“The donning of sackcloth and ashes for this once-mighty art form is an annual ritual,” wrote New York Times film critic A.O. Scott in a recent piece on the Telluride Film Festival, a yearly retreat for filmmakers and critics alike that also serves as a debut for many of the fall’s most anticipated films. He goes on to posit the festival as a “standing rebuke” to the “fatalism and gloom” of critics who would suggest cinema’s death, boldly going so far as to include hyperlinks to Huffington Post and GQ articles with which he took direct issue. (As spectators, all we can really hope for is that the opposing sides drop diss tracks about one another.) Scott, who serves alongside Manohla Dargis as the Times’ chief film critic, claims that Telluride standouts like Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival and Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann provide testimony to the medium’s ongoing vitality. Of the latter, he writes, “It’s something new under the sun, a thrilling and discomfiting document of the present and also, like every movie that matters, a bulletin from the future.”
Forward motion, then, and an eye toward progress seem Scott’s criteria for a worthy cinematic experience. Yet the critic speaks with a certain tone of nostalgia, waxing lyrical about the “old-time cinephile religion” and “cathedrals of cinema,” invoking a religiosity around the film-going experience that grants a sense of urgency to the art form. Scott seems determined to fight a one-man war in support of his cinematic ideals, and to simultaneously convince us of criticism’s essential role in our relationship to art. It’s a refrain that is consistent across the subtext of his film reviews, and made explicit in his recent book Better Living Through Criticism (as well as a 2013 lecture given in our very own Goldwin Smith Hall). This dedication to a hallowed film “tradition” — once an unspoken prerequisite to becoming a critic — creates a bit of a contradiction: How can filmmakers keep the art form alive and moving forward while tying it to a bygone era?
Scott, here, plays the role of experienced idealist, aware that the past is past while maintaining a romantic’s hope for the future. He frames Damien Chazelle’s new film La La Land — a musical romance set in retro Los Angeles, starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone — as a direct address to this contradiction. It’s a film, Scott claims, that harkens back to the star-studded Technicolor musicals of yesteryear while modernizing the type of spectacle that necessitates a trip to the cinema. Of course, a cynic could twist that logic to argue that such a film amounts to little more than the artful rehashing of existing conventions. What, then, do the harbingers of cinematic death suggest we do? How do we — for lack of better phrasing — make Hollywood cinema great again?
It’s tempting to pretend that these naysayers are the same group of dad-types who miss the good ol’ days of rock n’ roll, when the rebellious kids actually stood for something, you know? These are the nostalgic individuals who happily proclaim entire genres and art forms as “dead” so as to ensure their generation sustains a monopoly on them. At their most lenient, they’ll recognize Tarantino as the second coming of Jean-Luc Godard or The Strokes as a worthy throwback act. Forget anything, though, that changes the parameters of a given medium or genre.
Unfortunately, the critics who claim “cinema is dead” operate on a sort of funhouse mirror version to Scott’s own logic. They, too, deeply value moviegoing’s place in the echelon of American pastimes, and possess an undying commitment to the value of feature-length films in the face of the oft-documented “Golden Age of Television.” They base their fatalist conclusions in Hollywood’s fearful decision-making and capitalist motives, factors that have undoubtedly created this seasonal Groundhog Day of superhero movies and unnecessary sequels in which we are currently living.
Yet the writing seems to be on the wall, and it favors progress rather than death. Unlike Scott, I did not have the opportunity to embark upon the religious experience of Telluride Film Festival this year (I guess it wasn’t in the Sun’s budget.). However, I think people often forget that the system is always the last to respond. This summer alone saw diminishing returns on almost every sequel in an existing franchise, and attempted reboots almost universally underperformed. The traditional film format has shown its resilience time and time again. With both critics and audiences alike demanding change within the studio system (and great movies consistently being made outside of it), it’s only a matter of time.
Chris Stanton is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Really Terrible, and Such Small Portions! appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.