Cinema in the 21st Century: Part 3 - The everlasting picture show

Cinema started out showing reports of the major events of the day. Later it offered audiences something more - a date and a dream. In the third part of our series looking forward to the 21st century, Britain's leading film historian considers the emotional power of the picture show

Will there be movies for us to go to in 100 years' time? Or will every domestic interior be an unwinding holograph in which we come and go? Will we have given up watching cinema for being in movies? Look forward a further 1,000 years, and has the human frame itself shifted, so that we begin to be just an optic mechanism to which other, shrinking human functions are attached?

The editor asked for "the future of film", because editors remain fond of alliteration in headlines. But, as Kodak shareholders have feared for some time, the future of film is used up. Everyone in the business knows that DVD, or some digital tape, is surpassing light burning into the silvered emulsion on a celluloid strip.

Movie-making still involves cameras loaded with magazines of celluloid, with the exposure on the lens adjusted to the available light. But already there are still cameras that use no film; instead, an electronic cartridge registers the data of a photograph. Such extraordinary freedom from miles of film has overtaken post-production already. Now, the hundreds of thousands of feet of "OK" (printed) takes are stored and coded on a computer, like that of the Avid system. The director and editor can compose their movie without ever touching celluloid. It would even be possible for an Avid, with "taste", to translate the shooting script into an edited film.

But a dynamic has shifted. There is a fascinating theory that Avid, or video, editing of movies has allowed editing to become more atmospheric, more moody, more intrigued by the romance of dissolves and fades (easily introduced through Avid) and less bound by sheer narrative necessity. Put it another way: have you noticed how movies are getting longer and slower?

Take that one step further: I would propose that the notional viewer in, say, 3000, might easily conclude that films of the 1940s came after those of the 1990s, because they are denser, quicker and more packed with information and nuance. So, in trying to calculate, or guess, what may become of moving pictures in the next 100 years, it is wise to recollect the pressure of technology and the expectations of society. Go back 100 years and we find a wondrous innocence in the film-makers of 1899 or 1900 - so quaint, so wrong, it leaves us wondering about our blind spots now:

"The secret of moving pictures," wrote the manager of a chain of New York cinemas in November 1899, "consists in the timeliness. Without this feature, such an exhibition must inevitably fail. I regard the Kalatechnoscope as incontestably the most perfect and thoroughly up-to-date machine in existence. It has proved its superior qualities in these houses and I have booked it for an indefinite run."

The Kalatechnoscope lasted only a year or two. But it aroused excitement because it addressed a key issue of moving pictures in 1900 - how to achieve the best, most beguiling and safest projection of moving imagery in a cinema for as many as 100 or 200 people. Our first challenge now may be similar, as we search for the most lifelike image that can play on the walls of our home without intruding on the life of the home.

In 1900, the movie business was struggling to define the thing that would be called a "cinema". Size and clarity of image were the focus of commercial rivalry, along with the question of how quickly the cinema could show film snippets of the major events of the day. "Timeliness" refers not to the new Tom Cruise picture (for Cruise and his equivalents were as yet unknown), but to a film report of Admiral Dewey's victory at Manila Bay (1898) or even the assassination of President McKinley (1901).

"Safety" referred to the fact that film then, and until as late as 1950, was a base of celluloid nitrate, a material that burnt easily, accounting for several disasters in nickelodeons and theatres, enough to sustain the idea that the movie palace was a dangerous place. But in our future, as moving imagery seeps into the sleeping child's mind, so the awareness of peril may have more to do with the confusion of fantasy and reality.

The pieces of film shown in 1900 were 10 or 15 minutes long. There were fictions - jokes, chases, romances - but they appear startlingly crude when we reflect that they coincided with such literary works as The Golden Bowl (1904). The film snippets had scant story or character, the helpless herky-jerky of unstable motion and nothing like Henry James's moral purpose. And yet, only a decade later, DW Griffith persuaded worldwide audiences to sit still for nearly three hours of The Birth of a Nation (1915), in which story-telling had worked out a rough grammar of close-ups and long shots, the suspense of cross-cutting and the silent vibrato of sentiment, in which the medium was beginning to ask audiences to identify with the bright ghosts on the screen.

The Birth of a Nation deserves to be regarded as revolutionary. It may be the most commercially successful film of all time - and the event that taught picture people the nature of their own business. President Woodrow Wilson called it "history written with lightning". It was also racist garbage, a harking back to reactionary attitudes, so mired in simple- mindedness and cliche you will scarcely believe it came at the same moment as Dubliners, Death in Venice and Remembrance of Things Past.

In imagining the future, we should remember the past and be kind to its cocksureness about being up to date. Remember, too, that the deepest appeal of the movies in 1915 and for years afterwards was that all those people who could not read Proust or James could be moved and held in unison by Lillian Gish and Charlie Chaplin. It is worth recollecting that some great artists - Joyce, for one - loved the movies and were stirred by their new possibility - that the bulging world, so afflicted by troubles and differences, might be held together by a picture show.

As we look ahead into our future movies, it seems more important than ever to cling to that hope while assessing the technical, economic and social changes that are likely. Look at it this way: a few of us are getting increasingly clever; yet a swelling majority are being betrayed by education. In the US, which takes stupid pride in being the most advanced and greatest nation on Earth, illiteracy is all the fashion. For the moment, that handicap is cloaked in shame. Yet that could pass, as computer facility substitutes for verbal literacy. By the end of the 21st century, literature and its refined morality may be archaic and helplessly inefficient. In that age of dot democracy, moving pictures (on a screen on every table and lap) may be more dominant than they have ever been in this century. Many film enthusiasts say the rich age of movies, the golden age, has gone already - sophisticated entertainments such as we knew from, say, 1930 to 1975. Such pictures were quick, ironic, bitter-sweet and beginning to play with the gap between lifelike imagery and fantasy situations. So you could say, alas, that we will have no more of Red River, Citizen Kane (how can the greatest movie in an ever-changing medium be so old already?) or The Talented Mr Ripley. Except that Ripley opened just before the Millennium and is so challenging about our need to identify and feel good that you need to see it again as soon as it is over.

But it is hard to make a Ripley. It needs something like $35m and sustained nerve in the face of second-guessing from a business that fears risk or the new. And do not forget that our awesome underclass - immature but potent - could grow into a society that simply fails to register or feel the complex relationships between its lead characters. The best films could become as specialised as the novel, the stage play or the symphony; they could be the reward for elitism.

Then consider this: it cannot be long before some schoolkid with a camcorder and a computer produces a desktop movie as startling as The Blair Witch Project. It may be a blur of animation, photography and special effects. It may find delights that you and I can no more imagine than the maker of the Kalatechnoscope could foresee Technicolor or Tuesday Weld. Who would have thought that Iran would make great movies? Yet it does. Who can doubt that, sooner or later, the chaos of Russia will furnish something astonishing? And who can be sure that even the US will not enter a dark night of the soul, from economic slump, toxic infection or a feud between the young and the old that makes those between black and white or male and female seem like practice. Then the people may gather once more, in some new darkness, an audience again, more intent on having a date and a dream than on being hysterically up to date.

Tomorrow: Colin Spencer on the future of food

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Jess Glynne is UK number 1

music

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
    How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
    11 best bedside tables

    11 best bedside tables

    It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
    Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

    Italy vs England player ratings

    Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
    Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

    Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat