In Broad Daylight Cover

A book review by Wheeler Winston Dixon.

This slight but explosive volume, published in an English translation by Verso in 2012, has been kicking around on my work desk for about a year. I wrote a rather negative review of it for Choice, the library journal, and while I don’t want to recant anything I said there, I nevertheless find the book sticking with me in ways I hadn’t anticipated. I don’t agree with most of what Pedullà has to say, as I’ll detail, but he puts up a good fight.

Pedullà, a professor of Contemporary Literature at the University of Rome 3 and visiting professor at Stanford, is first and foremost a polemicist – he’s the guy who throws verbal bombs into the mix, and phrases statements of opinion as if they were fact. But for all of that, there is really very little that’s controversial here. Pedullà’s main thesis is inarguably correct, at least from my perspective; the era of dominance for the theatrical exhibition of motion pictures is finished. Or as he puts it on the opening page of his book,

“The age of cinema, it is commonly claimed, is now drawing to a close. Day after day signs of a profound change in our relationship with moving images proliferate. The winnowing of box-office receipts, the shrinking size of the audience, the decreasing time lag between a film’s theatrical release and it commercialization on video, television’s growing cultural prestige: these indications, at once social, economic and aesthetic – only make the prophecy all the more credible. If cinema for decades represented the standard and even optimal filmic experience, the touchstone for all other forms of viewing, this formerly undisputed and indisputable centrality is today contested at its very core.” (1)

All true, and yet, as I thought then, and still do now, Pedullà protests too much. The impact of web here is barely even mentioned, and as for “television’s growing cultural prestige,” I have serious doubt about that. For Pedullà, the idea that viewing a film in a theater is the optimal way to see a film is an object of ridicule; summoning up derisively the words of Chris Marker as a member of the “old guard,” Pedullà quotes Marker as noting that “on television, you can see the shadow of a film, the trace of a film, the nostalgia, the echo of a film, but never the film,” and then takes Jean Eustache to task for the similar statement that “you can discover a film only at the movie theater” (4).

13To these statements, which to my mind have more than a grain of truth to them, Pedullà’s disdain notwithstanding, I would add the words of the late director Roy Ward Baker, a friend of mine, who directed the only really first-rate film on the Titanic disaster (A Night To Remember, 1958). During an afternoon’s discussion in 1994 at his home in London, Baker told me that he’d been shocked by the impact of viewing a recent theatrical screening of A Night To Remember at a retrospective of his work at Britain’s National Film Theatre.

As Baker told me, “I felt like I was seeing it for the first time, you know? Like it was real again. I’d grown so used to seeing it on television, I’d forgotten what it was really like.” Then, he leaned forward and said two sentences that I have never forgotten since; at least for me, they cut to the center of this entire argument. “You see” Baker said, “on television, or on a DVD, you can inspect a film. But you can’t experience it.” That comment hit me like a bolt of lightning; true, direct, and utterly incisive.

And yet there’s obviously more than a little truth to what Pedullà argues. People are watching films on laptops, cellphones, iPads, streaming for the most part, to the point where home computers no longer come with a built in DVD player – you have to add one, because apparently no one watches DVDs anymore. Physical media is obviously headed for its final spin, and the streaming world has taken hold, for better or worse – I know this, have written about it, and although I may not be entirely happy about it, I know it is a fact.

But Pedullà, after making a few obligatory and seemingly conciliatory remarks about theatrical exhibition in cinema’s past, rapidly shifts to attack mode, as if he’s thrilled to see the demise of the communal audience experience. Being trained as a theorist, he dutifully trots and then demolishes Plato’s cave as an outmoded model for film viewing – true enough – but he also seems to dismiss the idea of talking about movies after the fact, exchanging opinions and expressions, as if the entire experience in the future will be solitary, almost masturbatory, and he seems absolutely delighted at the thought.

The usual critics are dragged out to either buttress his arguments, or else perish in a hail of verbal assaults; Benjamin, Lacan, Sontag, Barthes, Burch, and numerous others are all brought into the discussion to underscore Pedullà’s central argument, but as far as I’m concerned, all of this is padding. As Nietzsche, that most conflicted and simultaneously original of all modern philosophers observed in one of his last works, Twilight of the Idols, “I mistrust all systematizers and avoid them. The will to a system is a lack of integrity.”

In short, the more that Pedullà keeps arguing that the cinema is dead to theatrical spectators, the more the medium itself fights back, so that by the time we have reached the end of this brief (137 pages, not counting notes and the index) book, we’re both exhausted and annoyed, as if someone has been screaming in our ear over and over with strident insistence a single supposition – going to the movies as we now know it is over. Pedullà’s style is truly combative; it’s the classic case of not only am I right, but everyone else is wrong.

