I am taking a break from the movies—just for a paragraph or two. It seems the thing to do, given that the images now on screen are so inadequate to what I’ve been seeing in the news. If I am to write about a show-business product that even halfway evokes the globe’s current meltdowns, then the only real choice lies outside the movies, in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.
From this entertainment, I learn that we are stuck, all of us, inside an injurious debacle that no one will shut down; a debacle that has gained in awful fascination, and assumed power to drag on indefinitely, precisely because of being injurious. We see in Spider-Man the blind overreliance of the world’s elites on dubious technologies; the determination of the investing class to press on, no matter how many people get hurt; the profound complicity in the disaster of the Commentariat (always so censorious, yet always quick to remind us that profit justifies all); and from the suckers in the seats, a self-confounding horror over the destruction they’re buying, combined with a readiness to pay for more. We even see the psychological dodge, standard in politics and entertainment alike, that permits us to endure, and endure, and endure. Consensus settles on Julie Taymor as the bearer of the evil, Taymor as the figure who must be sent to Azazel. A supposed genius-leader who previously was heroized out of all proportion, she is now made an object of derision by people who (for all her shortcomings) can’t claim a tenth of her achievements.
“Oh!” as Elizabeth Bennet cried, sick unto death. “I am excessively diverted.”
So excessively, in fact, that I feel the need to think again—to consider whether it might be a good thing that film has stopped being central to American life.
By film, of course, I mean movies, projected in public spaces large enough to accommodate a crowd. Audiovisual materials exist everywhere at once today—they’re as common as air, and are consumed about as thoughtfully—but movies have lapsed into a semi-historical, niche-market status, like Broadway musicals, easel paintings and the books peddled under the dismal name “literary fiction.” When a production in one of these categories rises to true significance nowadays, it’s almost always by accident (as is literally the case with Spider-Man, the Fukushima Daiichi of Broadway shows). But habits of thought die hard. Those of us who maintain a loyalty to fuddy-duddy art forms go on hoping that they will make an occasional demonstration of serious intent—not necessarily a big statement (that would really be old-fashioned) but a gesture of engagement with the larger world, as if they could still make a difference.
The title of a new book by Dave Kehr, at present the film historian for the New York Times (under the guise of being its DVD reviewer), would be enough to prompt these reflections: When Movies Mattered: Reviews from a Transformative Decade (Chicago; $22.50). In his aesthetics, Kehr is far from being a big-statement guy, as the items in this collection show. (They’re a selection of the long-form reviews he wrote for the Chicago Reader some thirty years ago.) But as a thinker with a retrospective turn of mind, Kehr is keenly aware that the business of making and exhibiting movies was changing radically during his first years at the Reader, in the mid-1970s, and that the business of publishing ideas about movies (and so encouraging conversation among a general audience) began to undergo its own drastic change within a few years of his leaving that paper a decade later. He accordingly introduces When Movies Mattered as though it were a chronicle left by a vanished civilization—which may only slightly exaggerate the situation. Running through these remarkable critical essays, in murmurs and asides that went half-noticed at the time, are uneasy observations about the course movie culture was then taking. It was a period, Kehr writes, “of tumult and possibility.” A gentlemanly phrase, it casts a discreet silence over his opinion of how those possibilities turned out.