Film - the final crisis

I see the movies as a likely casualty in our next great quickening at the turn of the millennium

I DON'T know about you, but it amuses me to find writers, editors and entire newspapers dismissing the millennium as if it were just a vulgar joke. We'll wake up the next day, they like to say, and find the same old things running the world and organising experience. So don't be carried away. Don't think that Y2K will strut the streets like King Kong. Don't count on any end to boring ordinariness. Don't assume you'll wake up next to Nicole Kidman instead of your steady spouse.

Are these people crazy? How can they entertain such concepts as a "steady spouse" still, or not notice the riot that comes from going to sleep the night before with some Julia Roberts or other in your mind? Can't they see how far the computer has already changed us? Or feel how much the entire scheme of Y2K - part dread, part delight - is a model for some apocalypse or quickening poised above us?

All right, you insist that I be reasonable. In 1899, the automobile was still in its lovely, cranky infancy; refrigeration was an unreliable child; the electric light bulb and flight were yet to come; women had no sort of vote, and the movies hardly existed. Yet some people beheld the new cities, the stirring of invention, the concentration of the masses, and felt the violent pangs - the quickening - of change, greater and less accountable than any known before. They believed that there was a demon on the streets.

By 1920, that beast had left its imprint in the form of world war and class revolution. Every sector of society had its own nightmare: women's suffrage, genocide, instantaneous knowledge of every corner of the globe, our dream life - including our rather indecently mixed feelings about murder, orgy and the end of it all.

But isn't ordinariness always the same? you ask. I don't think so. I suspect that photography and film have shifted the value of reality, and led us all towards the fantasy possession of things, people and moments. The flagrant hypocrisy of authority and the real, haunted lives of so many have made for a feeling of black humour or neurotic identity. Where once there had been "realism", "pleasure", "melody" and "narrative" in the arts, by 1920 we were faced with the difficulties of modernism, of having to decide what could be trusted. There is shock still in the newness that was Picasso, Schiele, Duchamp, Schoenberg, Bartok, Stravinsky, Joyce, Kafka, Musil and Rilke. Not to mention DW Griffith, Chaplin and Mary Pickford. Now, pause a moment, because while those are great names from the movies - known in 1920 by far more people than had nodding acquaintance with Schiele, Stravinsky or Musil - still they do not fit comfortably with the artistic insurrections that followed the last turn of the century. The movies were not like the other arts, no matter how strenuously some advocates called film the art of the 20th century. And that is why I see film as a likely casualty in our next great quickening.

We tend to forget how volatile or unsettled a form movie was at the end of the last century. And how different it was from the common experience that came to be "going to the movies/ the flicks/ the pictures" from about 1920 onwards. Before then, film was shown in all manner of improvised, dangerous and opportunistic circumstances where dark could be obtained and entrance charged. For its first few years, film was offered and consumed as a sensation, somewhere between scientific innovation and magic. The audience sat down for what we should call fragments - single shots, crudely cut story structures, records of great events, the living likenesses of the famous.

On the one hand, film was like the creation of "action replay"; we could re-examine a real event or a moment out of time - we could idealise it, dramatise it; we could develop attitudes and an historic sense, while subtly undermining our feeling for time and memory.

On the other hand, the immediately available trickery of the medium allowed us to see "impossible things" - heads without bodies, the superimposition or fusion of alien forms, or even that eerie beauty, life going backwards. This was fun, dreamy, heady - it was a new form of conjuring, as well as fuel for modern paranoia and fantasy. It was the innate potential or threat of film - to show us "everything" that was happening, as well as to make manifest our fears and desires - that was so potent, and alarming. A level of film scrutiny that showed us everything happening within our government - every smoke-filled room, every compromise, every practised lie - might lead to the overthrow of the government, and perhaps even of its system. The full revelation of our repressed desires - let's call that sex and violence - might make it impossible for us to face one another in plain daylight.

The possibility or energy of film in 1900 was astonishingly dangerous, for it sought out every existing crack or failure in existing society. Yet hardly a soul spelt out such warnings - today, few dare to say that the multiplicity of cable TV channels in images brighter than real life could make a final undermining of family or domestic order, to say nothing of education. But society as a whole felt the risk in 1900, and likely feels it now - as if it were a wind tugging at our roots. More or less, early in the century the threat was stilled by the creation of American cinema - the thing we call Hollywood - as the deeply conservative force that might contain and drain away the dangers.

That's how Griffith, Chaplin and Mary Pickford come into focus. Far from riding the incipient disruption of violent cutting and the expose of showing, they made films that were archaic, sentimental, tidy, reassuring, dulling, and so popular that a vast business came into being with such orthodoxies as stars, 90-minute formats, moralising stories, happy endings, and the mass marketing of polite fantasies. It became a medium good for business, conservatism, the status quo, and it smothered those other indicators in film history - Expressionism (Fritz Lang in Germany), social analysis (Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov in Russia), Surrealism (Bunuel in Spain and France) and novelistic, psychological and social realism (Renoir, in France).

Thus there was a golden age of Hollywood (the late Twenties, through the Thirties and into the Forties), in which the Depression and war were offset, and life was codified in the several genres of the American movie - including the most important and widespread, celebrity. The only media moment to match it is the golden age of American TV (the Fifties and early Sixties) in which it was hard to distinguish the values of the shows from those of the commercials that held them in place.

Charmingly, in criticism and then in education, a hope flourished that this booming business came close to art. It was a pretty thought - art for the masses, art without learning, privilege or refinement: a hope for the world. Close, but no cigar. American film had geniuses - Hawks, Capra, Hitchcock, Ford, Chaplin - and was to develop such official mavericks as Orson Welles - no one of whom deserved to be regarded as an artist, or as less than a brilliant liar. Indeed, the constitutional hypocrisy of America was made exemplary in the delightful deceit of its films.

I am hurrying, to keep within my space. Let us just say that 1999 has been a bad year for any hopes about film. The lofty careers of Terrence Malick and Stanley Kubrick have delivered tosh, and the expertise of George Lucas has made a hit out of the very opposite of entertainment. The great names are no longer worthy of our faith. The potential of individualism, yet again, has been crushed by the wicked realities of the business.

So "movie" veers back to being the untidy sensation machine of the late 1890s. But now the nickelodeon parlours have given way to your own sofa, where your child rides the remote control button and moves through the channels, exulting in the speed of cutting, which requires no attention or concentration ever being given to any one thing. Movies are fragments again, visual sensations, jolts, fixes, rushes. You can call it a kind of play - a sort of graphic art. But who has stomach for the game?

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas