Film Isn’t Dead

‘Film is dead.’ So proclaims Will Self, the infamous intellectual and novelist, in an article for The Times on 28th August promoting his new book, Walking to Hollywood. As opening lines go, it’s a fairly bold one, no doubt intended to spark the reader’s interest and outrage, but, upon closer inspection, his argument actually turns out to be rather less histrionic and self-evidently incorrect than this.

He is quick to qualify his claim by explaining, ‘I don’t mean that people aren’t making films, or that other people aren’t watching them – it’s just that film is no longer the dominant narrative medium, its near century-long hegemony over the imaginations of the greater part of the world’s population has ended.’ To paraphrase, Self didactically informs us that film is no longer the central monolith of popular culture; its role in people’s lives and imaginations has diminished considerably, and its dominant cultural position has instead been replaced by a salmagundi of different institutions. He laments how, ‘When I talk to my older children… [and] their friends, I have no sense of film’s centrality for them; instead they are at the vortex of so much full-motion imagery – on TVs, computer screens, games consoles, CCTV, 3G phones – that the silver screen hovers only in their mid-distance, a ghostly presence unless animated by the next big, novelty spectacle.’

To give Self his due, his isn’t an unusual or unique position, as he proves by asking all those he comes into contact with whether film really is dead. According to his accounts, everyone from Daniel Craig to Jonathan Coe agrees wholeheartedly with his self-assuredly pessimistic mortician’s report, and he then sets about walking to Hollywood (via Heathrow) in order to track down the killer. His belief that film’s ‘cultural primacy’ has been lost would, one might assume, lead him to examine why the rise of DVDs and the internet has been so meteorically successful, as well as examining where exactly cinemas – rather than filmmakers, as Self acknowledges that ‘good – even great – movies are still being made’ – have gone wrong. Disappointingly, such an examination is nowhere to be found. Instead, his article is more of a vague eulogy for a more mythical time in movies, when one big release might define a generation: ‘Without a common horde of film references… it’s difficult to see how my generation would cohere at all. We’re stuck together by Steve McQueen tossing a baseball against a cell wall, Lauren Bacall putting her lips together to blow, Anthony Hopkins sucking up invisible fava beans…’

The first thing to notice about this last quotation is just how diverse the films that supposedly unite his generation really are; respectively, he references The Great Escape, To Have and Have Not and The Silence of the Lambs as cultural touchstones for people of around his age (Self is forty-eight, going on forty-nine), yet the release dates for these films span from 1944 to 1991. The second is just how recognisable these references are to any generation – he cannot seriously claim these iconic moments loom large only in the mind of the middle-aged. It is also somewhat frustrating to find oneself being spoken for in this article, as he confidently observes how those in their late teens and early twenties are no longer united by film. This observation must either be wilfully selective or else be made in phenomenal ignorance of youth’s diversity. If his children and their friends do not have film as a cultural centrepiece to their lives then fair enough, but one should take exception at his attempts to extrapolate this across the entirety of today’s youth.

Even more important is a point which Self appears to ignore entirely: the question of whether or not film remains the most significant facet of modern culture presupposes its previous dominance. While Self argues that McQueen, Bacall and Hopkins unite his generation, I am utterly certain that huge swathes of forty-eight year olds would disagree, and perhaps even fail to recognise which three films he is referring to. It is wrong to claim flatly that film has been the cultural centrepiece of the twentieth century – for many, its primacy has never been the case. With this in mind, it becomes clear that the subsequent argument – that film (or film’s primacy) has died – is equally subjective. The friends and colleagues he encounters may agree with him, but for many – including my own group of peers – film has never been more of a potent and unifying force in culture.

I fear also that Self may be viewing cinematic history through a lens darkly distorted by nostalgia. While he writes of growing up with such undisputed classics as Chinatown and Apocalypse Now, he unfairly contrasts these with three lacklustre releases of 2008: The Incredible Hulk, Wanted and The Love Guru. In this way, he is pitting the best that the cinema of his youth has to offer against the worst of today’s – an unfair and transparently selective technique. In fact, in my experience, 2008 was a year that proved once again film’s cultural primacy; this was the year of The Dark Knight, a film that seemed to define the summer. Going further afield, one only has to glance at India’s Bollywood to see a film industry that dwarves Hollywood in its production rates and that has ensured that films have become a unifying and staggeringly popular force all across the country. His belief that film’s cultural primacy is dead cannot really be disproved, but it can be challenged. I cannot personally think of any other cultural medium that unites people in the way that film can – it is rare for a book or video game to be so widely experienced and discussed in the way that certain films are. Film is the most democratic and inclusive of experiences, and it is yet to be bettered in this way.

Ultimately, however, Self seems unsure of exactly who or what he is attacking. He flips between lamenting the rise of choice in our lives (wistfully recalling the days of ‘three terrestrial television channels’) and attacking the current state of films and their quality. The first point is hardly fitting of a riposte, except to condemn it as nostalgia at its most simplistic and tiresome, while the second is, to labour the point, subjective. I would argue that, with films such as Synecdoche, New York, There Will Be Blood and Let the Right One In, quality cinema is most definitely alive and well, though I will happily acknowledge its current health cannot be objectively assessed (unless done so financially). If Will Self believes that films ain’t what they used to be, then so be it, but I can only pity him for being unaware of, or stubbornly ignoring, the masterpieces that the universally inclusive medium of film continues to produce.

[Originally published by Cherwell Online, 30/08/2010: http://www.cherwell.org/content/10640]

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