Film Studies: Long, sketchy, bogus: the movies we get are the ones that we deserve

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I offered last week to begin to talk about ways in which Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, directed by Michel Gondry, written by Charlie Kaufman, and starring Jim Carrey, might lead us towards some new ways of thinking about film. And I suggested that if we don't all engage in this attempt then we might have to honour the reports of "the death of film" that began, actually, in the late 1950s. But my column is no longer than usual, so I am going to confine myself to two issues.

I offered last week to begin to talk about ways in which Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, directed by Michel Gondry, written by Charlie Kaufman, and starring Jim Carrey, might lead us towards some new ways of thinking about film. And I suggested that if we don't all engage in this attempt then we might have to honour the reports of "the death of film" that began, actually, in the late 1950s. But my column is no longer than usual, so I am going to confine myself to two issues.

One of the most common questions about movies these days is: "Why is this damn thing dragging on and on?" The answer to that is a kind of orthodoxy based on nothing essential to the nature of film. More or less, before 1915, the separate items screened at a nickelodeon were about 10 or 20 minutes long. You could regard them as stories, anecdotes, jokes, tricks, marvels or mere spectacle. But the nature of theatre made for the widespread notion that a film ought to tell a story in the way a play did.

Perhaps instead we should compare the movie experience with looking at a painting. Now some great paintings have the germ of story in them, but a painting requires observation, absorption or immersion - a scrutiny that enlarges the picture's stillness without really getting into narrative. To judge by the behaviour of people at an exhibition, the average attention is five or six seconds. But sometimes you see people like statues, and still there when you come back. Some of us actually live with paintings: they do not change, but still we find new worlds there as we grow older.

Why should film not have gone that way? Probably because it consists of passing time, and because it easily succumbed to actors and writers. Nevertheless, music has a similar duration, and it depends (more than film, I think) on performers. And no one is going to spend the time listening to Mahler's Fifth, say, and try to convert it into a narrative.

And films need not be imprisoned in the standard length we now take for granted, and which was the basis of the theatrical business in film. In other words, a certain ticket price was deemed worthy of a show that might run for two or three hours, and more or less the fixed form of the feature film set (like concrete) at 90 minutes.

Today, that 90 is the lament of nostalgists who recall fast talk and brisk story-telling, as opposed to the current wallowing in mood, location or special effects. It's bizarre and troubling that new young directors need so much longer to tell so much sketchier stories. And so "movie" which once stood for speed, is now nearly a synonym for the portentous and the ponderous. That's one reason why young audiences at the movies wander in and out of the dark. They know the alleged line of attention or narrative is bogus - there is plenty you can miss, and that is a rhythm they learned with television.

This grim routine of two and a half hours a film has to end: we have to accept that great movies could be a couple of minutes long, or a couple of days. But that means the death of the theatre business in film (be assured, this is at hand). It means, instead, a form of "exhibition" or watching that is viewer-controlled. And the most beautiful form that might take is the CD-Rom. Then note that this achievement has been pioneered in the music video (the first really popular short films since Chaplin or Disney cartoons). Then look at the various videos, shorts and fragments by Michel Gondry which have made for his "movie" style.

My second - nastier - point is that it used to be assumed in old movies that the medium was "uplifting" and "entertaining" - in his idiocy, that genius DW Griffith (and he may have been an early instance of one person being both) reckoned The Birth of a Nation would put the clock back in the South. It nearly did: lynching and the Klu Klux Klan both came back after years of neglect.

For several decades film pressed on being as positive and upbeat as possible - it was a medium that thrived on comedy, musicals and "escapism". But then, gradually, gloom set in. Social critics noted that so many films were perilously close to being celebrations of violence and killing. Next, epistemologists identified how far theatre had been "live" while film was dead. It depended on a lack of life-like connection; it worked equally well even after Bogart, Wayne and Monroe were dead; in fact, the whole enterprise had been built around life-like fantasy, and was a removal from life. And after 100 years we look at our young and begin to wonder whether that could be so.

In other words, the idea that films were uplifting was a sweet fallacy. All they have done - and this is where Charlie Kaufman's remark about the resemblance between film and death is so important. For film has actually served to cut us off (as participants) from so many prime elements of life - like loving and thinking and taking responsibility. We are become voyeurs.

I am not talking about this possibility in a mood of sci-fi alarm - as if the body snatchers were here, so stand up and resist! No, their work is done. The trick is complete. Look about you at the world that knows so much more and does so much less - and our fatal detachment is the only explanation. And here - at last I get to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind - we see the terror and the beauty in its central conceit: a modest surgical intervention by which your memory can be scraped clean of anyone or anything you choose. It's simpler and less painful than abortion, and - of course - many of us know how to do it without even going to see a doctor.

Yes, this is to prepare you for a new film (not a masterpiece, not great, just new). But more than that it is to help you see that our "civilisation" is now so abject that it deserves films as the medium that best matches our futility and inhumanity.

What I propose in short is that film be shifted over to a section of the paper called "Death etc", rather in the way once upon a time we had "Life etc".

d.thomson@independent.co.uk

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

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