Cinema in a Post-COVID World: Or Why We Might Not Need More New Movies After All

‘Cinema Paradiso’ (1988) dir. Giuseppe Tornatore

When I first started my blog, I was in a sullen state. Shelter in place restrictions hit New York City the hardest, and in March 2020, when movie theaters shut down, a cabin fever creeped into my soul. It seemed like I was afflicted with one COVID-inflicted anxiety attack after another.

To pass the time, I baked banana bread. I watched The Great British Bake Off. I caught up with some friends over Zoom, an awkward attempt to stay social in a climate that stifled all human connectivity.

None of my efforts were enough, so I started this blog with the basic premise that it would provide me with something productive to do. I hated the habits I was developing in quarantine. Being a homebody was new to me, and I was convinced I wasn’t doing it right. Can someone really spend hours at a time watching television? I sensed not.

I made strict rules. I allowed myself to watch films, solely on the condition that I’d write about each one. I figured this would at least enable me to create a structure around this new unhealthy consumption.

It was a worthy experiment, but in retrospect, it didn’t exactly work. I couldn’t pay attention to any of the films I watched. I’d start and stop a film after fifteen minutes, scroll through Instagram on my phone, and then start and stop another film.

It took me a while to realize that for too long, I’ve relied on movie theaters to focus on films, and often treated my television at home like an appliance running in the background, never earning my undivided attention.

As movie theaters remain closed in New York City, the future of cinema hangs in the balance, along with a cinephilia culture. It’s not that good films aren’t being made, but if there isn’t a sense of urgency to see them, or a collective enthusiasm around their release, it’s hard to make the case for cinema’s continued relevance. Without a shared space to watch, we’ll all be streaming in our isolated silos — the exact opposite viewing experience cinema calls for.

What can we do? Recently, my friends and I started a film club, and once a week we get together to watch a work by one of the greats. We’ve already discovered deep cuts by Godard and Bergman, marveled at W.R. Mysteries of the Organism (1971), and jumped for joy over the Japanese cult classic House (1977).

For the first time since movie theaters shut down, I have a newfound enthusiasm for cinema. I think, more than anything, this has to do with our recreation of the collective viewing experience. A film club in a Brooklyn apartment is not quite the same as going to the movie theater, but it beats streaming by yourself before bed. When you’re with a group of people, wherever you are, you’re less likely to check your phone or stop the film during the slow parts.

At the end of my first blog article, “The Moviegoing of my Dreams,” I asked: What will become of movies without moviegoing?

I used to care a lot about this question, but ever since my friends and I started a film club, I’m less concerned.

What if, instead of trying to fight for the future of cinema, we let it go? Would it be so bad? Not if, as Martin Scorsese recently called for in his ode to Fellini, we use this as an opportunity to return to the maestros of the past.

As it stands, there are too many films for one person to watch in a lifetime, and contemporary filmmakers, as talented as they are, will never surpass those who came before. Films today, while enjoyable, rarely break new ground. Each new film, no matter how many Academy Awards it wins, no matter how many Top 10 lists it appears on, borrows from a better film already made. After a little more than 100 years of existence, cinema has achieved all that it could.

This wasn’t always the case. There was a time during cinema’s peak in the 1960s when filmmakers like Godard, Truffaut, Varda, Bergman, Antonioni, and Fellini were redefining cinema in real time and creating original works. As Scorsese writes, “In essence, these artists were constantly grappling with the question ‘What is cinema?’ and then throwing it back for the next film to answer.”

Of course, Godard was influenced by Hollywood heavyweights like Howard Hawks, but Breathless (1960), for all its intertextual references, introduced a new cinematic language. Bergman’s Persona (1966), as Paul Schrader puts it on one of the Criterion Channel supplements, proved that La Nouvelle Vague wasn’t a passing fad. Persona pushed avant-garde expression to the next level.

These innovative films cemented cinema’s status as the 20th century’s most significant art form and inspired future generations. Most notably, New Hollywood filmmakers of the 1970s like Schrader and Scorsese, who brought much-needed artistic credibility to the American film industry.

But at some point, the creative period of New Hollywood passed. The success of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) and George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977) gave rise to the franchise film, the failure of Heaven’s Gate (1980) relegated auteur cinema back to the margins, and many of the “What is cinema” debates since then have been less about the films themselves and more about industry-focused issues of exhibition and distribution. Is Steve McQueen’s Small Axe, a collection of shorts streaming on Amazon Prime, cinema or television? Without movie theaters, will cinema survive?

Such questions are asked, I think, because there’s less to say about film form. Even some of today’s best filmmakers like Tarantino aren’t exactly reinventing the wheel, and more recent film movements, from Dogme 95 to the so-called Romanian New Wave, closely resemble other movements that preceded them. These contemporary filmmakers are talented, but their films aren’t fresh.

And that’s okay. Literature, painting, and music had their best days decades ago, but people still read, go to museums, and listen to Spotify to discover the classics of yore. Sure — artists continue to create within these forms today, but the canon has long been established, and it’s extremely difficult for new works to enter. There’s a difference, after all, between good and first, entertaining and innovative.

Rather than subscribe to ten different streaming services to consume the latest copycat films, we should all take a step back and consider, just for a second, whether “keeping up” is worth our time, whether today’s filmmakers have a different perspective to offer us.

They don’t. There’s just this for consolation: So many masterpieces from long ago waiting to be cherished. You may think you’ve seen them all, but you haven’t, and even if you have, they’re so full of wonder, you can’t possibly take them all in with one viewing.

If, like me, you miss movie theaters, don’t fret. Before you stream the latest Netflix drivel (Yes, I’m talking about the dreadful Malcolm & Marie) to pass the time, try the alternative approach. Start a film club with a few friends and explore the history. Designate a time to convene, as you would when you go to the theater, and take it seriously. Wear a mask and keep your distance if you must. Turn your phone off and pay attention. When the film ends, talk about it for a while. Then go home and find something else to do. Only then will you understand that Scorsese is correct. Cinema is not content to be complacently streamed by yourself, but a sacred experience to be savored and shared with others.

Even without a future of new releases, even without movie theaters, cinema can still be our richest art form. It’s up to us to appreciate it.

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