Cinema is not dead, is not even sick
Updated: Feb 3, 2021
Cinema is not dead; it is not even sick.
By repurposing this statement that appeared on the website of the Festival de Cannes 2020, I wish to make a point on something simple, that yet needs to be shouted. Loudly.
The pandemic has impacted all aspects of our lives and, alas, the art industry is not exempt. Besides continuing to reflect on how the lockdown has shaped our attendance to art festivals over summer 2020, this post urges to stimulate some thinking on the evolving role of screens and motion pictures.
During these months, discussions were started, and questions were posed over online exhibitions, music and theatrical performances, especially in relation to how the devices and the spatial contexts in which we ‘consume’ arts affect our experience. (Here you can find some examples). Lockdown has prompted a proliferation of arts through a split-screen aesthetic. As we might recall from those blue months of our recent past, our laptops and TV sets have streamed at least once an online performance, be it a recorded broadcast of a sports event or the classical choreography of the Bolero from The Juilliard School. I found myself attending a Reginald Rose-inspired theatrical drama on Zoom. The event, originally scheduled as a traditional face-to-face play, has been promptly converted into a split-screen experience, or it wouldn't have happened. The new venture turned out surprisingly engaging, although it triggered a lively discussion in my parents’ living room on whether we would have enjoyed it the most in gallery mode or speaker view.
Academics and media producers have analysed how the necessity to ‘be together’ despite social distancing regulations has resulted in the use of shared screen space, that is, shots juxtaposed within the same frame, rather than in sequence, for the sake of giving the impression of performing in the same room. In Italy, the orchestra of theatre La Scala in Milan gave us a fine example of how a concert can be fully experienced even in the absence of screens. On Easter Sunday a collective flashmob supporting all workers in the art industry played the notes of the Pachelbel Canon. The arrangement was previously recorded from the single balconies of the musicians, put together and broadcasted by radio.
Myself, I am a great (great) lover of cinema and of everything that comes projected onto a big screen. Around April time my frustration for the impossibility of sitting on those comfortable armchairs started to build up – especially because I don’t own a fancy 4k 85-inch smart TV and…
A Quiet Place II release date was already overdue! I am also a film researcher who largely depends on primary sources for working. This year, let's face it, it felt a bit like a bad post-apocalyptic movie. The Academy Award ceremonies took place online, Cannes Film Festival was cancelled… ‘for the first time since the invention of film screening by the Lumière Brothers on December 28, 1895’, apparently. I soon found myself reading scary prophecies about the impending closures of local independent cinemas - sadly, many did shut their doors permanently - alongside the death of Cinema itself. For a moment, it all seemed to work to the advantage of the new streaming platforms that quickly acquired the rights of the latest productions and, in so doing, some distributors managed to circumvent the ‘delayed release’ curse. Cinema or not, partly for leisure and partly for work, I decided to quell my frustration and give online film festivals a go. A new world opened to me.
After overcoming the initial shock and dismay given by the ocean of film circuits and projections available, it was all downhill. The first I attended in June was We Are One, a 10-day Global Film Festival co-curated by over 20 film festivals from across the world, and which collaborated with Youtube for even wider dissemination. A short film on the obsolescence and disappearing role of a pair of old film projectors was the one that struck me the most. Among other festivals I snooped around this summer there were Vision Du Réel and Locarno Film Festival.
Finally, right at the end of the summer season, the Mostra Internazionale d’arte Cinematografica di Venezia constituted a much needed and timely appointment. Venezia represents one of the most prestigious and most long-standing film festivals in the world (1932). This year it became the first to send a signal of recovery for the art circuits, the spirit of a rebirth for cinema itself, and hopefully for the industry as well. It is no coincidence that the first face-to-face festival took place, not without difficulties, in one of the countries that best demonstrated that solidarity and getting up, once again, is possible. And yes, I’m slightly impartial here. Unfortunately, the threat of an infamous second wave and rising numbers prevented me from being physically present in Venice. Consequently, in the wake of my recent experience with other festivals, I purchased a pass to the Venice ‘web room’ and tried to watch the films as much collectively as possible. I am aware this is not the place to review new movies, nor to strike a blow for Italian documentaries that never ceases to surprising me.
I wrap up by sharing the joy of what I saw: an utterly transformed cinema, marked by the collective experience of the pandemic and of people remaining enclosed indoors. Where lockdown has struck hard, directors have produced highly introspective films, inspiring historical reflections on the medium itself, and formal experiments that I have never seen before.
All this can't help but make me think that cinema is very much alive.