The end of cinema at the edges of social life
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The end of cinema at the edges of social life

By S. Brent Plate

The global coronavirus pandemic has prompted a new round of apocalyptic predictions for the survival of cinema as we know it. During the 2020 lockdown, while corona cases were continually tallied, news reports told of the imminent end of the glorious pastime. Variety asked, “Will Movie Theaters Survive Corona?” CNBC said, “Dire outlook for cinemas as coronavirus resurges in U.S.,” while CNN noted, “Movie theaters are struggling to survive the pandemic.”

The end of cinema would seem to be just around the corner. Or maybe not.

Cinema’s demise has been repeatedly predicted over the past one-hundred years, challenged by television, home video, and streaming services. The latest round of challenges will undoubtedly alter the structure of movie production, distribution, and audience experience, but something of it will continue, as cinema evolves to meet new demands.

The real and lasting changes in these media mutations will be modifications of the human body and social relations. Like all technological inventions – from the wheel to the alphabet to the railroads – cinema is not simply a tool used and forgotten about when the usage is over. Cinema is a technology that shapes and reshapes how human bodies move, perceive, and live together. Its transformation into something new impacts human life on a physical, social level.

Cinema’s bodily rituals

Every movie needs an audience. The mythic history of the birth of cinema does not begin with the physical development of movie cameras through the 1880s and 1890s. Instead, the beginning of cinema is generally tied to the year 1895, when the Lumière brothers held a public screening of a few films in Paris.

Since then movies have been screened in cafes, traveling carnivals, church basements, town squares, living rooms, as well as the specially built places we tend to think of when we think of cinema: movie theatres. It is the sense of socially shared viewing that defines the idea of cinema, and it is this very nature that is under threat today with the need for social distancing.

Movies need an audience, and more specifically they need bodies. It is what makes cinema what it is: a projected image on a screen with an audience that sits, listens, watches, and sometimes cries, laughs, screams in fright, and squirms in anticipation.

As much as cinema is about a space in which films are projected, it is also an event that occurs in time, in the shared presence of human bodies, simultaneously gathered together.

Because of this, cinema can be thought of as a special type of ritual. As with all rituals, the experience goes far beyond the dialogue of a movie or the spoken words of the rite. They are performances, acted out in specified times and places in which certain actions are permissible and others are not. Behaviours within the ritual are distinct from behaviours outside of ritual, as participants get the chance to inhabit another world.

Throughout history, rituals have always been deeply sensual experiences. From the floating candles of an arti offering seen from the banks of the Ganges river in India to the visceral pilgrimage of the Camino de Santiago in Spain to the bitter herbs of Passover in a Brooklyn apartment, rituals connect people together by stimulating the body. Humans participate in rituals by smelling, looking, touching, hearing, and tasting.

For the cinematic ritual, words matter, but so do colour and rhythm and music and movement, not only on screen but felt within the bodies of those in their seats. Audiences get to see and experience actions that may not exist in their lives outside the movie, at least not in the same ways: love and murder, espionage and space travel, heroic actions and historical reconstruction.

In this way, the movies move people beyond the audio and visual into the tactile, as heartbeats quicken, skin gets goose bumps, and tear ducts swell. More rare, but not unheard of, olfactory and even gustatory senses are stimulated as synesthetic qualities are unleashed when the big screen offers close ups of food being prepared, a smoke-filled room, ocean waves and a cool breeze.

People laugh when others laugh in their seats nearby, connecting movie audiences together, even if it’s a room full of strangers. A kind of strange intimacy is created, conjured out of light and sound. In the presence of humans – strangers and family alike – movies gain an emotional power that keeps people coming back for more.

This is all shattered with a global lockdown, as people are forced to watch movies in new places, in new ways. Of course, streaming services were already challenging the longevity of cinema, and the pandemic has brought to the fore many practices that have been emerging for two decades. Even so, there were challenges before this as well.

Cinema pre-Covid

To be clear, this isn’t the first time cinema has been on trial.

The Golden Age of Hollywood lasted from the 1910s to the 1960s. Across two world wars, women’s suffrage, the Great Depression, post-war affluence, the influx of the automobile and related birth of suburbia, the medium of film dominated the collective, media unconscious of the United States.

While film production companies fuelled the American Dream for over a half century, they were eventually hobbled by antitrust lawsuits and, crucially, the rise of television, especially when colour was added to the domestic appliance. Already by 1950, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Variety were running stories on the demise of cinema in the face of television’s increasing popularity.

With television, the same sights and sounds of big screen theatres could be appreciated in the comfort of one’s own home. And as public space shifted, from the streets and town centres to the interior of one’s own house, the nuclear family also rose as a key social force. The mass distribution of television in the mid-twentieth century not only reflected the primacy of the post-war nuclear family in shows like Leave it to Beaver, television actually helped create the nuclear family by the ways the medium was consumed.

Fast forward a few decades and the same stories were trotted out in the same publications about the rise of movies on VHS, and eventually DVD, and how these new modes of consumption would destroy cinema. Alongside this, cable and satellite television became a major force.

