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Sound The Death Knell (Again): A Brief History Of The Death Of Cinema

Photo of Oliver Lyttelton By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com October 2, 2012 at 12:00PM

In case you hadn't heard, movies are a dead, or at least dying, artform. In the last few weeks, three high-profile critics -- David Denby and David Thomson in the New Republic, and Andrew O'Hehir at Salon -- have all taken the pulse of cinema, and called a time of death. All acknowledge that good films are still being made. But all agree, for the most part, that mainstream cinema has never been in worse health, blaming everything from special effects-packed blockbusters, to television, to things just being better in the old days, for its problems. Some are more hopeful than others, but all are deeply pessimistic about the form.
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Fin De Cinema

In case you hadn't heard, movies are a dead, or at least dying, artform. In the last few weeks, three high-profile critics -- David Denby and David Thomson in the New Republic, and Andrew O'Hehir at Salon -- have all taken the pulse of cinema, and called a time of death. All acknowledge that good films are still being made. But all agree, for the most part, that mainstream cinema has never been in worse health, blaming everything from special effects-packed blockbusters, to television, to things just being better in the old days, for its problems. Some are more hopeful than others, but all are deeply pessimistic about the form.

You might agree, you might disagree, but all make important, vital points that are worth reading. They are, it should be said, not the first to read film its last rites. We're sure a sniffy think piece turned up in Pravda back in the day about how "Battleship Potemkin" marked the death of cinema, and similar sentiments have been echoed over the past half-century or so by writers, critics and filmmakers all over the world. We won't know whether Denby, Thomson and O'Hehir are any more correct than their predecessors, but to give some idea, you can find below a potted (and necessarily incomplete) history of some of those who've claimed that cinema was in the process of expiring.  

1940s: Romanian artist/filmmaker Isidore Isou, founder of the Lettrism movement, wrote in his principles of the movement "I believe firstly that the cinema is too rich. It is obese. It has reached its limits, its maximum. With the first movement of widening which it will outline, the cinema will burst! Under the blow of a congestion, this greased pig will tear into a thousand pieces. I announce the destruction of the cinema, the first apocalyptic sign of disjunction, of rupture, of this corpulent and bloated organization which calls itself film." That was in the 1940s. In the 1950s, he premiered his film "Treatise On Slime and Eternity" at the Cannes Film Festival; a four-and-a-half hour selection of "discordant" images.

1951: Screenwriter Ben Hecht reports a conversation with legendary producer David O. Selznick, who says: "Hollywood's like Egypt. Full of crumbled pyramids. It’ll never come back. It’ll just keep on crumbling until finally the wind blows the last studio prop across the sands. There might have been good movies if there had been no movie industry. Hollywood might have become the center of a new human expression if it hadn’t been grabbed by a little group of bookkeepers and turned into a junk industry.”

1952: Guy Debord ( a colleague of Isou) premieres "Hurlements en faveur de Sade," in which he says, over a blank screen, "There's no film. Cinema is dead. There can't be film anymore. If you want, let's have a discussion."

1957: Francois Truffaut writes in Cahiers du Cinema that French cinema is dying "from its false legends." The piece, and other scathing reviews, earns him the nickname "The gravedigger of French cinema," and a ban from the next year's Cannes Film Festival.

1960: The New American Cinema Group Manifesto states: "The Official cinema of the world has run out of breath. It is morally corrupt, aesthetically obsolete, thematically superficial, and temperamentally boring."

1962: the Oberhausen Group -- a collection of German filmmakers including Alexander Kluge and Edgar Reitz, signs a manifesto for a new German feature film at the International Short Film Festival in Oberhausen. The group later adopt the motto "Papas Kino ist tot" or "Papa's Cinema is dead."

