Until this summer I hadn’t been to the movies in more than 23 years.
What I mean is, even though I had seen more movies in that time than just about anyone I know, it had always been for work, part of my job as a film critic for The Times. Even when I just bought a ticket to go out with family or friends, I never felt as if I were off-duty. I saw movies in the company of my fellow critical clock-punchers, sometimes in specially taped-off rows of regular movie theaters during sneak previews, sometimes at festivals, usually in screening rooms tucked into Manhattan office buildings.
And then one day, like a weary gunslinger who has seen too much, I decided it was time to ride off into the sunset. In March of this year I published my last movie review and walked away. After spending 21 weeks reading books, studying the weather and trying to learn a new musical instrument, I felt sufficiently purged of my old habits to return to the movies like a normal person. In a curious coincidence, this happened to be the very summer that all the other normal people were returning too. We all went to see “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer.”
The movies were back!
That was the headline, anyway, thanks to the “Barbenheimer” phenomenon. Two hotly anticipated, heavily marketed features released on the same day, with a combined running time of nearly five hours and no connection to a franchised cinematic universe, together earned almost a quarter of a billion dollars at the North American box office on their first weekend in theaters. In an earlier era, this might not have been news. A hit movie — even two hit movies at once — hardly constitutes a historical event. But this felt special, largely because of the sense of an old normal reinserting itself into a precarious and confusing world.
“Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” had collided with the assumption that cinema was over — or, at least, moviegoing as we had known it was obsolete. Even before the pandemic, we were told that streaming was the future: a seamless, convenient, welcoming utopia of endless content. All the movies you want, whenever you want, wherever you are. Once Covid-19 shut down the theaters, this latest technological disruption began to feel like serendipity.
I had to admit, there was some magic in streaming. Partly because of my job, I had always identified movies with moviegoing, even after most of the movie audience had adopted a more eclectic, platform-agnostic approach. During lockdown, confined to a smaller room with a smaller screen, I found myself alone in a vast digital cinematheque. Untethered from the schedule of new releases and review deadlines, I watched whatever came to hand. One morning I inhaled “Being John Malkovich” twice, in a kind of Gen-X lockdown fugue state, convinced that it was the key to everything that had happened or would ever happen in my life.
In the first pandemic year, watching movies, always a solitary as well as a social pursuit — and, mostly, a job — became something like reading, or reading the way I did it as a precocious child, ransacking my parents’ shelves. I was promiscuous, obsessive, impatient, uncritical.
Maybe there was no need to go back into the big dark rooms. Maybe there was nothing worth seeing there. As the pandemic began to recede, prophecies of the end of moviegoing continued. The emerging conventional wisdom declared that while certain blockbusters might still attract large audiences to theaters, the future of the art form was decisively asynchronous and homebound. Going to the cinema would become like reading poetry or listening to LPs on vinyl: a niche activity, the expression of a cultural stance that combined aesthetic principle, philosophical protest and just a hint of preciousness.
As a 2022 headline in Filmmaker Magazine put it: “Cinema Is Dead and We’re All Its Ghosts.”
The death of movies has been proclaimed for almost as long as movies have been around. A partial list of the forces that have threatened their existence over the past 90-odd years — as a business, as an art form, as a pastime — would include:
The studio system
The collapse of the studio system
None of these actually destroyed the movies, but the fear that something will, the certainty that something already has, accounts for a strong undercurrent of fatalism coursing through the languages of movie love. For more than 125 years, as the movies have expanded and multiplied — onto more and bigger (and also tinier) screens, from the nickelodeon to CinemaScope to the iPhone and IMAX — the feeling has persisted among some of their most passionate and sophisticated partisans that they are actually withering and shrinking.
In “Sunset Boulevard,” Billy Wilder’s inky, cynical Hollywood noir, the silent-film goddess Norma Desmond (played by the silent-film goddess Gloria Swanson) laments that the pictures have gotten small. That was in 1950, in the midst of an era that would soon be remembered as its own larger-than-life golden age. Start talking about movies, and before long someone will complain that they don’t make them like they used to.
They never made them like they used to. Our cultural memory cherry-picks the good stuff and brushes away the dross; it constantly revises its own judgments, letting masterpieces slip into oblivion and discovering lost treasures in the trash pile. The movies themselves change from decade to decade, generating instant nostalgia. In each phase of their existence, they have mutated so drastically — literally changing size, shape and appearance — as to elude definition altogether.
I used to think that a best-of-times-worst-of-times feeling was a part of the professional deformation of being a critic, someone compelled not only to pass judgment on the merits of a particular movie but also to weigh in from time to time on the Future of Cinema. Or maybe, more subjectively, it was my own ambivalence that projected rosy or crepuscular light onto that future. To see three or four hundred movies a year is to know the keenest pangs of movie love and the deepest depths of boredom, and it’s easy enough to mistake the fluctuations of your own mood for the tectonic rumblings of cultural history. But none of that is why the movies are so wonderful and so awful, so magical and so dispiriting. The real reason is something we don’t like to talk about: money.
In her classic essay “In Hollywood,” Joan Didion asserts that the real art form in the film industry is the deal, implying that the movies themselves are a byproduct of the creative work of financing and selling them. What you see on the screen — the star, the C.G.I. effects, the location, the shot — is the afterimage of an economic decision.
Why pretend otherwise? Like every other 21st-century discourse, modern movie love leans on quantification, on metrics, on math. Critics are not supposed to care about how much something cost or how much it earned, but the truth is that budgets and box-office grosses supply us with useful information.
