On the flip side, every few years someone publishes the bold, contrarian discovery that Richard Curtis’s “Love Actually” is, actually, bad. I’m just petty enough to point out that I said as much back in 2003. I didn’t love “The Hangover” either.
To set the record straight: I didn’t hate “The Avengers”! I wrote a mixed review that noted the imperial ambitions and creative compromises of the emerging Marvel Cinematic Universe. Samuel L. Jackson, a stalwart of that universe, tweeted that it was time for Avengers fans “to find A.O. Scott a new job. One he can ACTUALLY do.” That was a dozen years ago. Better late than never.
How have the movies changed?
Gather ’round, children. When I first came to this newspaper — when it was still, mostly, a newspaper — the phrases “streaming platform,” “cinematic universe” and “social media” were not part of the general lexicon. Films were still mostly shot and projected on film. You could still rent VHS tapes at the video store, and Netflix would send you DVDs in the mail. The American independent cinema of the previous decade was reaching a new stage of maturity, and international auteur cinema was thriving in the work of Abbas Kiarostami, the Dardenne brothers, Pedro Almodóvar, Olivier Assayas and Hou Hsiao-Hsien.
It was the worst of times! In the fall of 1999, a few months before I was hired, the critic Godfrey Cheshire of The New York Press published a long, agonized, in many ways prescient essay titled “The Death of Film, the Decay of Cinema.” A few years earlier, in The New York Times Book Review, Susan Sontag had proclaimed the end of cinephilia and the “decay” of the art form that sustained it. Jean-Luc Godard, finishing his decade-long video project “Histoire(s) du Cinéma” in 1998, struck a similarly elegiac tone.
And now? I’m tempted to say that the sky is still falling, or falling again, and that it’s the same old sky. The death of cinema is almost as old as cinema itself. In 1935, the German critic Rudolf Arnheim declared that film as an art form had died with the coming of sound, and that what followed the silence was mere commercial propaganda, a bastardized form he prophetically called “television.” After the war, television killed movies all over again, and even when a technological villain wasn’t apparent — the VCR, the internet — things were always bad. Frank O’Hara’s poem “To the Film Industry in Crisis” appeared in 1957. Two decades later Pauline Kael asked “Why Are the Movies So Bad?” The End Times have a way of turning out to have been golden ages all along.
The current apocalypse is that streaming and Covid anxiety are conspiring to kill off moviegoing as we have known it, leaving a handful of I.P.-driven blockbusters and horror movies to keep theaters in business while we mostly sit at home bingeing docuseries, dystopias and the occasional art-film guilt trip. Am I worried? Of course I’m worried. The cultural space in which the movies I care most about have flourished seems to be shrinking. The audience necessary to sustain original and ambitious work is narcotized by algorithms or distracted by doomscrolling. The state of the movies is very bad.