The movies are back. But what are movies now?
By A.O. Scott
Have you seen “F9”? How about “A Quiet Place Part II”? “Black Widow”? “Zola”?
What I’m asking is whether you’ve gone back to a movie theater yet. In the past month or so, as pandemic restrictions have eased and multiplexes and art houses have edged toward full capacity, a handful of releases have done well enough at the box office to feed hopes of a return to pre-COVID normalcy. Vin Diesel, the “Fast and Furious” patriarch, declared that “cinema is back!” and who wants beef with Vin Diesel?
Certainly not the critics — I was one of them — who greeted the almost 150 minutes of extravagant action, baroque plotting and high-octane sentimentalism of “F9” with gentle sighs of gratitude. Let’s be honest: In ordinary times, the bloat and incoherence of this late installment in a weathered franchise might have elicited a measure of skepticism, if not outright scorn. But after more than a year of subsisting on screening links, we found the critical zones of our cerebral cortices flooded with fan endorphins. Maybe the fans felt the same way. Whether or not this was a good movie, it undoubtedly offered a good time at the movies, and as such a reminder of what we had been missing and what we really cared about.
The same might be said for the “Quiet Place” sequel, a serviceable horror film that helped fans recover the specific pleasure of being scared in the company of strangers. “Black Widow,” simultaneously released in theaters and on Disney+, provided a superhero fix.
You can find similar experiences — and better movies — on Netflix, Amazon or Apple+. But there’s a special way that things can be sexy, scary, funny and exciting on the big screen, and a particular delight in buying a ticket and sitting through a whole movie, without the option of pausing, skipping ahead or returning to the main menu. You risk disappointment, but even boredom or disgust can be fun, especially if you have company for your misery. And there is always the potential for surprise.
All of which is just to say the pandemic-accelerated fear that streaming would kill moviegoing has been proven wrong. People like to leave the house. Which doesn’t mean the status quo has been restored. Not that everything was great beforehand. Franchised blockbusters sucking up the theatrical oxygen as smaller, more idiosyncratic films fought over a dwindling share of the market; daring movies from festivals buried in Netflix algorithms or marooned in the video-on-demand hinterlands; a shrinking cultural footprint for art in an expanding universe of content: Is that the normal we want?
What’s so special about movies anyway?
The confusion and ambivalence that preceded the pandemic have intensified to the extent that an innocent question about whether you saw “F9” in a theater can be taken as a culture-war trigger. What is, for most people, a matter of local, individual choice — should we stay home and watch this, or go out and see that? — is often treated, at least by journalists who cover media and technology, as a matter of ideological commitment and zero-sum economics.
A dogmatic, winner-take-all techno-determinism, which sees streaming as the inevitable and perhaps welcome death of an old-fashioned, inefficient activity, is answered by an equally dogmatic sentimentality about the aesthetic and moral superiority of traditional moviegoing. My own sympathies may lie with the cinephile camp, but I can’t help but hear the wishful thinking in the more strident expressions of cinema supremacism, an attachment to the past that is as historical as the bold prophecies of a digital future.
I’m old enough to remember when most movies were hard, and in many cases impossible, to see. Some places had local repertory houses or campus film societies, but otherwise your best chance to catch something old or weird was on a local UHF station during off-hours. Obsessive interest in movies was best fed by digging up old reviews and Mad magazine satires.
What changed all that was a home-viewing revolution that began with video stores and cable channels like Turner Classic Movies and the old Bravo (which used to show a lot of foreign-language films, believe it or not). The sheer variety of movies now available for purchase or rental or via streaming subscriptions is a source of astonishment to an old-timer like me, even as it’s taken for granted by my children, students and younger colleagues.
That in itself might be a problem. When everything is accessible — and I know it’s not literally everything, and not equally accessible to everyone — then nothing is special. Movies exist in the digital ether alongside myriad other forms of amusement and distraction, deprived of a sense of occasion. Publications like this one may issue warnings about titles that are about to leave a given platform, or print ranked lists and anniversary oral histories, but most of the archive at our fingertips is fated to remain unexplored.
Still, the archive is there, growing every month, at least for as long as the companies that hold the rights to the movies find a way to monetize them. But those movies occupy a tiny corner of the vast algorithmic universe.
