HOW TO LIVE IN AIR CONDITIONING
A feeling of having no choice is becoming more and more widespread in American life, and particularly amongsuccessful people, who are supposedly free beings. On a concrete plane, the lack of choice is often adepressing reality. In national election years, you are free to choose between Johnson and Goldwater orJohnson and Romney or Reagan, which is the same as choosing between a Chevrolet and a Ford—there is amarginal difference in styling. Just as in American hotel rooms you can decide whether or not to turn on theair conditioner (that is your business), but you cannot open the window.
—Mary McCarthy, Vietnam, 1967
I await the end of Cinema with optimism.
—Jean-Luc Godard, Cahiers du cinéma, 1965
Thirty years later, both these general sentiments describe an impasse in American life that isvividly reflected in the movies we see and the ways that we see them. If the range of culturalchoices apparently available at any given time merits some correlation with the range of political choices, it is also true that Godard's optimistic apocalypse heralds a new scale of values, though we don't yet know enough about these to be able to judge them with anyconfidence. Whether we condemn or applaud the prospect, a first priority might be a simpleevaluation of where we are.It probably isn't being presumptuous to assume that, in one way or another, as we nearthe century's end, everyone reading these lines is awaiting the end of
kind of cinema,either optimistically or pessimistically. Whatever name or interpretation we give to thisclimate, we all feel that something is in the process of ending—unless we feel that it has endedalready. Something is also in the process of beginning; but whatever we choose to call it, Idon't think we can call it cinema in the old sense. The rapid spread of movies on video, theastronomical escalation of movie advertising, the depletion of government support for filmpreservation or new independent work (never very large to begin with), the return to a systemof theater monopolies and the concomitant phasing out of independent exhibition (whichallows for such
alternative fare as art films and midnight movies)—what amounts, in short, to the junking of an already precarious film culture in the interests of short-term financial gains for bigbusiness—suggest a historical period being sealed off, so that the past isn't only anothercountry but a different planet, a different language, a different set of aspirations. Like MaryMcCarthy, we can learn this new language well or badly and say all kinds of different thingswith it, but we can't use it to lead us back to cinema in the old sense (cinema, let us say, thatwas still on speaking terms with the era of Griffith, Murnau, and Stroheim). That's a windowthat has been nailed shut, and unless we break through the glass—destroy the institutions andthe technology that separate us from the past—we have to get used to living in airconditioning.With only a few modifications, the above was written over a decade ago—first for a lectureat the Rotterdam Film Festival's Market in January 1985, then for an article published in
the following summer. The fact that much of what I said then still seems applicablesuggests not so much a protracted death rattle for cinema as a certain freezing over of filmhistory itself, at least as it's usually being recounted.I'm writing now in the fall of 1995, when the recent number one box office hit is SEVEN, astylish, "metaphysical" serial-killer movie whose designer grimness can be said to carry acertain ideological comfort: if mankind is hopelessly blighted and evil is both omnipresent andtriumphant—expressionist notions virtually carried over like dress styles from TAXI DRIVER
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