In Slate’s annual Movie Club, film critic Dana Stevens emails with fellow critics—this year, K. Austin Collins, Amy Nicholson, and Bilge Ebiri—about the year in cinema. Read the first entry here.
[bursts through wall like the Kool-Aid Man]
Did someone say changing exhibition paradigm?
Like most film critics I spend a lot of time thinking about how moviegoing has changed and what its future is. For a brief, shining moment, it seemed like everything was working out for the best: We had MoviePass for new movies and repertory cinema, FilmStruck for classics and art-house—an entire universe at our disposal for the monthly cost of a fancy cocktail. By the end of the year, they were both effectively shut down, FilmStruck shuttered by its new parent company’s lack of interest in anything remotely “niche,” MoviePass rendered virtually unusable by its plummeting capitalization. (It turns out setting money on fire is not a viable long-term business strategy!)
The rise of Kanopy—where, for the first time, the (near-)complete works of America’s greatest filmmaker, Frederick Wiseman, were finally made accessible to the general public—was a ray of hope. But there’s still too much that’s never even made it into the digital realm: The obituaries for Bernardo Bertolucci made little mention of The Spider’s Strategem, which might be recognized as one of his greatest films had it been available outside the VHS era. (Bilge’s, naturally, was an exception.) And as much as I’m looking forward to Criterion’s February release of Charles Burnett’s To Sleep With Anger, it’s maddening that his masterpiece has been largely out of sight for an entire generation.
Like all of you, I’ve had many of my most memorable movie experiences in less-than-pristine circumstances; so much of my cinematic education happened in standard definition on a 13-inch tube screen that it would be beyond hypocritical to fly into a tizzy over the youngs ingesting classics on their phones. But there are moments that only happen in theaters, and they remain worth seeking out, regardless of the inconvenience. Cinephiles like to invoke the idea of movie theaters as church, but it doesn’t have to be as stringent and austere as the clapboard crucible of First Reformed.
As I waited for the world premiere of the Aretha Franklin concert documentary Amazing Grace, another decades-delayed project that finally saw the light of day in 2018, the woman next to me apologized in advance: “I grew up with the album,” she told me, “I’m probably going to sing along.” Given that the album that resulted from the session, recorded live at Los Angeles’ New Temple Missionary Baptist Church, was the biggest seller of Franklin’s career, my seatmate wasn’t the only one. It’s one thing—one astonishing, mind-bending, soul-lifting thing—to hear Franklin’s 11-minute version of “Amazing Grace” on the album; another thing to watch her congregation dissolve in tears of rapture and joy; and yet another thing entirely to realize those same tears have streaked every face in your row, 46 years later.
Watching that movie in a theater packed full of people who’d been waiting a lifetime for it was less like observing something that once happened than like feeling it happen again. Digital access makes it seem like everything is available all the time, but that can sap movies of their urgency. Our lengthening to-watch queues become like piles of unread New Yorkers, a monument to intentions unrealized. (As Kam points out, you can watch The Tale any time you want. Have you?) The future of movies might be screening them not more often but less, rarely enough that each showing feels like an event. If hawking the movie theater as a sacred space doesn’t do the trick, maybe FOMO will.