On the Imminent Death of Film

For months, I’ve slowly come to recognize this time in my life as a rather crushing juncture. While most of my life can honestly be described as happy, my complacency in my situation has started to bother me. This is probably normal for someone at the age of twenty-three if not every dream in his life has come true yet. At some point he must wonder when he can begin doing what he was born to do. Well, a good start would be to figure out what, exactly, it is that he was born to do.

Regarding this question, a crisis moment occurred for me Thursday before last, although I didn’t fully recognize it until about a week later. I came across an article on Salon about the decision by Aaton, ARRI and Panavision to put an end to production of motion picture film cameras. What this essentially means is that as soon as all currently existing cameras are worn out, all movies will be shot digitally from then on. This might not sound very significant, and I’ll admit I wouldn’t fully appreciate it were it not for the headline of the article, mourning the movie camera’s death and giving its lifetime as 1888-2011. But that headline got to me. Something that was basic to the movies from the very beginning was coming to an end.

This saddened me. I can’t deny a twinge of sadness whenever a new technology replaces an old one. Technology is merciless, euthanizing obsolete gadgets once praised for changing the world. It’s not worth it to mourn those gadgets extensively, and most of the time it doesn’t affect me at all. But the incredible acceleration of technology over the last ten or twenty years has been disorienting and sometimes even depressing. There’s less and less time for reflection and coming to grips with whether we should be doing certain things just because we can. I’ve always felt a connection with things of the past, and that connection only deepens when those things become irretrievable.

Despite all that, my thoughts on this subject didn’t occupy much more time than it took to write that paragraph, until I made a personal connection with the story a few days later. For a long time, my dream has been to make movies. Simply put, movies are how a person can bring his ideas to life, more so than any other artistic medium ever created. The death of the film camera has not destroyed that dream for me, but it hurts, and here’s why: I came to the understanding that in a fundamental way, I can never make movies like Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, or Quentin Tarantino. By the time I’m able to direct a feature film, if that ever happens, film will be as hard to come by as a typewriter. This is one of those times when you don’t know what you have until it’s gone. Five years ago, it wouldn’t have even occurred to me to rejoice that I could make a movie in the same basic way that D.W. Griffith made movies a hundred years ago. I seem to be living in a world where things once taken for granted can be gone in an instant. It is a thing of grace that I’m beginning to understand that because of the death of a camera before that of a close friend or family member.

Now, we need to understand two counterpoints to the statement “I could make a movie in the same basic way that D.W. Griffith made movies.” The more obvious one is that I never really could. Sound, color, widescreen, lighter cameras, a world more receptive to the idea that movies can be art — these are the things I’ve inherited that Griffith lacked. Obviously, it’s still possible to make a silent, black and white film (and Michel Hazanavicius has done just that with The Artist, a movie I’m eager to see). But this would be by choice, not necessity, and it’s hard to avoid thinking of it as a gimmick. Filmmakers today can only take what’s been learned and make something new out of it. No one can make a film noir anymore, just a neo-noir.

The second counterpoint, almost paradoxically, is that I still can make movies like Griffith made them. Cinematic language, which Griffith helped invent, has changed very little in a hundred years (Matt Zoller Seitz makes this same point in the Salon article I mentioned). Movies communicate by the juxtaposition of images, and the rules for making that juxtaposition coherent remain the same. There is absolutely nothing about digital moviemaking that disrupts this language. I have to admit, also, that digital technology can potentially improve the quality of a movie. While the unique pleasures of celluloid have been eloquently praised in the last week, digital can take movies places they’ve never been before. But the point remains: those movies will be different at a cellular level.

And, you see, I love — absolutely adore — Hitchcock and Welles and Kubrick and Tarantino and Spielberg. I wanted to make movies because I wanted to make movies like they did. Do I still want to? It will take awhile to decide, because it’s taken awhile even to appreciate that movies might not be around forever. That thought first came to me while reading Reverse Shot’s article about the movie they consider the best of the last decade, Mulholland Drive (so, over a year ago). But even last month, I wrote on this blog how I thought the greatest movie ever made may not be made yet. I like being optimistic; I think it’s a good way to go through life. But the recent news about the movie camera have confirmed my fears. As a means of artistic expression, the movies are going somewhere, and I’m no longer certain I want to go with them.

To be sure, there are other factors, perhaps more important, that may make me choose another career path. Hollywood, taken as a whole, at this moment in time, is a joke — a peddler of gimmickry, rehashes, product placement and noise. That Hollywood movies remain monstrously successful in the face of this fact goes back to my point about doing things just because we can. At the same time, I realize that just about every generation has made this claim about the quality of Hollywood product. There’s always a lot of trash out there, and it’s the test of time that confines trash to the incinerator while plucking out the jewels for Top 100 lists and re-releases. In twenty years we’ll really start to realize just how great the best movies of this century have been so far. I hope we do, anyway. There are no guarantees about how movies will be viewed in the future, or if they will be at all. I don’t like the uncertainty, but it’s always possible that I may turn around and let that uncertainty inspire me.

I’ll close with a little more optimism. Martin Scorsese has a 3D movie coming out next month. I’m gradually becoming more excited about seeing it. There is not a human being alive who loves movies more than this man does. The fact that he’s giving the “latest thing” in movie technology a try makes me think that there may be something to it after all, even though I can’t say I’ve ever particularly enjoyed watching a 3D movie for its 3D-ness. Whether two-dimensional movies go the way of celluloid film may very well be determined by how the greatest filmmakers use 3D technology. I, for one, would irrevocably reject it (and perhaps other things) if Mr. Scorsese were to reflect on the experience and declare 3D to be a worthless visual trick. On the other hand, it’s been said that some of the first movie viewers ducked when it appeared that an oncoming train was going to jump off the screen. Movies at their core are always just visual tricks. It takes an artist to make something valuable out of them. Those artists, God-willing, will always be among us.

Buster Keaton

3 responses to “On the Imminent Death of Film

  1. With the wider accessibility of digital cameras and editing programs, I hope we’ll see a broader spectrum of artistic expression through storytelling. It’s going to be easier for people to make movies. While that certainly will mean we’ll have to sift through an abundance of drivel to get to anything worthwhile, I feel it will give artists an opportunity to perform in a medium that would have been otherwise inaccessible, artists that may have never been discovered. But maybe I’m just being too optimistic. Either way, it is a shame to see something that has been the medium be changed with so little pomp and circumstance.

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