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Cinema, Dead and Alive: An Interview with Godfrey Cheshire, Part One

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Cinema, Dead and Alive: An Interview with Godfrey Cheshire, Part One

In 1999, film critic Godfrey Cheshire [left] wrote a compelling two-part essay for New York Press entitled “The Death of Film/The Decay of Cinema.” The article considered the transition from celluloid to digital technology within movie theaters, and the repercussions that would have on cinema as an art form. Predicated on the belief that the viewer responds differently to televised or digital images than film images, Cheshire expressed ambivalence and curiosity about that changeover.

To frame his argument, Cheshire provided definitions for terms normally considered interchangeable: “Film refers to the old, celluloid-based technology; movies refer to motion pictures as entertainment; and cinema refers to motion pictures as art.” Film and cinema, to Cheshire, are vitally linked, and that once film is removed, what is left may vaguely look the same for a short time, but that essentially video leads to the “overthrow of film by television—which is what this [shift] amounts to—will be related to a dissolution of cinema esthetics…The latter, which has implications beyond the realm of arts and entertainment, is my ultimate subject here. But let’s take one thing at a time.” The article has been reprinted all over the world, and was made the subject of a special colloquium at the Museum of Modern Art. It remains a valuable reference point for filmmakers, journalists and cinephiles.

But Cheshire himself admitted, “When the millennial clock ticks over, we will all be strangers in a strange land.” The technological and cultural landscape has changed rapidly since the publication of his article in ways Cheshire did not anticipate. Digital technology has accelerated the DVD revolution and the resurgence of documentaries. The Internet has affected how film criticism is digested by the public, and has fostered reactionary grassroots support among bloggers. Amidst these and other changes emerge new questions about film, movies and entertainment—as well as a few ironic surprises. Since leaving New York Press, Cheshire has continued writing film reviews for the North Carolina alternative weekly The Independent. But this self-professed “videophobe” is wrapping up production on a first-person documentary—shot on digital. It focuses on his family and their Southern plantation, which has been their homestead since 1739. In addition to his directorial debut, Cheshire has written two narrative screenplays and recently taught a course on the history of film at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Cheshire was open to discussing how the changing times broadened his interests in film and filmmaking, as well as looking back on his landmark essay. The death of film and the decay of cinema led to the rise of video and new technologies. Amidst these transitions, Cheshire has managed to keep himself on the front lines—in more ways than one.

Since you wrote “The Death of Film/The Decay of Cinema” in 1999, the cinema has changed, the world has changed, and Godfrey Cheshire has changed.

It’s been interesting how that piece has stayed alive in people’s minds. Last year, I received a number of calls from writers who were working on articles about changes in the industry and film culture. They had read my article and found information that was valuable in terms of what they were thinking about.

When I wrote that article in 1999, it was prompted by the fact that there were the first displays of commercial movies in digital projection here in New York City and other cities. That made me consider what this change of technology would mean to Cinema and Movies as I defined them for the purposes of that article. I predicated my timeline on what people in the industry were all saying, which was that this changeover in movie theaters from celluloid technology to digital technology, from analog to digital, was going to take about three years. It sounded very comparable to the changeover from silent to sound, which depending on your definitions took anywhere between 18 months to three years—a fairly rapid change.

It turns out, of course, that the digital changeover didn’t happen so fast. There were economic and technological factors, but the most important reason was that the industry could not agree on the technical standards and the financial considerations for this change. The whole thing got slowed down for a while.

However, there are two things to say about that. One is that right now it seems like we are on the verge of the actual changeover that I talked about as something that would happen before 2002. The second thing is that since I wrote that article, a number of things have changed in film culture, and to the technology of film. The biggest example is DVDs. All of a sudden they took off as this enormous factor in the earnings potential of movies, to the point where a lot of movies make more money on DVD than they do in the theatrical realm. There’s a whole cultural dimension to DVDs, too. DVDs have the presence of books, in a way. They package film history in a literary way that wasn’t happening up until then. VHS is much different. It doesn’t feel like a book, it’s disposable, and you just watch it and throw it away or take it back to the store. But people actually take pride in building libraries of DVDs. They now come annotated with all this commentary and such.