Remember that HBO, the longest running subscription television service, begun in 1972, is “Home Box Office”. It was self-consciously bringing the cinema theatre home. And it was HBO that most fully infused television shows with film-like qualities. Oz, The Sopranos, The Wire, and others were hour-long shows with high impact visuals, strong acting, and sophisticated editing. The difference between cinema and television was greatly reduced, especially when home television screens grew larger, connected with state of the art sound systems.

Into the twenty-first century, streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime are again challenging cinema. These platforms, along with the rise of smart phones, create the ability to watch movies in one’s own time and space, challenging not only the old communally based rituals, but the nuclear family structures as well.

Cinema, stories and social life post-Covid

In 1981, Michael D. Eisner, then President of Paramount, wandered through the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and marvelled at the new technologies that were part of the “video revolution.” He admitted to some bewilderment and wondered about the future of movie production.

Arguing against the McLuhanesque wisdom that the “medium is the message”, Eisner revived the message, rebuking the technophiles and their prophecies of cinema’s imminent collapse. He claimed, “whether it is on a 25mm screen, or a 25 inch or 25 foot screen or cassette or cable, it is all still entertainment and all still needs the basic values of story and plot and interpersonal relationships.”

A similar argument can be made today, as movie streaming becomes the dominant mode of content delivery, and as a microscopic virus threatens to finally dismantle the dream machines of twentieth-century cinema. Stories will survive new technologies, and stories will survive the virus.

There’s something to Eisner’s point, and the importance of narrative and interpersonal connections continues to hold true. Yet, that’s not the whole story.

Humans need narratives, big and small, but stories are always sensed: heard, watched, touched. They are not free-floating entities, but deeply embodied, visceral, mediated, and shared with others. Because of this, the medium has a large impact on the story itself. It is simply not the same story if told around a fire pit, viewed on a 10-meter screen, heard as an audiobook while commuting to work, or watched on YouTube in between class periods.

This isn’t just a change in modes of production with a set of winners (e.g. Netflix) and losers (e.g. Paramount film studios). It’s about a change in cultural practices, the ways our bodies move around in space and how we bump up against each other and our technologies. Each of these media evolutions alters the ways human bodies perceive the audio-visual productions, the ways we embody the stories we live by, in and out of ritualized time.

Every new media technology collapses time and space just that much more. Using the Greek prefix tele– (meaning “far”), a string of technologies through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries allowed people to stretch their communications and stories over long distances. The tele-graph assured people of “far writing”, the tele-phone gave “far hearing”, and the television “far seeing”.

These media brought the ideas, sounds, and sights from far away closer to us in the here and now. As they represented voices and writing and visions from somewhere else, they brought with them the presence of the far, far away.

Now, with the “world wide web”, video conferences that fuse dozens of people in their own homes through a single screen, and audio-visual narratives at one’s ever-present beck and call, media technologies have reduced the size of the world and condensed time so everything is seemingly immediate.

There’s a paradox at work here, and the reality of the paradox is central to understanding audio-visual media in a streaming, post-Covid age. Every new media development in the history of the world – paper, printing presses, telephones, televisions, and networked computers alike – have promised to collapse time and space to the point where the medium disappears, so it feels as if it is “im-media-te”, without media. We can call this feature of new technologies “mediated immediacy”.

As we shift our prime modes of media participation we also shift key experiences of our bodies and social lives. We move from large screens to ever smaller screens. We change from theatres that were built for consuming movies at specified times to ubiquitous viewing on commuter trains, in bedrooms, classrooms, and walking down the street. And we turn from viewings in the company of others to individualized usage. Media is always on, accessible anywhere, and seemingly beyond media.

If television helped break down the extended family into nuclear family units, current video ubiquity, propelled by Covid-enforced social distancing, breaks the nuclear family into atomized units of individuals.

Only it doesn’t stop there. A social fabric built on mediated immediacy fragments even the individual self, that bedrock invention of the modern age. And good-bye to all that really. Individualism is vastly overrated. But what then is to be said for interpersonal relationships? The imagined nation? Religious traditions? What is common among the community? The commonwealth?

The answers are far from clear. But it seems imperative to realize that shifts in media consumption are not merely economic shifts, nor technological ones. New media technologies entail new social structures, new arrangements of human bodies in time and space.

I offer one parting thought. For everything else Covid has wreaked on humans, every once in a while it created some reflection about our media consumption. As a professor of media studies, I have never had so many conversations with students, friends, and family about media itself than I did during 2020.

We talked on Zoom, and talked about talking on Zoom. We messaged, and became grateful for the messaging systems. And we streamed videos, sharing our latest ways of passing the lockdown with whoever would listen on social media.

Refusing the illusion of mediated immediacy, it’s almost as if we became, for a moment in time, aware of the media we used, at the same time we were using it. If anything might create a shared sense of story, it may be those moments.

S. Brent Plate is professor of religious studies and cinema & media studies at Hamilton College, New York. His books include Religion and Film: Cinema and the Re-creation of the World and A History of Religion in 5½ Objects, and his essays have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Popular Science, The Christian Century, and America. He is editor of the journal CrossCurrents and Executive Director of the Association for Public Religion and Intellectual Life.


Photo above: Lumières La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon 1895 (Public Domain)

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