Macro-Cinema is Dead…

…Long live Microcinema!

I just went to see Selma, which is a really excellent film, about important historical figures, making important decisions and doing important things.

I don’t see many of them, these days, though they’re certainly still out there – also this year we had the one about Stephen Hawking, and the one about the Turing guy breaking codes during War Two. All three of these, strangely enough, are classified in the category of Independent Films – financed by smaller companies, showing in what I believe are still called “Art House” theaters – in addition to a screen here and there among the multiplexes, among the super heroes.

Selma was extremely well done, and should have won, I think, an Oscar for something major – Best Picture, Best Screenplay, Best Director – one of those. Consensus was that it was some combination of racism and sexism that kept Ava DuVernay from even being nominated – I can’t argue with that.

Major contenders for Best Picture, though, turned out to be Boyhood and Birdman – neither of which I’ve seen yet, but both of which, as far as I can tell, are considerably more intimate – in the sense, at least, of an official budget of $16.5 million for Birdman and a mere (!) $2.4 million for Boyhood.

Now, I don’t particularly care about the Oscars – I think I stopped caring right around when The Aviator won Best Picture a decade ago. But I do think that they’re sociologically or anthropologically interesting – far from reflecting something as amorphous as Quality or Artistic Achievement, they reflect what Hollywood thinks about Hollywood. Specifically, the superego of Hollywood – what it thinks its loftiest aspirations should be.

So it’s interesting, to me, that both of the strong contenders are internal, arty, small films – neither of which made much money, in the grand scheme of things, or were seen by a ton of people, at least pre-Oscar nomination.

An industry that is tuned more and more toward manufacturing a mass-market global product, ignores a Historical Film about Important People, in favor of the struggles for personal, professional and familial validation of unnoticed or under-appreciated individuals.

Speaking for myself, I’m aware that I rarely go to movies outside of three or four specific venues in Minneapolis these days: my art/repertory place, my second-run cheap family theater, and my film society/museum. The family-run place is the one that was showing Selma, for three bucks, and it was certainly well-attended the night that I was there. I think lots of people, like me, are willing to wait to see mainstream movies there. Most of the good ones pass through it, some months after their release, so we can be fairly confident that we’ll catch what we want to see, and support a local business rather than a huge corporation. The popcorn is cheaper and better, too.

I know there are always reports of huge opening weekends for the new Iron Man movie and whatnot, but beyond that, I can’t imagine the multiplexes filling up on anything like a regular basis. When I was (briefly) a projectionist in the early 2000’s, we ran the movies starting at 11 AM, even on weekdays, regardless of whether or not there was anyone in the audience at all.

Perhaps the numbers don’t lie – $500 million for this, a billion for that big blockbuster – but I’m sorry, where is it exactly that people are lining up around the corner to see these epic action films again and again? Is it because there are so many more screens, and digital projection is cheaper, that I’m not noticing the groundswell of popular support for these tentpoles?

But perhaps, though they manage to reach more eyeballs and rake in more cash, these big movies simply aren’t important, culturally, anymore. I saw Iron Man 2 (one of the better ones) in Hollywood at the Arclight (a fancy theater where you reserve your seat), on Opening Night a few years ago – the theater was full, the movie was loud, but afterwards, after some polite applause, everyone quietly filed out and got on with their lives.

Maybe big movies just don’t matter anymore. Maybe we’re culturally done telling the stories of Great Men and Women – they still crop up from time to time, to garner an award nomination or two and inspire us for at least as long as it takes to get back to our car in the parking ramp – but maybe cinema, as a popular entertainment form, has somehow fundamentally moved on from that type of form and content, that type of storytelling and character?

We don’t get to decide What Movies Are For. If we’re making movies, we certainly get to decide which projects to pursue, but ultimately it’s not up to any of us who goes to see what. The Academy can drive some traffic to the films that they think reflect what movies Should Be (Man, Family, Reputation, Psychosis!), but the culture of cinema is something else – not exactly organic, but something that emerges from the cultural subconscious on its own, I believe.

And it seems to me that the age of Macro-Cinema is over. It was a particular product of the Industrial 20th Century, when people still wanted to get together by the hundreds or thousands and feel grand emotions together. What’s left is the teen refuge (for young people and adults) – cinema as a place where you don’t have to talk to anyone on a Friday night. And there may always be an introspective, upper-class, arthouse cinema, a place to impress a date, for people with degrees in film studies and trust funds to make, support at festivals, and appreciate together.

People like Steven Spielberg (director of Lincoln) will talk wistfully about the old days, but they’re gone and not coming back. There will always be a place for stories about Great Men and Women, but the cineplex is no longer that place. Culture has moved on.

Wishing for the old days is a luxury for the old-timers like Mr. Spielberg – who still has the clout and cash to make whatever he wants, starring Daniel Day Lewis more likely than not – and if people don’t show up to see it, that’s their problem.

Those of us who are not Mr. Spielberg can still love and appreciate the movies of our youths, made for emotional mass consumption, but as we look to the future we’d be wise not to think too hard about where cinema has been – golden eras gone and done – but to try to imagine how we fit into a microcinematic future.

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