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The Death of Cinema

Cinema box-office receipts in Britain fell more than five per cent in 2014, apparently hitting their lowest point since such records were kept.  I suspect that similar statistics were produced in America.

Why is anyone surprised?

Most of the films available during the year, at least from the list I saw, were remakes, sequels or comic-book fantasies – the latter often featuring vampires and mutants – or dark dystopian epics about alien invasions or the end of civilization brought about by other horrific causes. 

The cinema chain owners complained of a shortage of ‘blockbusters’.  But what are most of these so-called blockbusters but needlessly expensive, hyper-inflated, mindless trash, populated in the main by needlessly expensive, hyper-inflated, mindless stars, many of whom have seen better days, if not better films?

A-list stars like Cruise, Roberts, Bullock and Pitt (they sound like a white-shoe Hollywood law firm) now demand, I’m told, upwards of $20 million a picture, and perhaps a share of the proceeds.  No wonder Hollywood studios call on their services less and less frequently.  Now, if the studios paid script writers even half that amount they might find themselves with something more intelligent to distribute.  That is not going to happen.  Scripts are now almost irrelevant.

Anyway, what is the point of going to a cinema today? 

Regardless of what is playing, traipsing down to the cinema on a dark, dank evening and paying to share the company of constantly-muttering, popcorn-munching ingrates sounds especially pointless when there’s the option of staying home and watching superior, or at worst no less inferior material from a comfortable armchair. 

Television these days anyway offers an impressive range of quality programmes, produced on a cinematic scale, and with all the artistic merit and, yes, technological wizardry, once exclusively associated with films.  I’m thinking of – to cite just a few recent and very diverse examples, from both American and European sources – of series such as Game of Thrones, House of Cards, Broadchurch, Borgen and The Legacy.

I’ve been to our local cinema, in case you’re wondering, just once in the past twelve months, maybe longer.  What I saw, if memory serves, was The Wolf of Wall Street, Martin Scorsese’s silly over-the-top ‘expose’ of an over-the-top crooked Wall Street investment banker.  I found it moderately entertaining for an hour, but then endured rather than enjoyed another two pointless hours of bum-numbing repetition.  It’s currently playing almost nightly on television, and loses nothing in the transition from big to small screen – even my minuscule, old-fashioned 17” model – and gains much from affording me the opportunity to hit the pause button to stretch my legs and put the kettle on.  Or select from a library of a thousand alternatives.

The distribution companies should recognise – and secretly do, I’ll wager – that cinema is all but dead.  In medical terms, the patient is still breathing, and there’s a pulse of sorts, but otherwise there are no signs of life.  ‘Going to the pictures’ is no longer the ‘escape’ from the harsh realities of life that it was a few decades ago, not even with the advent of miraculous special effects and computer-generated images.  Cinema-going has become one among countless leisure-time alternatives from which to choose, and most people are choosing something else.  Who can blame them?  Who wants to ‘escape’ by watching the end of the world?  

How many more indistinguishable and gratuitously violent fantasias enacted by the ageing and surgically enhanced Willis or Stallone or Schwarzenegger can even their most ardent afficionados sit through without recognising the potential for severe brain damage?  The answer, in some cases, is any number of them, but then we’re talking about people who were probably intellectually impaired to begin with.      

The forthcoming Oscar awards ceremony, that tired and increasingly tiresome annual display of hubris and self-congratulation, will no doubt reflect the reality of their industry’s decline.  I’ve read that the Academy is hard-pressed this year to find enough candidates to honour.  Hollywood will manage the task, of course, but the preferable course surely is to allow Oscar to expire gracefully, preserving whatever remains of his dignity for nostalgic posterity.

Call me old-fashioned, but films used to be better: more modest in scale, better written and for the most part better acted – and above all more thoughtfully directed (though who cares about the director?  Most audiences trudging out of the theatre have no more idea who the director was than who manufactured the popcorn.). 

There will be exceptions to the rule, of course, but the golden era of cinema, the one that ignited our sense of wonder, has long passed, never to return.  That’s not so much a lament as an observation.      

I hope to stand corrected, but with not the slightest expectation that I will be.

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