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

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