The last picture show: A sequel

Not so long ago, Francis Ford Coppola used to make predictions about the future of cinema. It was going to be “electronic”, he promised. Even while shooting one of his films, he liked to sit in a hi-tech caravan — The Silverfish, he called it — playing with the image, electronically, and saying that very soon people would be able to transmit those images instantaneously. We would have our movies on television, or whatever TV became.

Just the other day, at the Beirut Film Festival, there was Coppola — he is 70 now — saying the whole thing had fallen apart. Movie companies were folding up their business. The audience was no longer as crazy about movies — they had so many other things to do. And the great films of the 70s (think of the first two parts of The Godfather, think of Apocalypse Now) had come down to images so small on the internet that 70-year-olds could hardly see them. There were days when it seemed as if movies might be over.

However sad, this is an old refrain. When sound came along in 1927, there were people who thought the loss of silence and beauty would be crushing. There are stalwarts who refuse to see anything on video, because that image is a betrayal of the full glory of the photo-chemical imprint. Do we believe them? Or must we admit that in the age of digital everyone is looking at electronic imagery and being depressed by it?

The Academy is fearful of losing its huge audience on awards night, so it proposes 10 nominees for Best Picture to bring more mainstream pictures into the contest. But critics are doubtful. They see the trend of Oscars going to brave, independent, small-audience pictures. Hollywood, they argue, has lost the knack of making pictures like Gone with the Wind, Casablanca, Rear Window, The Sound of Music, Chinatown (bring back Roman Polanski, they say) — pictures everyone wanted to see. So movies are winning Best Picture when maybe only 10% of the audience has seen them.

Audiences feel this in their bones. And even people once so desperate to make pictures fear the excitement has gone. If you go back to 1970, it was a giddy time when aspiring filmmakers realised the studio system was breaking down, so perhaps they had a chance. That was realised in the form of films like Easy Rider; after that anyone who had money said give the kids a chance. And the kids — Coppola, Lucas, Spielberg, Bogdanovich, Scorsese — did great things like The Godfather, Star Wars, Jaws, The Last Picture Show and Taxi Driver.

That generation shares Coppola’s dismay in Beirut. They know the future may look more like videogames than movies. Coppola makes his money these days from wine, not pictures, and he may be a little grumpy about having lost touch with the new audience. George Lucas has a net worth of about $5-billion from pictures, yet he seems a sad man who hardly knows what to do next. Meanwhile the educated audience uses the resources of home video to study the classics from The Passion of Joan of Arc to The Lady Eve — and few of those watching those films are likely to be persuaded to go out to see Zombieland, Inglourious Basterds or Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.

The stars, the genres, the craft and the business confidence no longer exist. Yet anyone who has ever seen a movie harks back to a fundamental need: tell me a story I’ve never heard before. Unless — and this is the gravest anxiety of all — we no longer credit the equation between fresh stories and hopes for the world. In 1939, Gone with the Wind was what it was because the audience feared war and hunger. The film flourished because the romance of hope was alive still. If the movies are in retreat, is it because our capacity for hoping has withered? –

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