It happens that in early December, I was part of a group called together by the American Film Institute to nominate the 10 best American pictures of 2005. That wasn't too difficult, and there was a general air of agreement that the attitudes widely thought to inspire the "independent" movie had had a good year. In clear conscience, we felt bound to choose a number of brave, modest, intelligent, sensitive films - Capote, Brokeback Mountain, Good Night, and Good Luck, A History of Violence, The Squid and the Whale, Munich, Syriana, Crash, The 40 Year-Old Virgin. Small films with important subjects - exactly what you might hope for on screens in an enlightened, informed, rational, socially and politically responsible country.
Like Sweden? Or the United Kingdom? What I'm trying to suggest is that we have (on the strength of 2005) achieved a kind of American cinema that resembles the best things available at your book store, your concert hall, your art gallery, and so on. These are the serious, worthy pictures that well-educated people might want to go to in order to feel stirred, provoked, and essentially rather good about being stirred and provoked. In fact, our list is better than that. It goes deeper: A History of Violence turns to bite the complacently provoked viewer; Capote says you can't trust a writer, not even a good one; and The Squid and the Whale says God help you if you have a novelist and a professor for parents - in others words, the kind of liberal and enlightened people for whom these movies are being made.
But I only listed nine films just now - and we went for 10. I don't know all the budget numbers for a fact, but I introduce our 10th (we did not rank our choices) as a picture that may have cost as much as the other nine altogether. I mean King Kong, which cost well over $200m to make, and which could easily (come February) be in contention for the Best Picture Oscar. You couldn't wish for a more extreme rivalry, not if you're trying to write an essay like this.
Brokeback Mountain is from the heart, the mind and the soul, and from tough lives. From a story by Annie Proulx, it is directed by Ang Lee and made with the slow care that distinguishes all save The Hulk in his work. It is the story of two cowboys sent on a lonesome mission - to watch over the sheep on Brokeback Mountain - who become lovers, in a love that means more than the marriages they later undertake. This is a "breakthrough" film in liberal parlance, not just a quiet celebration of the gay spirit, but an assertion that it can reach into the mountains of Wyoming and find such plain men as these cowboys. It doesn't matter that the film doesn't quite work for me. It is courageous (it waited a long time to get made); it is very well done in most respects; and it is going to have an avid art-house audience who may say to themselves, "It could make things better."
Well, maybe, and there are so many ways in which "things" in the US could be improved. I suspect that the film won't play much in Wyoming; and I'd guess again that vigorous opponents of its liberalism will not see it. It's a film that will please the converted far more than those in most need.
Against that, King Kong is lunatic nonsense, just as it was in 1933. Once again, intrepid, stupid and greedy adventurers are led by a movie producer to Skull Island in search of a great ape, Kong, as big as a house, but likely to prove a sensation on stage in New York City. So it proves. And in this version of the story, special effects and computer-generated imagery have taken over. This is not hokum photographed for our fun (which is what happened in 1933). This is the fun blown up as large as technology and Peter Jackson's imagination can make it. There are humans in the film, and yes you can still believe that they are real actors, led by Naomi Watts. But now an actor, Andy Serkis, is also credited as Kong - not just the figure who wore the monkey suit, but the face that was used to "humanise" the visage of the ape. In the movie business, they call it intelligent design.
Nobody knows yet whether this King Kong will carry audiences away or whether the public will complain, "King Kong? We know that one. Why does it have to be twice as long? Why all the special effects?" And here's the really awkward question: "Why should I go to a theatre on a cold night in an ill-behaved crowd at $12.50 a head if you include parking, plus the baby-sitting money? Why can't I see it at home, in my own time? The way I watch DVDs?"
That, it seems to me, is the crucial uncertainty most likely to affect changes in the movies this year, and in the next few years. To put it very simply, do we want to be at the movies, or would we rather stay home?
