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).
To 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,
“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).
3 thoughts on “‘In Broad Daylight: Movies and Spectators After the Cinema’ by Gabriele Pedullà”
Does the true essence of a film live only in the theatre? It depends on the film, and it depends on the person viewing the film. What I see is film studios making the movie-going experience bigger and bigger to compensate for the audience’s shrinking imaginations. Perhaps that’s where it gets really controversial. There is no question that audiences in the age of James Cameron’s Titanic would find A Night to Remember not just understated but downright boring. Small or large screen, living room or crowded theatre becomes irrelevant if the audience expects more edifying than just a passive entertainment experience.
I understand that the people who put their hearts and souls into making a film an experience would want their work appreciated in its intended medium, but these days it doesn’t always work out that way. I didn’t see Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom in the theatre, but savored every flawlessly composed shot, completely immersed in the art.Too many of us have lost the ability to bring our minds to a film rather than expecting the film to hand us everything.
It seems that Pedulia is touching on one of the more common discussions and debates in modern times as it pertains to cinema. Something that you seemed to overlook in your analysis of his book, his general argument(s), and this theater vs. home viewing debate is how access to films at home and on the go (in a DVD player, streaming via Netflix, on an IPAD or phone, etc.) allows more people to watch films they might not otherwise see. While I do agree that it is difficult to replace going to a cinema house because of the experience being all the more authentic and enjoyable, in part because I have really reserved a block of 2-3 hours to drive, sit down, buy snacks (sometimes, when I can afford them!), and watch the film; there is no denying that most theaters will never show older films again like El Topo. As far as I can tell, film culture has mostly changed from intelligent film making to something much more dumbed down. Maybe this is because if people are going to go to the cinema, they will only be going for ridiculous and over the top comic book esque films (like you’ve mentioned previously Wheeler).
And I suppose that is my bigger issue with this debate. Most movies I don’t want to see in a theater. I don’t want to pay a lot of money to see the newest sequel or remake. Almost everything created these days seems like a cash in on some previous movie-going experience. It’s like producers these days say to themselves, “Oh, people really liked Superman back in the 80’s and 90’s. They’ll probably pay A LOT of money to see that again.” Indeed, while I enjoyed “Man of Steel” earlier this year (like many did), it was still just repetition on an old theme. An old character revived, but still nothing new. Personally, I just await the day when in the modern cinema we can place ourselves into the thick of a complex philosophical narrative. Not something so streamlined like we often get with simplistic moral duality. It saddens me to look at what is playing at my local movie theater, then I consider how, back in the 50s, even Ingmar Bergman was capable of interjecting thoughtful philosophy into his films. This is my real issue with film these days, there is nothing real to talk about. Sure, we can discuss cool CGI, a fight scene, or how we liked that guy who plays Loki (even though he bores me); but there is nothing real. It would seem that modern movies are a shadow of older ones. While the picture quality may be better (though this is disputable), the effects more advanced, and so on; it is still lacking in content. But, one can see just how effective a film that makes you think can be. Look at the recently released “Elysium.” I enjoyed it despite it’s flaws and apparent Hollywood obsessed characterizations. I’ve seen many discussions pertaining to this world created in the film. This separation of rich and poor, well off and not so well off. It’s a political discussion and can lead to conversation after the movie ends, and that is hugely important; when film can impact our discussions on the nature of our culture and our existence altogether. Indeed, “Elysium” only touched the surface of it’s themes, but it was more interesting than the next installment of the Smurfs.
Tying this all up, I enjoy both worlds of film viewing. I love going to the theater when I get the chance, but often settle for Netflix or some DVD/Blu-Ray viewings because of price and film availability. I mean, some of my favorite films including “Enter the Void,” “Anti-Christ,” “I Stand Alone,” and “Amelie” would be unavailable to me for present viewing in a cinema. Even worse, most of these films did not get a wide release in the USA, suggesting I would not have even been able to see them when they were released anyways, unless I wanted to travel to the closest big city (several hours away). I guess my final stance is an apathetic one when it comes to where I view films and what kind of films I can view: I’ll take what I can get.
Chris, Daisy – thanks for writing it. Daisy, I have to take issue with your comments on A Night to Remember vs. Titanic, and the related issues it raises with respect to older films projected on a huge theater screen vs. being viewed on an iPad.
As I write in my review, “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.”
And it’s true – over and over again. 2001 on an iPad — not so much. 2001 on a huge theater screen in its original aspect ratio? A totally immersive experience. Lawrence of Arabia on a a cellphone. Not really. Lawrence of Arabia in full ‘scope on a big screen — once again, you feel like you’re really experiencing the film. And these are just two very, very obvious examples.
Chris, you’re right — convenience and expediency rule. Unfortunately, your generation doesn’t have the luxury of a communal experience engendered by screenings, either in university film societies — those were the days — or in a revival house. Up until the early 1990s, in any event, there was really only ONE platform for a feature film – it had to open in a theater to make its money back.
Now, the studios are simply going to throw their ad budgets behind stuff like The Lone Ranger, even when they know it’s going to be a disaster, because the film costs so much they feel compelled to wring as many dollars out of it as they possibly can. The more thoughtful fare is consigned to streaming or on-demand cable distribution, and yes, that’s where you can really see the interesting stuff these days, along with a lot of junk.
While I’m not a von Trier fan by any means — I intensely dislike, in fact, most of his work, finding it both pretentious and misogynist — I fell in love with his recent end of the world film, Melancholia, which I thought was a masterpiece from first frame to last. And where did I first see it? On cable, on demand.
So we do what we can these days to see thoughtful and intelligent films, and even the Manoel de Oliveira, my favorite living filmmaker (still going strong at age 104), making masterpieces like The Strange Case of Angelica (2010), shoots everything digitally, and edits on a home computer set-up, resigned to the fact that his work will be screened at festivals, and then only as streaming or on-demand video. But at least you get to see it, and that’s ultimately the point.