersen (“Los Angeles Plays Itself”) free-associates through the memories of a mind filled with movies: it’s essential dreaming. Andersen describes his found-footage film as “personal history of cinema, partially inspired by [the late French philosopher] Gilles Deleuze” (who is credited as screenwriter). As in his earlier work or in Jean-Luc Godard’s eight-hour blunderbuss of rumination, “Histoire(s) du cinéma,” Andersen goes above philosophy to formal bliss, trailing clips from across film history with intertitles written by the filmmaker rather than narration. It’s an hour-and-forty-five minute fever dream, a long quiet river, it’s dynamic cinema but it’s also digressive bliss. A mad mashup or mixtape, “The Thoughts” is a kaleidoscopic edition of the modern “visual essay,” a dream of a dreamer who dreams in movies. One can hope it’s a rebuke to counting on studios for greatness and not also a remembrance of things past.
“The Thoughts That Once We Had” plays at Siskel Saturday, September 17 and Wednesday September 21.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.