Андрей Алферов
Film scholar, director, curator
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Who’s hunting cinematography, and who’s building Noah’s Ark for filmmakers

Who's hunting cinematography, and who's building Noah's Ark for filmmakers
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Stepan Ryabchenko. The Taking of Christ, 2010–2021 / telegram.org

 

Cinema has made a great lap in its 120-year history, returning to where it started: individual, solitary viewing. Instead of moving pictures, now it’s not even a movie but content. Instead of an Edisonian kinetoscope, it’s a smartphone. Instead of a small coin — a monthly subscription fee. The new «plague» is called streaming. There are many of them. Therefore, all of them, for simplicity and convenience, are called by one name — NETFLIX

Throughout the last century, cinema has been predicted to be dead soon. It was supposed to be killed by sound, then color, the great and terrible television, VCRs, and the 3D format. But that didn’t happen.

For several years now, the main murderer of cinema has been called the very same streaming services. The fact that none of these prophecies have come true makes us believe that the movie is not so easy to kill by virtue of its living, adaptive nature. Therefore, streaming services will not succeed in this attempt.

The fact is that movies are constantly changing, adapting to the demands of the time. Including over the last few years.

 

THE FIRST ROWDY ATTACK ON THE MOVIE INDUSTRY

 

The health of cinema was seriously feared with the advent of the digital. Firmly associated with the film, cinema first came under a bully «digital assault» at the end of the last century, when the rebel directors of the avant-garde «Dogma 95» movement, whose ideologues included Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, rejected empty niceties and technology, adopting the ragged image aesthetics of early digital cameras.

Their principles have had a marked influence on filmmaking, encouraging the creation of more sincere and realistic films. They were articulated in the «Dogme 95 Manifesto» and «The Vow of Chastity». These documents contained a series of strict rules that movies produced within the movement had to follow:

#1Filming on location: no sets or props allowed.

#2 Sound is exclusively natural.

#3 Camera in hand: no static or any stabilizing devices may be used.

#4 Color image: «unnatural» images are forbidden.

#5 No special effects or filters: no special effects or filters may be used.

#6 Real time: the story must develop in chronological order.

#7 The movie should not belong to any genre.

#8 The film must be shot on 35mm film.

#9 The director is not listed in the credits in order to avoid a cult of personality.

 

THE SECOND ASSAULT ON THE CINEMA

 

A couple of years later, digital, having evolved considerably, infected big studio movies. For example, the second episode of «Star Wars» and the Michael Mann adaptation of the documentary novel about the legendary gangster John Dillinger («Johnny D»), the French detective «Vidocq» and a lot of other things were shot on it.

 

GRAND ASSASSINATION ATTEMPT

 

Further, «digital» finally legitimized the «Oscar»: in 2008, the Best Cinematography proclaimed the Englishman Anthony Dod Mantle shot on a digital camera «Slumdog Millionaire», and before that, he gained «digital» experience in the laboratories of «Dogma 95» (on his account also «Festen» Thomas Vinterberg and «Mifune» Søren Krag-Jacobsen).

Since then, digital cameras, with their mobility, lightness, and cost-effectiveness, have made their way out of the «marginal» ghetto and into the mainstream of filmmaking.

Virtually swapping places with film cameras, digital, however, did not kill the movie. It just pushed the boundaries wider and blurred the notion of «right» or «wrong» images in film.

 

FIVE SIGNS OF DIGITAL CYNICISM OF STREAMING PLATFORMS

 

Then, the guardians of pure cinema began to scare the viewer with another digital nightmare: streaming platforms.

Not only do they, like Golden Hollywood before them, monopolize the instruments of production and distribution in the same hands (1) — each platform is its own content-producing studio, distribution company, and cinema hall for everyone, everywhere at once — but they are also intrinsically linked to the Internet (2), the leprosy of the new century.

Technology is what defines Netflix’s philosophy and its future development. And moreover, the very shape of the movies it produces. It is such a matrix (3), delivering personalized dreams to each of its subscribers, offering individual soundtracks and subtitles, and streaming on more than 200 types of devices.

Netflix, essentially separating all of us formerly gathered in the temple of the movie theater for collective prayer that is the classic public moviegoing experience, is able (and has become commonplace) to offer each of the 140 million viewers around the world movies to suit his taste and request. Depending on how much he is used to watching and in what quality (4K TV, laptop, or phone).

Another frightening feature of streaming platforms is their ability to collect the personal data of their subscribers and make very precise measurements (4). Hence, the principles of content production: instead of mathematically verified masterpieces, they produce mass products. They don’t need to conjure up a hit that can satisfy the widest possible audience.

Instead, the formula is: one movie for one viewer. The maximum variety of genres and themes — from sci-fi, horror, and costume dramas to comedy, thriller, or documentary series.

According to Netflix’s philosophy, viewers should be able to watch everything up to «Oscar-winning numbers», avant-garde nerdiness, and outright soaps.

In this list, the names of prominent artists like David Fincher or Alfonso Cuaron are just brands, labels, and commodities (5) for which the platform has its own buyer.

And there is no thrill, no breathlessness, no sacrality. Just plain digital cynicism.

 

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LIFEBOAT FOR FILMMAKERS

 

How did streaming platforms with such a philosophy become a shelter for iconic auteur directors and all sorts of newcomers who went unnoticed by the big studios?

It happened in much the same way as in the cannibalistic 1980s when VCRs came into American homes. Their technological innovation did considerable damage to the familiar moviegoing experience. You no longer had to run to your favorite movie at the theater. It became your own home.

