Is cinema losing its grip?

The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies and What They Did to Us, by David Thomson, Allen Lane RRP£25/Farrar, Straus and Giroux RRP$35, 608 pages

Do the Movies Have a Future, by David Denby, Simon & Schuster RRP$27, 368 pages

Film After Film: (Or, What Became of 21st Century Cinema?), by J Hoberman, Verso RRP£16.99/$24.95, 304 pages

It is one of the most famous one-liners in the history of cinema, which also turned out to be an inadvertent prophecy. “I am big,” says the slighted Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (1950). “It’s the pictures that got small.”

She had no idea. The past half-century has seen the pictures get smaller and smaller, to the point that we wonder if they can ever be big again. From television screen, to laptop, to smartphone, the ever-shrinking movies reach a greater part of the world than ever before. But what have we lost along the way? On a recent flight, I downloaded the relatively well-received Marvel spin-off The Avengers to watch on my iPhone. It was, of course, a ridiculous venture, this squeezing of monumental themes on to a miniaturist canvas, lacking in textural detail, atmosphere, communality of experience. But it was easily accessible, convenient and cheap. Is the trade-off worth it? And how does it affect us and the art form?

Three new books – David Thomson’s The Big Screen, David Denby’s Do the Movies Have a Future? and Film After Film, by J Hoberman – wonder where the future of cinema may take us. They do so by writing about the past. The two Davids are distinguished critics of a certain age, and it is easy just to enjoy their reflections of cinema’s history. Despite their best intentions, an elegiac tone dominates. They are far too shrewd to overstate their disquiet over the current state of cinema. They fall over themselves to point to some masterpieces of recent years: There Will Be Blood (2007); The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007); The Tree of Life (2011). The medium is still capable of shockingly pleasant surprises. But these movies are hardly in the mass consciousness. Quality cinema is turning into more of an elite art form than ever. And that was never the point of the movies.

Thomson promises a book that “goes into raptures and ... turns frosty”, like the vacillations of any love affair. His history is loosely chronological, with byways and lateral thematic leaps actively encouraged. His evocation of cinema’s birth is both romantic and well observed. On two of film’s greatest and earliest pioneers, he says: “Chaplin made silence one more way of seeming above the world, while Keaton’s quiet is as stricken as ruined philosophy. So Chaplin is silently noisy with protestation and pleas for affection, and Keaton suspects the deepest things cannot be told or uttered.” This is lovely writing, pithy and profound, and points to cinema’s ability, from its very beginnings and even in its most clownish forms, to deliver philosophically subtle ways of looking at the world.

In that period the movies sought primarily to entertain. Hollywood, in particular, was testily intolerant of works that failed to fit into certain prefigured formulas. The Italian neorealist classic, Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) was subtly retitled The Bicycle Thief in the US – “perhaps it was just an American idea that the man in a film has to be its hero,” says Thomson. Producer David Selznick’s reaction to the film was a wish to cast Cary Grant in the lead role. The Americans missed the wider implications of De Sica’s heart-wrenching story, adds Thomson, and failed to acknowledge how the original title’s plural focused attention on systemic failure rather than individual culpability: “And so the country, horrified at the thought of Communist influence, suppressed the gently Marxist interpretation of the title.”

The central section of Thomson’s book, “Sunset and Change”, is its most compelling chapter. He chronicles how one golden age – frisky and innocent – was replaced by another, which reflected the existential distress and cosmic pessimism of the postwar years. Sunset Boulevard was a turning point, “the start of a new adulthood, or the peeling away of ‘Hollywood’ nonsense”. Entertainment still had its role, and uncomplicated producers fought a rearguard battle to cling to their value systems: as recently as 1959, the Best Original Screenplay Oscar went to the slight romantic comedy Pillow Talk, elbowing aside The 400 Blows, North by Northwest and Wild Strawberries.

But box office returns began to suffer, even before the advent of television: between 1946 and 1951, weekly attendance in US cinemas fell from 82m to 49m. There was anxiety in the air. Feted European film-makers, replacing the small talk of fat profit margins with the neurotic discourse of alienation, posited a radical thought: “That the old cinema not simply was in decline, but might be a reflection of a decline of civilisation itself.” Cinema became self-conscious, and revelled in the myriad possibilities of its auto-examination.

