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?