So what's my opinion of the state of the cinema, as 2007 tumbles into 2008? As an outsider looking into the movie business (sort of like The Onion's Jackie Harvey, except that I try to spell the names right), my opinion isn't going to keep Steven Spielberg up nights. But there are trends that any discerning moviegoer can both note and trace.
In some ways, the state of the cinema is what it's always been: The art of the cinema takes a back seat to the business of the cinema. When a budget of $30 million (the budget for Joe Wright's film of Ian McEwan's novel Atonement) is considered low, it cannot be otherwise. And, when businessmen risk huge amounts of capital, they want to ensure as much as possible they're selling something the public wants to buy. Brand-name recognition is a time-honored shortcut to exciting public interest in any product; this explains, throughout the history of the movies but never more than now, the industry's heavy reliance on sequels and remakes. This isn't always a bad thing: James Mangold's recent remake of Delmer Daves' 3:10 to Yuma actually improved on the original, and in the 1930s and '40s the five sequels to The Thin Man gave us five more golden opportunities to see William Powell and Myrna Loy. More often, however, to look at a studio's production schedules or the week's Top 10 box office list is to get a sinking feeling. I still do not understand who the audience would be for Saw I, let alone Saw IV, and to see the trailers for Nicolas Cage's National Treasure sequel is to mourn the continuing waste of a great actor.
Remake Syndrome and Sequelitis began their current pitched level with the live-action version of The Flintstones, which was the answer to every Hollywood producer's prayer. The film received mostly bad reviews and even worse word of mouth, and it made $130 million in its first run because beleaguered parents saw the Flintstones name and knew they could take the kids to see it. In essence, The Flintstones was the first critic-proof, audience-proof movie, and its noxious example has set the tone in Hollywood ever since. The Flintstones sequel, Viva Rock Vegas, was a flop, but the live-action versions of Scooby-Doo and The Grinch Who Stole Christmas were smash hits that nobody liked. Recent years have seen big-screen remakes of The Brady Bunch, The Beverly Hillbillies, Leave It to Beaver, Dennis the Menace, Bewitched and other old TV programs. Not all were successful, and all were bad; but all were green-lighted, and more are green-lighted all the time.
Nevertheless, in some ways the outlook for movies in 2008 has never been brighter. The continuing strength of the independent film business, bolstered by the work of studio directors and executives who haven't completely lost their senses, produced a bumper crop of good films in 2007. Low-budget films in 2007 encompassed everything from Once, the delightful Irish almost-romantic musical, to The Life of Reilly, a distillation of the late Charles Nelson Reilly's one-man stage show. Crime dramas, always a staple, have burgeoned this past year; the five I've seen in the past couple of months—Tony Gilroy's Michael Clayton, Ben Affleck's Gone Baby Gone, Ridley Scott's American Gangster, Sidney Lumet's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, and the Coen Brothers' No Country for Old Men—would all be good bets for award nominations and critics' Ten Best lists in any year they appeared. It may tell something about the national mood, however, that all of these exceptionally brilliant, exceptionally bleak films appeared this year. (More on those films next month.)
Independent films, of course, lack the advantage of the studios' promotional wherewithal and distribution network. I live in the Washington, D.C., area, which boasts the American Film Institute's flagship theater; art-film houses such as the Landmark Bethesda Row, the Landmark E Street Cinema, and the AMC Loews Shirlington; and a number of film festivals including some devoted strictly to gay and lesbian film, Latin American film, Jewish film and short films. Even in Washington, however, there are many worthy films that you'll miss if you blink.
However, if you miss films in their first run, you have more opportunities to see them later, sans cuts or commercials, than ever before in history. That, for me, is the biggest difference between 2008 and any previous cinematic year: the sheer multiplicity of what is available to the average viewer. Legal computer downloads are now available from various online services, supplementing cable subscription services, pay-per-view, and the various DVD retail, rental and mail order outlets.
Being among both the technologically challenged (computers tend to blow up whenever I try to download anything) and the parsimonious (I refuse to pay for either HBO or Showtime, and usually you can't get the Sundance Channel or the Independent Film Channel on your cable system unless you do), my personal film sources are Netflix and Turner Classic Movies. In the past two weeks, thanks to those outlets, I have seen two classic French films, the crime drama Touchez Pas au Grisbi and the sublimely sorrowful Tous les Matins du Monde, as well as several disparate but worthwhile, relatively unseen Hollywood classics: Champagne for Caesar, I Remember Mama, The Narrow Margin—the original with Charles McGraw, not the remake with Gene Hackman—and The Ox-Bow Incident. TCM recently has devoted its evening programming to the films of one particular star; a few nights ago, it was Claude Rains, which gave viewers a wonderful quadruple feature: Notorious, Casablanca, Now, Voyager, and Mrs. Skeffington. (Not incidentally, this program also gave viewers an invigorating double dose of both Ingrid Bergman and Bette Davis.)
Netflix, the last time I checked, had some 90,000 DVD titles available, many of which are also available for online viewing. Through Netflix I have seen everything from Jean Cocteau's Orphee to Andy Milligan's The Ghastly Ones. Netflix is a ready source as well as little-seen but excellent indie films such as Brick, Mysterious Skin, Forty Shades of Blue, and Old Joy. These films and others—if they were lucky—received a few weeks of theater engagements in larger cities, and online DVD rental services represent their one real chance of distribution to a nationwide audience.
For the record, I just sent Champagne for Caesar and The Narrow Margin back to Netflix. I await the arrival of Pretty Poison, starring Anthony Perkins and Tuesday Weld, and The Believer, the first movie to make reviewers sit up and take notice of Ryan Gosling. After that comes a triple dose of Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski: Fitzcarraldo, Burden of Dreams, and My Best Fiend. (If I don't survive that particular triple feature, Arthur Meiselman will collect donations.)
Currently there is a rush to digitize every book, magazine and newspaper in print, the media for doing so including but by no means limited to Amazon's new Kindle technology. (Copyright issues inevitably are arising; I don't know enough about the situation to comment.) At least with print matter, however, readers still have access to books, magazines and newspapers whenever they want. If it's not readily available, your local bookseller can order it for you. Movies are different. In pre-home-theater years, if a theater or a TV station didn't choose to exhibit a film, the producers and you were out of luck. Even when videos became available for rental and sale, it was unheard of to order a tape or disc that your local store didn't stock. That's why networks such as TCM and mail-order DVD services are so valuable. Thanks to them, audiences have a whole library of cinema out there for the watching. All they have to do is order it. You don't have to watch Transformers eighteen times, simply because your local video outlet has eighteen copies of Transformers and no copies of Once, Brick, The Ox-Bow Incident, or Tous les Matins du Monde.
Of course, if you do want to watch Transformers eighteen times, be my guest. Just don't blame me for Transformers VII.