It would be hard to overestimate the significance of this shift. To which you might say, "If it sets in." To which I'd reply, "Wake up, and pay attention." I know that theatrical attendance at movies in Britain was up last year - and I'm happy to hear it. But in America, the decline in the number of tickets sold in 2005 promises to be at least 6 per cent. That is a scary loss, and it has Hollywood and the exhibition business (the theatres) in a panic that only King Kong can help mend this Christmas. Yet you have to bear this historical perspective in mind, too: in 1945, when the population of the US was half what it is now, about 100 million movie tickets were sold a week. Today, that figure is around 25 million - which is hardly what you'd think of as a mass medium any more.
What these figures tell us is that whole sections of the population have given up the movie-going habit. A lot of people wait until the seasonal holiday at the end of the year to pick up a few pictures, because they have learnt that that is when the industry lets out the goodies (in time for the Awards). In the first quarter of the year we get the films that barely made it, the ones in which no one has confidence, the pulp that only the teenage audience will pay out for. The Christmas trade is expected to make up for year-round losses. But in that case how long is it before theatres close in the afternoons in the first nine months of the year, plus Monday and Tuesday nights?
Most theatre-owners will tell you that their side of the business has been in retreat for decades. Yet we have far too many theatres, simply because in the Eighties and Nineties there was an insane over-building of multiplex operations. Go to those places in the daytime, and you can find modern loneliness.
The building miscalculations of the past two decades were founded on the apparent chemistry of dynamic franchises allied to new special effects. The franchises were called Star Wars, Raiders, Rambo, Batman, Jurassic, Spider Man, and so on, and the effects tended away from pure visual magic to the ability to design and create any image in the computer. This trend has surpassed film itself. There is a shot in King Kong of a smashed magazine from the film producer's camera. Kong has stepped on it - the box is shattered and the pinky-brown film-stock, complete with sprocket holes, spills out in the jungle light. Peter Jackson has a sharp sense of humour and I'd guess that the shot - lingered on - is meant to provoke the infant question, "What's that, Dad?" Because no one now knows what filmstock looks like or thinks of the medium as one in which light burns into the silver emulsion, and negative goes to positive.
So what we get now is "digital", as in digital image-making and digital projection. We are not seeing light so much as variations in the electronic signal. People in the business will tell you it looks just like photography, and who can tell the difference? Well, I can, and I think you can. Because digital is flat, cold and dead. It might be perfect for films about zombies, but it suffers in comparison if you're talking about faces and places as the ingredients of film, and the way they look as the light changes.
In the last 20 years of the 20th century, that technological shift seemed to work. In turn that accelerated the inventive processes that went from film to digital (and don't forget that it has already become very difficult to buy still film and its paper - that art and industry have gone the way of Kodak). Digital projection is far easier for theatres than the manual operation - and the great skills of human projection are dying out along with the lovely, classic Academy frame and the role of high-quality sound in movie theatres.
The impact of these changes has long been known in movie-going. For much of the year, the theatre is a place for teenagers and no one else. The stories told are fantastical, with hardly any basis in real experience. And the imagery is synthetic, cool and deadly. In turn, I think there is no doubt about the way this state of doldrum "at the movies" has fostered the development of cable television, with challenging subject matter from life, and the heady era of independent film. If Brokeback Mountain were to win Best Picture it would fairly represent the way in which that discriminating audience has become so vital, and it would prove the vitality - as a thing of beauty and a story element - of real light falling on real faces.
The American Film Institute group I referred to earlier, mulling over big issues, passed a resolve to do all it could to protect the "theatrical experience" - and there were studio executives as well as top directors on our panel, people desperate to see theatres survive. But isn't that battle over already?
The numbers make it clear that the industry already raises more revenue from home video (VCR and DVD) than it does from theatres. That trend is continuing, and I suspect that it is about to guide the future. In other words, how far away are we from a Christmas season in which films like King Kong and Brokeback Mountain open on television? In which the big movie opening takes the evident logic of the first weekend and goes for one night? Thus a premiere (and it could be international - no more of those stupid delays before Britain gets a movie) could be like a great live sports event or the coverage of a disaster (the things TV was made for).
The business already leans this way for two pressing reasons: immediate saturation exposure would do a lot to get round the piracy problems that sap revenue whenever a film opens gradually. And if you get all your audience in one night, why, you get all your money, too. And a film company is paying interest on its investment until the revenue tops it.