It has an impact on the way people perceive film. DVDs have been in some ways very positive in the sense that people have an idea of film culture with the kind of presence and precedence that literature has. They can look at Carl Theodor Dreyer as a great artist; they can purchase the Dreyer box set and have it on their library walls, so maybe even their kids will watch it with that idea in mind. There’s a way film history is being packaged now that definitely has a positive educational value. Incidentally, when people ask what film criticism I enjoy reading these days, almost the first thing that springs to mind is Dave Kehr’s column in the Times about the DVD releases of old movies. It’s great to know which choice bits of our cinematic past are resurfacing thanks to this new medium, and Dave does such a great job discussing, evaluating and contextualizing them.

DVDs give you an immediate history lesson about film, but it’s a double-edged sword. You can pick up M and learn about German Expressionism, or the Val Lewton box set to find out more about the development of excellent B-pictures in Old Hollywood. That is certainly a very good thing for film culture. And on the other hand—

Yes, the other side of the sword is that it can easily turn into the rock ’n’ roll museum, where we induct Keith Richards and the Sex Pistols, but all this packaging of the rock ’n’ roll from the past does nothing for the vitality of rock ’n’ roll in the present. It is putting the tombstone on top of a corpse, memorializing something rather than contributing to it as a present tense art form.

In your articles “The Death of Film” and “The Decay of Cinema”, you were able to provide useful definitions of Cinema, Movies and Film. But now it feels like there are even more definitions, and it is almost difficult to keep up with it all. If you read J. Hoberman’s article about the cult surrounding The New World, it proposes that the Internet and the so-called blogosphere are a way to level the playing fields, where a movie like “The New World” can have a small but fiercely loyal audience. The community sprouting up around the film is unique. I’m sure there are other precedents throughout cinema history where people have gotten behind a cult movie, but this is unique to the Internet where a grassroots support system has been created to support the film through new technology. It’s a way to discuss and promote a film that could not have been considered back in 1999. That is not specific to celluloid, but fits within the landscape of film and how it has been evolving.

That’s a very good point. The thing we’re doing this interview for, Matt’s blog, is a part of a new evolution in film culture that wasn’t there a few years ago. In that way, it is parallel to DVDs. I think the Internet has changed the perception of movies and the way people relate to movies and understand them in enormous ways.

I’ll give you an example. Last year, I spent a few months in North Carolina working on this documentary [to be discussed in part two of this interview]. While I was down there, I was asked to teach a course about the history of film at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. I was very happy to do this. It’s a survey course that I took myself when I was at UNC. Actually, it was the same course, same classroom, same everything, except that now I was up there as the teacher. I had never taught undergrads before, and was very curious about what these undergrads were like now. The first day I was there, I gave out a questionnaire that I made up, asking them what were their five favorite films, their three favorite films of the past year, the films they bought most recently on DVD, what film critics they read, and where do they get your information about film. I discovered they were very smart, perhaps smarter than the students I was in the same class with many years ago. They were very motivated, hardworking, and interested. But I also learned through the questionnaire that most of their knowledge of film history was very thin. In my class, way back when, you would have had people into Eisenstein, Truffaut and Godard. There was very little of that depth of interest in this class.

These young people grew up on the Internet.

That has done nothing to dull their intelligence, and may have stimulated it in some ways. However, it’s also made them graze the surface of things rather than go in-depth. I discovered that most of them read critics online. There’s not the culture of the local critic that there was when I was [a student]. Of course, I still write for The Independent Weekly, and I’m in that market. The thing that shocked me was when I asked, “Where do you get your information about films?” Which is basically what films are playing, what’s opening this weekend—and none of them said The Independent, which is the alternative weekly for that area, which is where you would think that most people their age would go for information like that. They get that online. There used to be a certain factor of localism in film criticism, which was very much tied to print, newspapers and journalism. You read whoever was in your market. Of course, you might buy The New Yorker if you lived in North Carolina to see what Pauline Kael had to say. But you read the writing in the local paper, because that was for a local audience. Now, there isn’t that presumption at all. The position of critics tied to local publications is being continually eroded.

The other side of the coin is people can look all over on the Internet for the kind of criticism that is agreeable to them.

True, but based on this experience with my students, I wonder if many of the people searching out film reviews on the Internet are reading with the kind of depth that people read the long reviews you saw published in the 1970s and 1980s. You see things like The Village Voice cutting back the space that their critics get. Even really good critics who write for that publication don’t have the opportunity, given the way the format has changed, to go into depth or relate one film to another film. The film reviews are cut up into these little capsule-like segments. All of that is to the bad as far as I’m concerned.