Before the advent of the VHS era, almost every major movie company had a distribution division that dealt mainly with the distribution of foreign films. In addition, independent distributors operated in this quiet business. The advent of video destroyed this distribution paradise.

Opportunities for the distribution of local low-budget movies expanded, and the foreign sector, with its Bergman and Antonioni, was dealt a crushing blow.

Fewer and fewer viewers chose to go to the cinemas, and more and more distributors unsuccessfully searched for cheap American, as they would say now, «content» for their tapes. New players came to the market, rapidly forming their libraries of films by local authors. Demand created supply: the most profitable VHS sellers (like Vestron) directly invested in local movie marginalists, buying the distribution rights already at the production stage.

The more openly Hollywood reoriented its capacity to produce universal pictures, the stronger became its antipodes. Their movies cost tens of thousands but earned millions: sixty thousand. «Return of the Secaucus Seven» by John Sayles earned 2 million at the box office, and «Eating Raoul» by Paul Bartel — 4 million.

The debut of the then-unknown Spike Lee’s «She’s Gotta Have It» grossed 7 million at the box office. And then there was «Stranger than Paradise» by Jim Jarmusch (amateur, in fact, a movie made on his knees, marked in Cannes and collected at the box office two and a half million), and a lot of similar things.

All the 90s demonstrated that intransigence and teenage maximalism sell as well as standardized middle-class dreams, and outsider heroes turn into glossy sex icons quite well. After all, it was actually very profitable to make cheap and mid-budget movies.

But in the noughties, mid-budget movies (so-called «quiet human stories») suddenly disappeared from the box office. And not only because of the glut of teen blockbusters. But also because of the emergence of TV series. Cable channels offered the widest range of terrific shows. They also began to poach both theatergoers and professionals.

For example, a screenwriter no longer had to work on the next Spider-Man or some monster story. He was happy to go where he could write an intelligent, deep story for a thoughtful audience. Television, which had previously intimidated everyone, suddenly began to offer incredible creative freedoms, attracting actors and directors whose names had recently been associated with big movies.

Streaming platforms, which have essentially become the new television, have followed the same path. The first Netflix series — «House of Cards» — was made by David Fincher, and Kevin Spacey played the central role in it. It was not the usual television series but a multi-part film, which was difficult to imagine in the theater at that time: the dark themes of the unsightly underside of American politics would undoubtedly scare away the viewer.

Such cinema of moral turmoil was broadcast only in the programs of major film festivals. It is no coincidence that the second season of «House of Cards» was shown fully at the Berlin International Film Festival, allocating a separate theater in the festival complex for it. Cannes and Venice did the same in time.

On Netflix, «House of Cards» became a real hit. Its success prompted the management of the platform to engage in the production of full-length movies (unlike the same cable channels).

And that’s when the soulless platform, which caused much fear, turned into a real lifeboat, Noah’s Ark, for hundreds of big directors who refused to shoot rumbling blockbusters and typical comic books for teenagers.

Martin Scorsese finally got a chance to shoot (for streaming) his «The Irishman», whose $120 million budget had scared off the Hollywood majors for years. And courtier David Fincher directed for the streaming giant «Mank» — a brilliant on its merits film biography of Herman Mankiewicz, the legendary Hollywood screenwriter (played by Gary Oldman in the movie) who wrote the famous «Citizen Kane». Fincher had been looking for money to direct this project, written by his father, since the mid-1990s.

Potential investors were stopped by the author’s categorical desire to shoot his movie in black and white. Once in the era of «video», under the roof of streaming immediately flooded and numerous movie marginalists from the «independents», previously scouring the studio backyards in search of some money for their little movie.

Amazon financed (and did not miss) the indie drama about provincial ennui, «Manchester by the Sea», directed by Kenneth Lonergan, which allowed Casey Affleck to get his acting Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role. Behind the Oscar triumph of another independent American drama, «CODA» by Sian Heder, is behind AppleTV+.

Oscar-winning Jane Campion’s western «The Power of the Dog» starring Benedict Cumberbatch, which won gold at the Venice Film Festival, is an arthouse product of the Netflix giant.

In the digital labyrinths of streaming, Adam Sandler, a famous comedian who could not find himself for a pretty long time, also found a home. Netflix gave him a second chance and handed him a career renaissance, filming, among other things, the drama «Hustle» (2022) — about a former basketball scout who wants to return to the big sport on the shoulders of a young, talented rookie — and the comedy horror film «Hubie Halloween».

Meeting the demand of the most diverse and previously invisible social groups, streaming services, having created a massive network of online cinemas, are literally globalizing cinema, reaching out to viewers all over the world.

Such virtual cinemas have the opportunity not only to purchase films from different countries for their library but also to produce them. And these can be works of already recognized maestros (like Alfonso Cuaron with his «Roma»), and small films with tiny budgets, which have little chance of being seen outside their country, and considered lost classics like Orson Welles’ forgotten masterpiece «The Other Side of the Wind», restored by Netflix.

Netflix’s hit was, for example, Spain’s «Platform», with its creepy metaphor of class stratification, while Amazon has a two-time Oscar winner, the quiet drama about deafness, «Sound of Metal» (2019).

 

POSTSCRIPTUM

 

If streaming services have done so much good, why do they continue to be disliked and criticized? And who are these people?

But this is already a topic for a separate article.

 

To be continued…


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