I fear that movies are becoming less special and more specialized. The big IP-driven studio movies grow less interesting as a matter of policy, while the smaller releases cater to the interests of splintered, self-selected communities of taste. Global blockbusters, engineered to appeal to the widest possible mass audience, are conversation-stoppers by definition, offering vague themes and superficially complex plots rather than food for thought. The franchises are in the business of fan recruitment and brand extension. And the logic of fan culture — the strenuous defense of favorites, the shaming and shunning of haters, the ascendancy of feeling over argument — extends into the most esoteric reaches of online cinephilia.
Meanwhile, the broad middle ground that defined popular cinema’s glory and potential — the pop-cultural amusements that are worth taking seriously, the things everyone at work or online seems to be talking about — continues its migration to television. If that’s the right word.
What is cinema, and if you know what cinema is, what is television?
That heading is a paraphrase of something Gertrude Stein said about the difference between poetry and prose. As in Stein’s original question, the answer is at once intuitively obvious and theoretically confounding. For every easy distinction — between the theater and the home screen; between stand-alone stories and serial narratives; between a director’s medium and one dominated by writers; between an art form and a piece of furniture — there is a ready rebuttal. Three words may be enough to throw the matter into permanent confusion: Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Disney, which owns Marvel (and Pixar, “Star Wars” and ESPN as well as theme parks and cruise ships), draws on unmatched reservoirs of money, labor and talent to sustain its position as the world’s dominant entertainment brand. This year we have already seen three Marvel series (“WandaVision,” “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” and “Loki”) as well as “Black Widow,” with “Eternals” set for theaters in November.
One reason streaming services and movie theaters are going to coexist for a long time is that the same companies hope to derive profit from both. In its first weekend, “Black Widow” earned $80 million at the domestic box office, and $60 million more in premium charges from Disney+ subscribers. Though it doesn’t charge a premium, Warner Bros. seems to harbor similar ambitions for the science-fiction epic “Dune,” which will debut in theaters and on HBO Max in the fall.
Recent headlines provide fresh evidence that, at the corporate level, the boundaries between film, television and the internet are not so much blurry as obsolete: Disney swallowing Fox; Warner Bros. and its corporate sibling HBO Max being unloaded by AT&T onto Discovery; Netflix, Apple and Amazon scoping out old studio real estate in Los Angeles; Amazon acquiring MGM. Tech companies are movie studios. Movie studios are TV networks. Television is the internet.
At the level of creative endeavor and popular reception, the old borders have been porous for a while. At its best, the mobility of talent has made routine a flexibility that used to be rare. Novels that once might have been squeezed into two hours or tamed for network or public television — “Normal People,” “The Queen’s Gambit,” “The Plot Against America” — can find a more organic, episodic scope. Filmmakers like Barry Jenkins (“The Underground Railroad”) and Luca Guadagnino (“We Are Who We Are”) can test their skills in extended, intricate narrative forms. Actors, especially women and people of color, can escape from the narrow typecasting that is among Hollywood’s most enduring and exasperating traditions.
Because what we used to call television is quickly becoming synonymous with streaming, a subscription-based medium, the old ways of measuring success — through ratings and box-office revenue — no longer apply. (Or at least are rarely publicly available.) This gives a measure of freedom to showrunners and filmmakers whose work takes up permanent residence in a library available to anyone who pays the monthly fee.
Maybe this is not really about movies.
Attention — yours, mine, the aggregation of all the human eyes, ears and brains on the planet — is a valuable and abundant commodity, renewable if not exactly infinite. Every artist, writer, movie studio, legacy media outlet, social media platform, television network and streaming service is competing for a share of it. This has always been true to some degree, but the intensity of the competition and the global reach of the market it has spawned are new.
For most of human history, life has been heavy with tedium and toil. Leisure was scarce, precious and unevenly distributed. When art was not a rarefied product, it was homemade and near to hand.
Today, an international economy exists to fill our time with images, stories and other diversions. The byproducts of this economy — fan culture, celebrity news, secondary media that help with the work of sorting, ranking, interpreting and appreciating — occupy the same virtual space as the primary artifacts, and so both complement and compete with them. You can watch the show, read the recap, listen to the podcast and post your own responses, using whatever screens and keyboards are at your disposal.
The question isn’t whether the movies will survive, as a pastime, a destination and an imaginative resource. It’s whether the kind of freedom that “going to the movies” has represented in the past can be preserved in a technological environment that offers endless entertainment at the price of submission; whether active, critical curiosity can be sustained in the face of corporate domination; whether artists and audiences can resequence the democratic DNA of a medium whose authoritarian potential has never been more seductive. Not whether we go to back to the movies, but how we take the movies back.