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'The Decay of Cinema': A response to Susan Sontag

On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the art of cinema, the formidable philosopher Susan Sontag penned an ominous essay for The New York Times titled The Decay of Cinema. In it, she claimed that the future trajectory of cinematic traditions was very bleak because the logic of the market would determine all the principles of filmmaking instead of the profound love for cinema that should ideally fuel the act of creation.

Yes, I know what you’re thinking. Whether it be Sontag or Martin Scorsese or even that one extremely loud YouTuber you follow who can’t stop screaming about how there is an impending apocalypse because film studios are focusing on diversity now, the internet has facilitated the distribution and circulation of a vast network of essays solely dedicated to the illusory objective of determining the future of the cinematic art-form.

In recent years, it seems like this debate has completely revolved around the prominence of superhero films and their impact on popular culture. These films are regularly cited in heated online discussions on social media platforms as examples of everything that Sontag warned against, exercises in curating assaultive images that attempt to grab the attention of audiences in the most exploitative ways.

Even back in 1996, Sontag was disillusioned with the dominant forces that governed the film industries of the world while romanticising about the remarkable feat that was Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat by the Lumière brothers. For those of us bestowed with the gift of hindsight, this is a curious statement since the ’90s was an important period for not only American filmmaking but also saw incredibly important developments in world cinema.

In 1996 alone, unforgettable masterpieces such as Trainspotting and Fargo burst onto the scene and had a huge impact on the cultural landscape, following in the footsteps of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. In other parts of the world, pioneering works such as Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s A Moment of Innocence and Aki Kaurismäki’s Drifting Clouds served as constant reminders that originality was still possible.

Of course, it would be disingenuous not to note that Sontag herself acknowledged that gems like these would continue to surface but they would be exceptions to and violations of the normative framework of mass-produced cinema. She believed that the relegation of such films to the fringes of culture was symptomatic of cinema’s tragic decadence, an art that was destined to fade out of existence with the death of cinephilia.

According to Sontag, this condition was exacerbated by the changing nature of the cinematic experience as people were watching films on their own television sets instead of venturing into the heterotopic space that is the film theatre (a phenomenon described at length by Roland Barthes). This was something that many people observed when the pandemic hit us with its full force, with many people downloading streaming apps on their phones to watch films from home.

For a moment, it appeared as though Sontag would be proven right but as soon as the lockdown restrictions were lifted and film screenings became possible, many flocked to theatres to watch films on the big screen again. 2021 saw a revitalisation of the film industry due to huge profits at the box office again and the films that most people went to see were the ones that Sontag would have hated – Spider Man: No Way Home especially.

(Credit: Lynn Gilbert)

Sontag wrote: “If cinephilia is dead, then movies are dead too . . . no matter how many movies, even very good ones, go on being made. If cinema can be resurrected, it will only be through the birth of a new kind of cine-love.” There were many fantastic films such as Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car that came out last year but it wouldn’t have mattered to Sontag since her central claim was that cinephilia was no longer a culturally dominant phenomenon.

But why is love for a particular kind of film being termed as cinephilia while the other is being categorised as a market event? Intellectual giants such as Pauline Kael also recognised this distinction and she even claimed that “we generally become interested in movies because we enjoy them and what we enjoy them for has little to do with what we think of as art”. That overwhelming interest, irrespective of whether it was focused on Marvel projects, contributed to the recovery of the industry after its most difficult year in 2020.

I am not denying the glaring problems inherent in the constant amplification of Marvel films as well as the oversaturation of the superhero genre with formulaic projects that refuse to innovate. Many of the concerns about the hyper-capitalist drives of production studios and trends that Sontag pointed out are definitely valid but what she failed to see was the larger picture involving the structures of global cinema.

While many can argue that the technological advancements of modernity (read Netflix) have disrupted the traditional cinematic experience for good, there have been simultaneous advantages. The easy accessibility to the internet has enabled many filmmakers in places all around the world to watch landmark achievements in cinematic history for free, thanks to film piracy websites which are acting as the modern equivalents of archives aiding film preservation.

The key problem with Sontag’s evaluation is that her vision is centred around America and Europe where people have had the privilege of having arthouse theatres in their neighbourhoods. For aspiring filmmakers in other parts of the world, such a luxury was never an option. At this moment, for the first time in history, countless kids in Asia or Africa or South America are discovering the masterpieces of Jean-Luc Godard and Stanley Kubrick while dreaming of making their own projects.

For those kids, the internet has sparked the flames of cinephilia in them and they won’t be stopping anytime soon. Discussions about an imminent new wave of global filmmaking have been rampant on social media for years now but it is finally a real possibility because of these fascinating developments. Yes, the French New Wave might have petered out (even though Godard is still alive and finishing his final two projects) but new auteurs have begun to emerge in countries like South Korea whose cinema has been introduced to and enjoyed by western audiences.

In addition, many modern masters such as Amit Dutta are specifically curating the cinematic experience as a deeply personal one by making arthouse films for laptop viewings and adapting to the rapidly changing forces of modernity. “Watching a film on a laptop… is as controlled as you can make it,” Dutta explained. “I’m getting very interested in that kind of viewing. This very intense, one-on-one viewing—that is my ideal viewer. It’s as personal as reading a book. You pick up a book and read and don’t attend a collective reading session.”

It is clear that the popularity of Marvel films is not a threat to cinephilia and even though, at least according to the general definitions, those two phenomenons might operate in separate domains, the internet has found a way to bring the best out in both (and often the worst as well, it is the internet after all). It has something for everyone, for fans of the Lumière brothers as well as those who can’t stop raving about Spider Man: No Way Home.