Film Studies: Inert, archaic, dead. Just why do we bother with movies anymore? And can MTV save us?

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The Independent Culture

I can't remember how long I've been doing this column - as the paper changes shape or direction, and as the editorial personnel turn over, it's hard to maintain a sense of time. And in the last year it has been harder still to feel a part of the paper - because the paper ceased to be available in the USA where I live. I'm not complaining, because any threat of isolation is actually transformed by the instantaneous, electronic forms of communication. When I began to write for this paper (before this column), in 1992, I still wrote in long-hand, typed the pieces up and then faxed them to the London office where kind typists put them back into the computer typesetting system. Now I think on the word processor. Because it doesn't matter where you are; you can't hide.

I hope this isn't too personal or wayward an introduction to a column in which I want to say, look, something new! When the column began my brief was wide: it was to include news in the film world; deaths among the great and the obscure; ruminations on theory, etc. I was not the paper's film reviewer, though I could sometimes draw the reader's attention to something coming, something in the pipeline that still exists because of the quite absurd situation - in these times - whereby so many movies come so late to Britain. In the years of the column, there have been all too few occasions on which I felt the need to shout, heads up, something's coming, about a film opening in America, and more or less American - there was The Truman Show, Magnolia, Mulholland Dr. And now there is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

This is a new film, directed by Michel Gondry and written by Charlie Kaufman, and starring Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Kirsten Dunst, Mark Ruffalo, Elijah Wood and Tom Wilkinson. Those are all good signs, yet all those actors, for instance, have been in some pretty bad films in recent years. You know very well that there are new films all the time. Week after week they fall upon us, like artillery barrages on the Somme. And like those huge shells delivered to the mud, they have far more to do with death than with the new, or novelty. In other words - I know you've noticed this, every film writer feels it in the air like the plague - the movies we get each week are inert, archaic, dead, deathly and with far too little to do with our increasingly complicated experience.

They have given up on being art; they rarely pass as entertainment; they are nothing but a depressing business. In the last few years, increasingly beset by the plague, I have been writing a book (it is called The Whole Equation) which is something like a sequel to A Biographical Dictionary of Film. Whereas that earlier book (first published in 1975) was intended as a celebration of the people who had made movie-going my reason for being and the light of so many lives, The Whole Equation is an attempt to trace what happened to excitement. And in great part it is a history of how business smothered art.

But it also looks closely at the strange nature of the new art that began with Lumiere, Méliès and Edison (or whenever). And one of the things that drew my attention, and terrified me, was very broadly this: that compared with live performance, it was crucial to the nature of film that it was death-like, ghostly, utterly fabricated, and an incipient mockery of life. At its very best, film glorified not so much life and experience as fantasy and futility. In other words, it was both the end of the 19th century and the culture of humanism and a foreshadowing of something that was not humanist.

That is what is frightening - a culture in which human values do not prevail. Because all humans can be replaced and replicated.

To be punchy, let me cut to a recent interview on American television, the first I think ever given by Charlie Kaufman, the still young screenwriter who has given us so far Human Nature, Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. There are some people who are besotted with Charlie Kaufman. I am not one of them. I thought Being John Malkovich was sublime until it realised it had to end; I found Adaptation stricken by that dread far earlier; and I actually think Confessions... (directed by George Clooney) is the most successful film from his words.

But Kaufman is unquestionably smart, inventive, a theorist and someone who has thought a great deal about the nature of film. And there he was on television saying that you can't get film or begin to make it new (in the best sense) without recognising its affinity with death or the accumulated history of fantasy projection which has actually caused many of us to forget our real experience of life.

It was at much the same time that my 14-year-old son muttered in my ear about a DVD of the collected videos and short works of Michel Gondry - he knew this DVD because for several years he'd been following Gondry's music videos for people like The Stones, The White Stripes, Björk, Beck, Kylie Minogue and so on. And movie people - like my 14-year-old's father - have been raised to think poorly of MTV, just as "high" culture in general despises TV.

But in truth, for decades, television as a whole has been saying something wondrous about moving imagery; namely, why does it have to be 90 minutes, or 120 or 150? Couldn't it be three minutes or 30 seconds? No, I'm not talking about "short films", but films that are complete so much more quickly, films that can be taken in as one might devour a song or a painting. Yes, of course the music video has been a swamp of indulgence, prurience and exploitation - but Gondry has also used it to revivify the impulse of Surrealism and in particular that foreboding master of modernity, René Magritte.

So I have no space left to say anything about Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (not a title made for short columns), except that it is the meeting point of Kaufman and Gondry, as well as the flowering that some of us have hoped for in the great but troubled Jim Carrey. Eternal Sunshine... is not a masterpiece, not a great film. But it is something new, and - if I may - I will continue next week.

'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind' is released nationwide on 30 April

d.thomson@independent.co.uk

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