Sunday, July 14, 2024
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The sad decline of the cinema

Readers of a certain age may well associate this time of year with seeking shelter from the mercilessly blazing sun in the dark recesses of the local movie theatre.

While the range of what was on offer way back then was more varied than today’s largely monocultural movie marketplace, what was actually screening was often beside the point – this writer, for example, recalls taking his younger sister to a Queen St showing of ‘Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure’, an early ’80s ‘Star Wars’ spinoff with a 97 minute running time that seemed interminable – because as often as not it was the air conditioning that was the main attraction.

A little less than 40 years later, the air con is much improved but that kind of smallish-budget kids’ movie [let alone mid-budget adult fare] is seldom made anymore and certainly wouldn’t get a theatrical release, thanks to the rise and rise of the summer blockbusters that were ushered in during the ’70s by Steven Spielberg’s ‘Jaws’ and the first film from George Lucas that was set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

These days, the vast majority of cinema screens are dominated by the umpteenth instalment of effects-driven franchises featuring one-dimensional characters whose superpowers include the spectacular way they fill out their skintight one-piece suits. [Although, that said, some operators – like Masterton’s Regent 3 and Screening Room – continue to make an effort to offset the massive tentpole event pictures with examples of increasingly rare, human-scale work, and thank goodness for that].

Anyway, what’s prompted this somewhat nostalgic reverie is that tomorrow marks the 128th anniversary of the first public screening of Auguste and Louis Lumière’s Cinématographe, a device that could record, develop, and project motion pictures – in other words, the world’s first viable film camera.

Over the next decade, the Lumière brothers pioneered the first documentaries and newsreels, opened Cinématographe theatres in London, Brussels, Belgium, and New York, and began dispatching other cameramen-projectionists around the globe to record scenes of life and showcase their invention.

Although the brothers had exited the moviemaking business by 1905 to focus on developing the first practical photographic colour process, their pioneering motion picture camera had already lent itself to an exciting new form of entertainment that would come to be widely regarded as the art form of the 20th century: cinema.

Alas, there’s much to suggest that a quarter of the way through the 21st, cinema’s best days are well and truly behind it. Whereas the form – even within the Hollywood studio system – used to exist in a state of creative tension between art and commerce, there’s no question that the economics of the industry has now triumphed.

As recently noted by US journalist and editor David Samuels, that’s largely down to streaming services having “eaten old-fashioned movie studios and production companies whole by spending billions of dollars on content regardless of whether or not there was an audience” in a “race to become Hollywood’s Uber”, while “the strategy of overspending and then dumping new content into the marketplace made it hard for even the most original creators to stand out from the surrounding oceans of sludge”.

This perhaps goes some way to explaining why “Netflix and Chill” is seldom as diverting as even those movies that were mainly sought out for reasons of shade rather than subject.

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