If you’re reading something on a screen, it’s quite different. I’m sure reading “Moby Dick” on the Internet is not going to be the same as reading it on the page.

I can’t imagine reading Moby Dick on the Internet. That seems self-contradictory.

I consider it the same mindset, though. If you read something on the Internet, you are going to read it very quickly.

Sure, probably the first paragraph or two to see if the critic liked it or doesn’t, and move on from there to the next review.

But one can assume the roots of the way we respond to the Internet stem from the way we regard television. One could argue that television created many of the habits we incorporate into our lives that go way beyond the simple act of watching television, and that it creates a kind of attention deficit disorder. When you reviewed Crash and Syriana, you referred to their storytelling approach as being filtered through the “atomization of attention.” It is no mistake that Paul Haggis and Stephen Gaghan started in television, and that a TV mindset has crept into their movies.

The success of films like Crash and Syriana represent the creeping erosion of cinematic values by television values. [Judging by the Oscars,] the filmmaking community considers those films artistic. But to me, Crash is the opposite of artistic. Somebody on the news pointed out that on the Village Voice Critics Poll it was #66. It was so far down. It’s not like the Hollywood community said, “Look, the critics have embraced this film!” A lot of critics cried bullshit on it. Nonetheless, that kind of value is overtaking traditional cinematic values just in terms of very basic entertainment terms Hollywood is used to dealing with. That is a terrible phenomenon, too, but it is not a matter of a fluke this year. It’s an ongoing process and the more you see this validated in forums like the Oscars, the more that will become the definition of film art.

When you reviewed Syriana, you said, “A real political movie is one that presents an analysis so persuasive and precise that it inspires you to action.” Could one create an argument for Munich as a political film?

I come at Syriana as a film that sees itself primarily at a political film. I come at Munich as a film I see as primarily a work of art with philosophical dimensions, and political dimension as well, but it does not have a narrow focus. With “Munich,” its virtues are so tied to its complexity. It forces questions back on the viewer. Part of the problem has been people rallying around one of two political views of the film, both of which greatly simplify the actual complexities of the situation, and both of which don’t lead toward helpful or political thought or action. Spielberg’s very intelligent artistic examination of all this, primarily its political effect, is to make viewers stand back and reflect on all of this, and their relationship to it, but it is not a banner for people to rally around.

It has the viewer go internal and ask, “What is my relationship to this media war, or this televised war?” Certainly, that is something we can reflect on in our culture now. Regarding 9/11, one of the more chilling things said over and over again was, “It was just like a movie.” That’s quite a disturbing thing to hear. But it does bring a cultural interpretation into a major and shattering global tragedy. They filter the event through the movie experience.

You have to factor in 9/11 to where movies fit into the culture right now. Within a week of 9/11, Hollywood people surveyed in a New York Times article said that movies would turn themselves away from all the problems that might be indicated by this event and that they’d be a valid form of escapism. I immediately wrote that if that is the case, then we will have forfeited any claim that we are using art for the broader purpose of attempting to show a sense of understanding of the world. We will deserve whatever bad fate is visited to us if we stick our head in the sand like ostriches. Well, I didn’t think that pronouncement they made was going to be true except in the very short term. [Indeed,] ever since 9/11 people have gone to movies that in some sense give them the feeling that it deals with the changed world we’re living in.

That deals with films like The Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 9/11, which were of course compared because they came out around the same time. They are about as different as any two films could be. One is extremely topical and political, and the other seems not to be either topical or political at all but everybody responds to it as if it were. Those are Category One Post 9/11 movies. In the last year we have seen people really get interested in films like the ones nominated for the Oscars, which is exactly why they were nominated: Good Night, and Good Luck, Syriana, Jarhead, The Constant Gardener, Crash, all of these in some way are communicating to audiences that they are dealing with the society we’re all embroiled in now. People look to movies for meaning, to make sense of things. That is a truly valid function and an important one. Unfortunately, I don’t think any of these movies fulfill this function very well, but I would rather have someone out there trying. Hollywood, in its very dim way, is responding.

Special thanks to John LaRocca for the illustration of Cheshire that appears at the top of this interview. To read part two, click here.