or the lost art of watching cinema
I recently watched a two hour movie over a period of a week, decimating it to the point of watching single frames at any given moment. It didn't help that the movie was not interesting, but still I took it upon myself as a challenge. Such a viewing misery would have been unfathomable a few years ago, when I trained myself to watch four movies a day without losing steam. I find this similar to my book reading habit that fell off the cliff with the advent of the internet and I do not find these behaviours to be an anomaly but a sign of things to come.
We have forgotten how to watch movies. We have forgotten the very act of seeing. It has been normalized now that we always have a screen where we can see something, all the time. This continual engagement demands that we are not bored at any given instant. Along with this came the idea of constant choice where we can customise what we want to watch and when. Scroll through a video to get where we want – the action bits, the money shots and the tugs of aggression and emotion. Social media became more interactive, delivering dramatic sequences that have been keeping us engaged for more than a decade now.
Watching a movie now is a matter of singular occupation for two hours. We are not watching one movie, our choice always has another on backup. The economic cost of streaming the next movie on Netflix, YouTube or your favourite pirate viewing site is next to nothing – unlike watching a movie in a kino, where there's a high entry cost and we are left with only one perspective of choice made by faceless humans. This leaves us with the question, is a trip to the kino worth the 8 euros I am paying for a movie?
With endless choice also comes the problem of endless selection. Gone are the days of a singular recommendation or a collective euphoria over a show. Content has become disposable and goes stale faster than your average news cycle. Netflix's early proposition of endless choice came with its own pitfall – the moment it stops offering its consumers the choice, they will leave the platform. This spin of choice has to be constant or even overwhelming to lull a customer into a state of constant monthly spending. This is in contrast with earlier iterations of film viewing where one had to go to the kino or buy physical copies of films or even pirate them online, which gave access to content one piece at a time. This attached more value for a movie, which results in a more concentrated approached to the act of viewing.
”(1925?) The TALKIE opens its doors to theatre which occupies the place and surrounds it with barbed wire.” – Robert Bresson
I am not complaining that cinema is in some kind of post-capitalistic fugue, it has always been the balm of the industrial masses and it is here to stay. This does not mean that the current form it assumes is immune to criticism, it serves the same function as stress shopping or yoga does after a long day's work. It makes one forget about the immediate reality and gives the right amount of dopamine ping to work for another day and then another. In this respect cinema loses its status as an art-form and becomes a crutch to escape from everyday reality. This crutch is formless and shapeless, except that it has to have a moving image that ticks the right boxes. An extreme form of this manifestation can be seen the status end-titles are given on Netflix: they are an afterthought in the production mill of content. The hundreds of faceless people are stripped off responsibility for the convenience of speed. The byproduct is that most movies on streaming platforms come and go without having any effect on us whatsoever. The yesteryear cinematic spectacle is now transformed into an endless looped GIF to be shared on a social media site of your preference.
This is not saying that cinema is in danger. It is – the pandemic disrupted our very act of collective gathering before an image on the screen. Content is now hyper-individualized, once we get a taste of this it is hard to go back. But I see hopeful signs as kinos around the world open up and new releases slowly make inroads into our colloquial language. The days of the art-house cinephile might be coming to an end as the theatres can only host big-budgeted Hollywood crowd pullers to sustain their revenues. Though I hope a self correcting mechanism will rise organically which helps bring the art of watching back into vogue. Distanced from capital, cinema is one of the truly collective meditative experiences that creates a sense of community without demanding anything in return. Or maybe dream will never manifest and Tik-Tok becomes the fractured reality model we want to consume. Cinema becomes the bastion of a few, sinking in a sea of choice.