How Technology Sapped Cinema and our Souls

{Ed. This month we welcome guest columnist Allie Cooper with some thoughts on cinema.}

During the political turmoil and bleak economy of the 1930s, an estimated 80 million people went to the theaters to watch movies on the big screen. A decade later, the movie-going audience expanded to at least 90 million. Fast forward to present day and only 30 million Americans are left queuing at the box office. For a population that is twice its 1930 size, is it fair to say that the film industry in the United States have turned microscopic, miniscule, and irrelevant?

In a few weeks time, the Academy Awards for Motion Picture will be handing out this year’s laurels. Curiously, the films in contention for 2014’s most heralded movie are mostly made up of adapted, true-to-life narratives. Six out of the nine best picture nominees were marketed as “based on true events.” “Philomena,” a personal favorite, is the biography of a journalist seeking the seemingly impossible ways to get back her son. Others such as “Captain Phillips, and “Nebraska” all attempt to capture the audience with the promise that behind the high-definition screen lies a sliver of humanity. That these stories are the stories of our fellow humans. That these are narratives we should be watching.

But let’s take a step back and see the grander, more ‘real’ scale. The winners at the box office last year were tales of dystopia and revolution (“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”), imaginary heroes (“Iron Man: 3”) and an animated film for children (“Despicable Me: 2”).

There is no questioning the appeal of Hollywood films to the movie-going public. And by Hollywood films, we mean the explosive digital effects splattered all over a digital backdrop, with digital onlookers displaying emotions with questionable authenticity. The criticism lies not in the quality of films (after all, there is no real objectivity to classify a ‘high-quality’ or ‘low-quality’ Hollywood film), but in its genuineness. As modern technology creates artificial answers to real-life problems, is the art of film reflexive of our total human condition? Is modernization making us less human, as shown by the pattern of these successful out-of-this-world movies? Did Hollywood kill ‘real’ cinema, and left it lying only to be eulogized during Awards season?

It has been prophesied in the 1980s when the VCR was launched. A steep decline in theater attendance, brought about by the skyrocketing of the television, made it perfectly clear that each advancement in viewing technology after the VCR’s launch will be one mortal blow against the art form. In the age of iPhones and tablets, the line between television, film screen, and computer monitor has been blurred. “Now in the Millennial Generation, “home video” is no longer an apt description as the on screen experience takes place almost anywhere,” said Verizon’s Cameka Crawford.

The connection between technology’s rampancy over society and the reigning escapist Hollywood cliché is present. In a sense, the success of these types of films reflects exactly the society America has become. Art imitates life. The general public is not interested in stories that are mirrors of daily lives. Films like “Little Miss Sunshine”, “Blue is the Warmest Color”, and “The Breakfast Club” will never raise $200 billion in less than a week.

If we are to guess logically, the graph will suggest that cinema will be dead along with the release of another iDevice, probably in the near future. Does that mean that only a handful would have remained loyal to the silver screen? Or does it mean that “Iron Man 6” or “The Avengers 4” will be the Oscar Nominees for the year 2020? To quote Gollum from the 1978 version of Lord of the Rings – “We shall see, oh yes… we shall see.”

Allie Cooper is a cinephile and tech writer. Her passions involve endless hours of debating about movies, video games, art, and other geek fodder. She currently resides in Minnesota, where she constantly daydreams of one day working as a French cinema sweeper. Talk to her on Twitter.

One thought on “How Technology Sapped Cinema and our Souls”

  1. Does a love of cinema have to be reflected at the box office? I realize that the film companies probably get the bulk of their return that way, so box office success is important. But what about independent films that – by their nature – simply wont get wide distribution?

    Example: I now watch most films on Netflix streaming or on DVD. I ONLY go to the theatre for the big special effects movies because that is where the money is best spent to get the full effect. Iron Man is a good example, as is LOTR and The Hobbit. I want to have the full surround sound experience too, which I can’t get at home. I don’t go in for 3D very much (I find it annoying) but I’ve noticed that over the last 10 years or so films are pretty much geared toward that big visual/audio experience, and yes, sometimes the story/material suffers. One only needs to look at Phantom Menace.

    But I watch a TON of foreign movies and yes, stuff like Little Miss Sunshine. There are too many movies in my cue right now, and I definitely couldn’t catch them at a cinema, even if they were made available.

    I don’t know the current stats on streaming subscriptions, number of movies watched, etc. I agree that digital film making has changed the medium, and changed what is popular. No doubt. And perhaps that is the main argument here. We’ve become desensitized, and unless there’s a bunch of shit blowing up with lasers and monsters from an alternate universe, we’re (very often) not interested. Even TV has gone this route, as evidenced by shows like Fringe and Orphan Black (two of the better examples in my opinion). Then again, if movies are to serve an escapist purpose, perhaps that’s just fine.

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