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David Denby has a fine piece in the New Yorker this week on the future of cinema. I've read a lot of death knells for the medium lately (in a gigantic Film Comment essay last year, Paul Schrader wrote as if it were already history), but Denby's piece is an admirably succinct and balanced overview of the commercial and technological forces changing the industry and the artform.
Some of the developments Denby notes are clearly bad news (a theatrical distribution model geared toward big opening weekends and, therefore, children and teenagers), some are clearly good news (digital distribution, which may level the playing field between the multinational corporations that own the studios and the kid shooting a movie in his basement). But the knottiest problem Denby considers is the advent of digital exhibition—projecting movies not from 35-millimeter prints, which must be physically delivered in cans weighing 50 to 80 pounds, but from a hard drive.
The changeover to digital could revolutionize the beleaguered theater business (which was apparently slightly less beleaguered in 2006), but the aesthetic quality of digital photography is so different from celluloid that one can't really call them the same thing, any more than one could call a digital print a painting. As Denby notes, young people tend to be "platform agnostic"—they don't really care whether they're watching something on a 50-foot screen or on their iPod. So filmmaking in the literal sense, and moviegoing in the communal sense, may already be disappearing into the cultural twilight.
The quesion is, should we really care? Denby writes reverentially about the communal experience of moviegoing, a sentiment I heartily endorse. But for most people in America the communal experience of moviegoing isn't watching Viridiana at the Film Center--it's sitting in an ugly multiplex watching Saw III. Public hangings were a communal experience too, but I'm not sorry people have moved on to other amusements.