October 1962: "Dr. No," the first James Bond film, is released. Seventeen years later, Francois Truffaut tells Sight & Sound that he believed it was "the film that marks the beginning of the period of decadence in the cinema... Until then the role of the cinema has been by and large to tell a story in the hope the audience would believe it... For the first time throughout the world mass audiences were exposed to what amounts as a degradation of the art of cinema, a type of cinema which relates neither to life nor the romantic tradition but only to other films and always by sending them up." (Aki Kaurismaki seems to concur, famously saying "Cinema is dead. It died in 1962, I think it was in October!")

1963: Roberto Rossellini calls a press conference and announces "Il cinema e morto." He spends most of the rest of his career making TV dramas about historical subjects.

1967: French writer, filmmaker and critic Roger Boussinot writes "Le Cinéma Est Mort, Vive le Cinéma!," which predicts the democratization of filmmaking tools, while saying that "people will no longer buy tickets at the box office of movie theaters."

1968: Jean-Luc Godard's "Weekend" ends with the title "Fin... du cinema." In Peter Bogdanovich's "Targets" in the same year, one character laments "all the good films have been made."

1975: Steven Spielberg's "Jaws" follows in the footsteps of "The Godfather" to become the first summer blockbuster, and at that time, the most successful movie in history, unseated by "Star Wars" two years later. Some pin the push towards wide releases and mass-market product as the beginning of the end. Producer Michael Phillips tells Peter Biskind in "Easy Riders Raging Bulls": "When the economics started to drive film distribution in the direction of thousand-to-two-thousand-print releases and big national buys of media and launch costs of ten, thirteen million dollars, the stakes were so high that each decision was fraught with sheer terror. Instead of a seat-of-the-pants process, people were graspiing for a rational framework to make decisions, and the only rational process available was precedent and analogy. So the mentality of the sequel or the look-alike emerged in the '80s. 'Jaws in Outer Space.' Movies were designed to be sequelized."

1986: Aki Kaurismaki says in an interview, "American cinema is dead, the European one is dying - and I am not feeling particularly well either!" Aki Kaurismaki premiered his latest film, "Le Havre,' at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.

1991: Two years after the massive success of Tim Burton's "Batman," Mark Crispin Miller describes the film as a "cog, or chip, within a mammoth image-generating system that includes TV production companies and syndications firms, cable distribution networks, record companies, theme parks... as well as publishing companies, major magazines and many newspapers."

1996: The Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art hold an exhibition named "Hall Of Mirrors: Art And Film Since 1945," which aims to ask "what is - or was - the cinema?"

2002: Peter Greenaway, director of "The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover," among others, tells The Times:"Cinema is dead. In the early 1950s and 1960s the whole family would go to the cinema every week of the year. Now you're hard-pressed to find someone who goes once a year."

2005: Nearly 40 years after "Weekend," Jean-Luc Godard tells The Guardian: "Cinema's over. There was a time maybe when it could have improved society, but that time was missed."

2006: In trying to define a film canon in Film Comment magazine, Paul Schrader declares that cinema is "a broken down horse," and a relic of the 20th century.

2007: Peter Greenaway, rapidly becoming the equivalent of one of those doomsday cults that keep saying they've got their calculations wrong when the world fails to end, tells the Pusan Film Festival in Korea: "Cinema is brain dead. Cinema's death date was 31 September 1983, when the remote-control zapper was introducted to the living room... Scorsese is old-fashioned and is making the same films that DW Griffith was making early last century."

2008: Variety editor-in-chief Peter Bart calls time of death on American independent cinema, saying that, "There are more indie movies being made but, for some reason, they don't reflect the passion and artistic clout of films of the '60s or '70s."

2010: Peter Greenaway gives the lecture "New Possibilities: Cinema Is Dead, Long Live Cinema" at Berkeley.

2011 - Mark Harris writes a comprehensive article in GQ called "The Day The Movies Died," pinning problems with the medium on Hollywood placing marketing before product, shortening windows for home entertainment, and in particular the rise of quality TV cable drama. Producer Scott Rudin tells him, "There's one place to work where you can get respectfully treated and fairly judged. It's HBO."

Friday August 3, 2012: Len Wiseman's "Total Recall" is released. 

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