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On Friday, a new trailer for Christopher Nolan’s upcoming science fiction film Tenet premiered on Fortnite, teasing another mind-bending trip through time complete with espionage, Russian accents and bombastic set pieces. After Robert Pattinson explains his plan to crash a massive plane through a hangar, the trailer ends emphatically with the words ‘Coming to Theaters’.
2020 has seen a wave of postponements as lockdown has shuttered cinemas globally, effecting everything from the James Bond and Fast and Furious franchises to the Cannes Film Festival. Nolan, famed IMAX fetishist and champion of celluloid, seems intent on sending a message to a growing cohort within the industry that are motioning to defect to the ‘dark side,’ as in the cases of Troll World Tour, Scoob and Artemis Fowl, each of which have abandoned theatrical release and gone straight to streaming services.
With the rise of these streaming services and the general dominance of web-based media consumption habits, cinema as we know it has long been on the nod. Now, social distancing protocols have sent revenue streams into freefall and threaten to drastically reshape our relationship with the moving image. Billions will be lost this year alone, and the place of the brick-and-mortar cinema as the primary medium of film distribution called into question
Is Nolan’s purism romantic or reactionary? Tenet’s trailer issues something of a call to arms, a reassertion of the spectacular supremacy of event cinema in a time when the big screen has been blank for over two months. But should we want a return to ‘normal’?
Modern cinema houses function mostly as money machines for criminally large production companies to sell over-expensive merchandise advertisements. While Nolan’s films are usually good, most others are not. In fact, most blockbusters are awful.
The blockbuster experience alienates and overwhelms, encouraging us to abdicate reality and blindly fantasise to a sensory assault of rhythmic stimulation. Is it healthy to sit motionless in a dark room for two hours while a co-production between a billion-dollar foreign multinational and the CIA plays on a big screen in front of you? Whatever the answer, we can’t imagine that this is the ‘authentic experience’ cinema purists ever had in mind.
It’s easy to think of the cineplex – or rather not to think of it – as a natural artefact that emerged concurrent with its medium. But it wasn’t always like this – early cinema had nothing like the architecture or the formal discipline we see today. Screenings took place in old vaudeville theatres under varying light conditions and with plenty of ambient noise. Viewers openly discussed scenes as they saw them, got up and walked around in the middle of the show or even completely neglected what was happening on screen. What they watched was very different too, of course.
Back then they had the cine-variety, a “cinema of attractions,” made up of a mix of shorts narrative pieces, slapsticks and newsreels. As alien as this might sound, it also strangely mirrors our present relationship with media in everyday life, as we dip in and out of different apps, while the television plays absently in the background.
It was only when feature-length narratives became the dominant mode of presentation that a new form of spectatorship became required. This new architecture drew on the model of Italian theatres in the Renaissance, which channelled the viewer’s gaze toward an encompassing aesthetic experience. It seems however that in the age of the blockbuster, the dark cube works as more of a prison than an incubator of aesthetic transcendence.
This isn’t the first time the sky has threatened to fall. Critic Walter Benjamin was among a considerable group of thinkers in the 20s and 30s who mourned the loss of the cine-variety and the promiscuous model of “reception in a state of distraction”. He likened the absent-minded spectator to the flaneur admiring the architecture of the city as he passes by.
Around the same time, talkies got the upper hand on silent film, a development which British critic Paul Rotha decried as “contrary to the aims of cinema”. Then we have the development of television in the 50s and 60s and of course now the proliferation of screens, each more corrupting than the last. Of course, none of these things stopped the production of great films or provoked the artistic crises that their many detractors prophesied.
On a more structural level, the end of the studio system in the United States after the Paramount Case might reflect a similar shock to the industry what we currently face. From the ashes of the monopolies rose New Hollywood with new visions, new audiences and a new relationship to their art. Out of this levelled market emerged a huge pool of independent talent including Scorsese, Coppola, Altman, Lynch and many others.
There’ll always remain a place for the dark picture house as the ideal way to experience a singular artistic vision, but we have no reason to mourn the demise of the bloated blockbuster Leviathan that possesses the modern cineplex. There are other worlds out there to discover, and other ways to discover them. This crisis should be reimagined as an opportunity to explore these new ways of seeing. Just as the Paramount Case paved the way for a new wave of independent film, so too might this predicament engender a similar revitalisation and tip the scales back in the direction of the independent artist.
The chaotic patchwork media environments of TikTok, Vine, YouTube, etc may already have produced that revolutionary cohort. These ‘producers’ are actively engaged in consumption and simultaneously involved in the production of what they consume. Whatever your opinion about the general quality of output, this digital avant garde of the masses represents an unprecedented democratisation of the creative space.
It’s never been easier to make content – why then should we continue to defer to the authority of old forms and institutions? Who knows what strange new worlds might emerge from the popular imagination? A strange return of the cine-variety, perhaps. A new cinema of the fragment, of the shard. Whatever might unfold in time, the purist ideals of people like Nolan embody a model of cinema so blinded by its own lights that it can’t see the writing on the wall.