At every level of production, filmmaking has always been a capital-intensive undertaking, and movie watching has always been a consumer activity. Before streaming, when we talked about blockbusters or festival favorites, Oscar contenders or popular genre sensations, money was always at least implicit in the conversation. It served as an index of success and failure, a way of gauging audience response and measuring cultural importance.
And not only for critics. On any given week in the old days, you could glance at the box-office charts (and the television Nielsen ratings) and feel as if you knew something about the state of the art and the mood of the audience. Not everything, and probably not the most important things, but you could find a way to articulate what was more important in opposition to those numbers. Your own preferences and practices acquired a context; you could swim with or against the currents of hype, enthusiasm and groupthink. The social life of movies was inseparable from their bottom-line fortunes.
Streaming isn’t the same. Like many digital technologies, it has rattled the laws of capitalism and thrown out the old ledger books. Its defining transaction is the purchase not of a ticket but of a subscription. Along with the price of access to content, the consumer grants the kind of surveillance that has become the digital norm. Your data is collected and fed into an algorithm that knows what you watched, how often and for how long and that stacks up fresh offerings based on your viewing history. Netflix will ask you “who’s watching?” but won’t tell you who is watching along with you.
This minor alteration of consumer habit has turned out to be a major cultural disaster — not the death of movies so much as the eclipse of their shared meaning. Just as streaming isolates and aggregates its users, so it dissolves movies into content. They don’t appear on the platforms so much as disappear into them, flickering in a silent space beyond the reach of conversation. We can watch them whenever we want. We can watch something else. It doesn’t matter.
It certainly doesn’t matter to the platforms, whose business model depends on a state of indifferent attention paradoxically known as engagement. As long as we’re still watching Netflix, Netflix doesn’t care what we’re watching on Netflix or whether we’re also texting, working, dozing or, um, chilling. Quality — prestige dramas, works of auteur cinema, cherished old network or cable shows — may be the reason we subscribe, but quantity is what will keep us there, each in our own content cocoon.
The manufacture of this content has disrupted the old ways of doing business, the deal-making arts that enchanted and appalled generations of Hollywood observers. The movie industry was never famous for fairness, transparency or honest accounting, but there was a coherence to its chaos. Stars knew what they were worth. Filmmakers and writers knew where their money came from. There was some up front and, with luck, more on the back end: a share of the box office; a cut of the DVD or broadcast rights; a higher budget next time around. In television, there was syndication money and the stability of steady employment on a long-running show.
The labor unrest that, along with Barbenheimer, was the big movie story of the summer, arose out of this instability. The writers, who ended their strike in September after 148 days, saw their standard of living erode as the streaming boom cooled and were alarmed at the potential encroachments of A.I. The actors, who are as of this writing still on the picket lines but have gone back to the table, face a similarly precarious landscape. The convergence of A.I. and franchised, formula-driven screen stories makes it possible to envision a world in which writers and stars will be fewer and cheaper and maybe ultimately unnecessary.
The strikes were one form of protest against this future. The crowds lining up for “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” were another. I’m not naïve: Buying a ticket to a Warner Bros. release made under the auspices of Mattel is hardly an act of anticapitalist resistance. But it is a way, I think, of taking back some of the democratic energy that has always been part of mass culture, of claiming a participatory share in the cultural economy.
The movies are, once again, not dead. Art forms are more like viruses than animal species: They don’t become extinct; they mutate, recombine, go dormant and spread out again in new, sometimes unrecognizable ways, which carry memories of older selves encoded in their DNA.
Going to the movies may not always be a magical journey — more often, it means contending with parking, concession-stand lines, yakkers and texters in the next row, sticky floors and dim projection — but it has long been an object of sentimentality. The number of movies that fold in primal scenes of rapture at the cinema is beyond counting. “Babylon,” “Empire of Light” and “The Hand of God” are among the most recent I can think of: artifacts of the streaming era pointing backward toward previous golden ages. Elegies for moviegoing and prayers for its return.
Some of the wistfulness comes from the idea of moviegoing as yet another symbol of the collective life we supposedly had before the atomized, polarized present. Remember how we used to do things together — shop, worship, watch sports, go to movies?
We didn’t really. We were always polarized, divided, alienated. That’s what it is to be modern, to be human. What made the movies matter — not any particular movie, but the movies as such — was that they captured and reflected this condition in a way that nothing else had. The communal embrace of the theater could also provide a profound solitude, a liberating anonymity. If streaming is a form of surveillance, moviegoing is the opposite. It can feel like a secret. What did I think about “Barbie”? About “Oppenheimer”? I can’t tell you.
We go to the movies to lose ourselves, to explore a world that partakes of our common reality and also departs from it. “No other narrative art can get as close as the cinema to the variety, the texture, the skin of daily life,” the critic John Berger wrote in 1990, around the time of film’s centennial. “But its unfolding, its coming into being, its marriage with the Elsewhere, reminds us of a longing, or a prayer.”
A prayer is uttered by the congregation. Movies are made by corporations — by the combined efforts of artists, technicians, financiers and deal makers — and completed by the audience. They are variously amazing, mediocre, corrupt, visionary and stupid, but their intrinsic qualities matter less than what we are able to make of them. They feed us lies, myths, propaganda and nonsense, which we alchemize into wishes and dreams.
Or, to put it another way, they are commodities that we consume with our imaginations. (In this way, “Barbie” the movie is a lot like Barbie the doll.) We humanize them as we use them to discover our own humanity. They disappoint us because we disappoint ourselves and enchant us for the same reason. Our continual worry over their death is projected anxiety about our own extinction. They are alive because we are, and maybe also vice versa.