And yet, there is truth to Pedullà’s repeated – and the book as a whole is often repetitive – assertion that what we call a “movie” is undergoing a radical transformation in both form and content. As the late two-time Academy Award winner for cinematography Freddie Francis, also a friend of mine from 1984 onwards – and whose memoirs are coming out this Fall, by the way, an event I certainly look forward to – once told me, “long ago I resigned myself to the fact when I shoot a movie, it’ll look good at the premiere, and then never again. But most people won’t care. They’re just going out for the evening.”

Pedullà quotes the late Italian film director Marco Ferreri to much the same effect, saying that “everybody says ‘you go to the movies to dream.’ That’s a load of crap. In the outskirts, you went to the movies to go to the movies” (7), and much the same is true today outside of large cities which can support “art” houses, of which there are precious few still left. But movies aren’t movies anymore today primarily because they’re comic book movies, a theme that Pedullà doesn’t really address. Yes, shot structures have changed, compositions within the frame have been simplified to keep most of the action in the center of the screen to accommodate TV and the web, but there’s more to it than that.

Contrary to what Pedullà argues, while handheld and portable viewing devices will certainly continue to proliferate, the theatrical experience will also continue to expand, propelled this time around by the Comic-Con, fanboy base, to create the loudest, emptiest, most assaultive movies the medium has ever seen, a non-stop world of CGI fantasy with the imaginative depth of a demented adolescent.

No less a personage than Harrison Ford, himself no stranger to comic book movies, has noticed this shift. Speaking with Adam Sternbergh, Ford, just back from an appearance at Comic-Con to promote his new film Ender’s Game, noted that if the Star Wars films, or the Indiana Jones series, were released today in the intensely fan-driven environment created by the convention, and others like it,

enders-game-poster2“everyone would be ahead of it, and everybody would know what it was, and it would be no fun at all. But people still went to movies in those days. People went to movie theaters. It was a community experience, and that was part of the fun. Now people see a movie on their iPad, alone, with interruptions for snacks […] I think the success of Comic-Con is based on the partnership between the fans and the service providers, the entities – I won’t necessarily call them filmmakers – that supply the film product that supports their particular interest, whether it’s vampires or science-fiction fantasies or Transformers or whatever is going on […] I think the smaller-scale movies, which I like very much, would be harder to conceive another iteration of.”

I think this is the real issue here, not some straw man set up only to be summarily knocked over, a false contest between theatrical vs. portable viewing habits. People will watch films in whatever way it is easiest to watch them, following the path of least resistance as they always do, and as our society becomes more insular and socially isolated, porta-viewing will certainly assume a dominance that it really already has – people would rather watch films at home, as Ford notes, with the convenience of a nearby bathroom and refrigerator.

But this is not a point of contestation for me; what I would ask is “what sort of moving image product” will we be seeing in theaters, which, Pedullà to the contrary, will not collapse and dwindle into insignificance, and which for the most part have swiftly adapted – “convert or die” – to digital projection rather than now-obsolete 35mm film. Indeed, I would argue that they will be bigger than ever, and multiplexes even more sprawling, as they continue to spew out – for those of us in what Ferreri correctly describes as the “outskirts” – one bludgeoning spectacle after another.

So, in the end, In Broad Daylight: Movies and Spectatorship After the Cinema is a charming and infuriating book; charming because Pedullà argues his rather obvious case with such passionate vehemence, infuriating because he misses, in my opinion, what I will ironically refer to here as “the big picture.” Most people will watch films, older films, classic films, new films, on some sort of mobile device. This is simply a fact. But as my students will attest, who watch films as part of my classes on a large theatrical screen, there’s no way to compare the two experiences, and given the choice to watch a film on a screen over a laptop, for sheer impact, they enthusiastically prefer the theatrical experience. This is also a fact.

What’s missing here is the future of theatrical cinema, and far from disappearing, as I noted, I think it will expand, but become ever bleaker indeed in terms of content. That’s the real issue here; what will the audiences come out to see, in this new age of bread and circuses? The theater as an arena of combat… and nothing more? It’s possible, when films cost $200,000,000 simply to make, and then up. But then again the people who make these projects are not filmmakers, as Harrison Ford notes, they’re “service providers.” But believe me, they know how to fill seats, seats in theaters where, Ferreri to the contrary, contemporary audiences will live out their fanboy dreams – while, of course, going out to the movies.

Wheeler Winston Dixon is the James Ryan Professor of Film Studies, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program, Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and Editor in Chief, with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, of the Quarterly Review of Film and Video. His newest books are Streaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access (2013); Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood (2012); 21st Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation (2011, co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster); A History of Horror (2010), and Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia (2009).

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