In 1958, Alfred Hitchcock made Vertigo, a movie that, according to Thomson, “has a helpless guilt, the first admission that voyeurism may undermine you, and that acting is a metaphor for all of life”. Thomson notes drily that the one-time flop is regularly included in lists for the best film ever made. Had Thomson handed in his manuscript weeks later, he could have told us that this very year, Hitchcock’s creepily erotic fable displaced the magisterial Citizen Kane (1941) in the prestigious Sight and Sound critics’ poll as the greatest movie of all.

David Denby, a critic for The New Yorker, is especially good on the postmodern sensibility of current cinema, that both saves otherwise banal movies from irrelevance, and prevents them from delivering heftier truths. In the clever introduction to his book, he focuses on the opening of Iron Man 2 (2010), which had grossed $324m worldwide by the end of its first weekend. Talk to corporate marketing departments, or comic book readers, and you will find little concern over the future of the movies.

Denby finds things to admire in the film, chiefly its star Robert Downey Jr’s light-touched charm, but also identifies a “mad discrepancy” between the film’s size and its meaning, which he cites as an example of “conglomerate irony”. He describes the picture as an “over-articulate nullity – a huge, fancy clock that displays wheels and gears but somehow fails to tell the time”. And he worries about the effects of such films on “nervously joshing, self-mocking” film criticism: “Nothing is more destructive of critical writing than the fear of being 30 seconds behind the zeitgeist.”

J Hoberman, until this year a film critic for The Village Voice, is content to restrict his observations to the cinema of the past decade. “What became of 21st-century cinema?” he asks, and finds the shadow of the events of 9/11 looming over most possible answers to the question. Hoberman wittily traces the interlocking of political reality and moviemaking fantasies, to often disturbing effect. “My plan to secure the border?” asked Republican candidate Mike Huckabee in a pre-2008 election discussion over Iraq: “Two words: Chuck Norris.”

He also detects a more visceral physicality in some contemporary cinema, which he traces to Mel Gibson’s barmy The Passion of the Christ (2004), “the key event in American movies between 9/11 and the election of Barack Obama”. It paved the way for a “new realness” approach to cinema, displayed by such films as Last Days (2005), Hunger (2008) and 127 Hours (2010). The sensation-seeking age must have its senses assaulted if it is to be stirred into reaction. Hoberman is no less concerned about the future of cinema than the two Davids. There is less nostalgia (and less elegance) in his book, although he is one of the very few people in the world who still finds a “tragic grandeur” in the new films of Jean-Luc Godard.

Some caveats: there is in all three of these books a disappointing over-concentration on Hollywood. The possibility that the future of cinema lies elsewhere is not meaningfully discussed but it is surely likely in our globalised times. I wish they had followed the lead of Mark Cousins’s outstanding 2011 television series The Story of Film: An Odyssey, which cast its net so impressively far and wide. Countries with very different cinematic traditions are acquiring the economic clout to transform the world’s aesthetics. We need to hear more from them, and about them.

None of the authors really knows what to say about Facebook (apart from that it supplied the subject of David Fincher’s superb 2010 film The Social Network). Thomson has a go, describing it as “an evolved movie system: it involves us looking at screens and converting our desire into a fee payment or a surrender to ads”. But perhaps it is just too early to assess the impact of a communication system that promises an appealing, casual democracy, but threatens to stifle us with control freakery. Fincher’s classically structured film aside, where are the great cinematic commentators on the Facebook age? Imagine what the young Godard would have had to say on it!

Thomson’s substantial and erudite book rather fizzles to a melancholy conclusion, worrying about teenage deficit disorders and his “lost love”. Denby is less cowed by the here and now, offering “three intimations of a possible better future”. He wants the US indie “mumblecore” directors to reach out boldly for more lasting significance; he sees films such as Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life as harbingers of a new, more ambitious digital language; and he favours a revolution from below, aided by new speciality divisions in the studios and a new kind of internet film magazine that would combine “erudition and combative position-taking”.

“If you are the head of Disney or Warner Bros,” asks Denby, “wouldn’t you ... like to say ... ‘I brought smart audiences back to the theatres, and movies became a national culture that everyone talked about again?’ Sure you’d like to say that.”

In a world consumed by the drafting of dreams, that may yet be the most fantastical wish of them all.

Peter Aspden is the FT’s arts writer

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