I see nothing futuristic in this change. Steven Soderbergh's new movie, Bubble, will actually go straight to TV this year. If theatres close - and I think this is certain in the next five or 10 years - then there are big urban and suburban properties coming available. The audience is at home already, watching DVDs or playing video games on its television sets. Of course, there is another powerful innovation waiting but still not fully embraced (because of expense): big domestic TV sets, with plasma screens, built into walls - the thing we call home theatre. And while we're on this subject, if I had to make a guess about the "art" of moving imagery I would guess that there will be Citizen Kane-like departures in the area of video games, works for adults that can be played for days at a time, and interactive stories that hire in major novelists and artists as creators.
Is this the end of cinema, or the movies? I ask as a mourner. I love huge screens in vast theatres crammed with strangers. I love King Kong just because it is a pulp fable (Beauty and the Beast) as rich in meaning as it is sensational. But I'm not sure that younger generations care about the big screen any longer. Kids are happy to watch on tiny screens with terrible imagery.
In which case, enjoy your movie theatre-going in Britain while you can. For the great communal passion for the movies may be over, replaced with that cooler, user-friendly solitude, the thing we call television. The atmosphere of the crowd at the movies was always vital, not just for the illusion of society, but in the spirit of collective response and public story-telling. From Chaplin to Capra, from Griffith to Spielberg, this made for movies as sources of delight and consolation for all of us. It was a medium founded on the notion "all". Whereas, if we stay home then being shut away, comfortable, separate and unattached will alter our political life and everything else.
Yes, I'm sure there will be a few theatres still - the National Film Theatre, academic or museum screens, places where the very young can catch the experience of once-upon-a-time. But those screens will be state-subsidised and artificial. They will testify to a time when we might all thrill to a King Kong together, and when we believed in story. But at the DVD/plasma level, a film may become more like a sedative we take before sleeping, a mood indicator for empty dreams. In the new version Kong's roar - his anger and defiance - is directed not just at the planes and the nasty humans, but at the medium telling his tale.
BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN A film directed by Ang Lee, starring Jake Gyllenhaal. Opens 6 January
JARHEAD A film about the first Gulf war, directed by San Mendes. Opens 13 January
DAN FLAVIN: A RETROSPECTIVE The 'fluorescent light' artist. 19 January to 2 April. Hayward Gallery, London. hayward.org.uk
WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? By Edward Albee, starring Kathleen Turner. From 20 January. Apollo Theatre, London
MUNICH Directed by Steven Spielberg. Opens 27 January
SOUTHWARK FAIR By Samuel Adamson, directed by Nick Hytner. National Theatre, London. From 10 February. nationaltheatre.org.uk
VERDI'S MACBETH A new production by Phyllida Lloyd. Royal Opera House, London. 18 February to 9 March. royalopera.org
AMERICANS IN PARIS 1860 - 1900 Works by Whistler, Sargent, Mary Cassatt. National Gallery, London. 22 February to 21 May. nationalgallery.org.uk
MICHELANGELO DRAWINGS A large exhibition. British Museum, London. 23 March to 25 June. thebritishmuseum.ac.uk
BOLSHOI BALLET Swan Lake, Spartacus. Hippodrome, Birmingham. 28 March to 1 April, then touring
ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA The Royal Shakespeare Company begins its cycle of the complete works. 12 April to 14 October. Swan Theatre, Stratford. rsc.org.uk
WAGNER'S GOTTERDAMMERUNG The end of the Ring Cycle in Keith Warner's production. 17 April to 6 May. Royal Opera House, London. royalopera.org
ERIC CLAPTON begins his UK tour in Glasgow (8 May) and ends with seven nights at the Albert Hall, London (16-26 May)
KANDINSKY The Russian painter who pioneered Abstraction. Tate Modern, London. 9 June to 24 September. tate.org.uk
CANALETTO IN VENICE Holyrood House, Edinburgh. 16 June to 7 January 2007. royalcollection.org.uk
EDINBURGH INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL 13 August to 3 September. eif.co.uk
VELAZQUEZ First major UK exhibition of the Spanish painter. National Gallery, London. 18 October to 14 January 2007. nationalgallery.org.ukReuse content