What is a Movie?

by Neil Fauerso May 29, 2021

Jack Nicholson in “Chinatown” (1974)

Seeing a movie in the theater is by far my favorite thing to do in life. I could lie and try to seem more attractive and “deep” by saying something like “swimming in the Pacific Ocean” or an “al fresco dinner at sunset when someone asks an unanswerable question.” But let’s be honest, I don’t know if I’ve had a better day than seeing Sátántangó at Austin Film Society, or blowing off a drunken roommate’s apology dinner for a 70mm screening of Lawrence of Arabia at the Cinerama in Seattle, or even just seeing Michael Mann’s Collateral at 11:50 a.m. after working all night on some rote, meaningless bullshit one does to get by. I remember all of those better than most New Year’s Eves. As our benevolent little king Marty (Scorsese) says: “Cinema isn’t about life — it is life.”

We are now in a period of stark transition — technology and a global pandemic may more or less render movie theaters to something akin to a jazz club, a novelty simulacra of some halcyon past which only exist in mid-size and larger cities. In the past few months, the beloved ArcLight chain, which owned several hundred theaters across Southern California, including the legendary Cinerama dome — perhaps the best place to see a big movie in the whole world — shuttered all its theaters permanently. Alamo Drafthouse has entered Chapter 11 and some vampiric private equity firm is now in control. “Nothing Will Change” they say, as every movie you see post-pandemic is suddenly filled with 20 minutes of Mortal Kombat previews. Storied and charming two- or three-screen neighborhood art house theaters like the lovely River Oaks are closing with such frequency it’s hard to keep up and properly note their passing.

I am not alone in my alarm and anguish. Scorsese penned a beautiful essay about seeing art-house movies in New York as a teenager in the late 1950s, in particular ones by Fellini, and how the comic movies of today are functionally and literally a different entity entirely. This moving and gentle remembrance of course resulted in the sputtering brays from the MCU fanbase as adults ranted and raved in a manner suggesting membership in a cult that ends in mass suicide when they kill off Tony Stark for the third time or whatever. Richard Brody engaged in a piercing and provocative discussion with Paul Schrader, another hunched saint of cinema, more or less resigned to the fate of “film” as a medium headed toward extinction to be replaced by the amorphous and endless jellyfish of “streaming.” On this year’s Oscar’s broadcast (which only 9.8 million people watched, down from 43.7 million in 2014), Frances McDormand received her third Oscar for her wondrously flinty performance in Nomadland, and implored people to see the film on the biggest screen possible. 

The inevitable Nomadland backlash had already begun by then — with accusations that it romanticizes poverty; makes working at an Amazon factory seem swell; it’s a work that allows the rich to see the poor as not shackled by their grim circumstances, but rather choosing a lifestyle of adventure. I find myself baffled at these didactic critiques when the movie I saw was a beautiful docu-fiction paean to connecting with others, and that the bleak future coming for all of us will be survived with the help of friends. 

I think my opposite reaction to the film can be attributed partially (maybe even largely) to my seeing it on a big screen. Nomadland was the first movie I saw in a public screening since a revival screening of Goodfellas in March 2020, and it was impossible not to be swept up into Nomadland’s gorgeous vistas and emotional sincerity. I wept several times. 

Any great movie, no matter how intimate its setting and cinematography, will be grander on the biggest screen. I think movie theaters will continue to exist in some capacity. Afterall, symphonies still exist (for now). There is an appetite for a sensory spectacle that most people can’t replicate at home no matter how hi-def their set-up is. The question is which “movies” will be playing at theaters. Will it only be Marvel movies, video game movies, “amusement park rides” as Scorsese correctly describes them, or will “movies” and their ineffable “magic” still get made? 

And what is that, exactly? What separates a great movie from a great TV series? Anything? I believe something does. I’m one of those pretentious pricks who thinks that no TV show is as great as the greatest film; no TV show reaches the heights of Andrei Rublev, Under the Skin, Seven Beauties, Thief. The Sopranos and Twin Peaks: The Return come close. Is there some formal, narrative schematic to the medium of film that separates it from television, even TV movies? 

I just finished Sam Wasson’s delightful The Big Goodbye, which chronicles the making of the 1970s classic Chinatown from the perspective of the main players: producer Bob Evans, director Roman Polanski (whose perversion is not ignored), writer Robert Towne, and star Jack Nicholson. The ultimate, elegiac “point” of this chronicle is that 1974 was the last year of a different, more noble way of making movies. Before Jaws and Star Wars and the summer tentpoles that carpet-bombed the US (and now the whole world), there was a brief, Edenic period when louche but elegant and genuinely sincere executives like John Calley and Robert Evans would shepherd startling original works from chrysalis to butterfly. On a given weekend in 1974 you could go the movies and see (I’m including only American movies): The Conversation, Chinatown, The Godfather Part II, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, Young Frankenstein, Lenny, The Parallax View, The Gambler, California Split, Blazing Saddles, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Sugarland Express, The Taking of Pelham 1,2,3, and A Woman Under the Influence. Wasson’s thesis is that 1974 was the greatest year for the factory of Hollywood — and then in one poof of the smoke-machine, it was gone. 

Jack Nicholson has never appeared in a TV series (and most likely won’t, because at 84, he seems firmly retired), and not even in TV interviews. Historically, the only time you saw him on TV was grinning and sozzled at a Lakers game or the Oscars. Nicholson is a true modernist romantic who believed actors were the novelists of their time, and he managed his appearances so his big-screen performances were maximally beguiling. He explains his love of film and disdain of television: “The overall concept of film is the story, the pace at which it’s told, the progressions, the aesthetic viewpoint. The object is to make all of that a part of an audience’s life, for that period of time. But on television, you are turned on and off. They can make you different colors.” Likewise, Schrader describes the special narrative quality of films (versus streaming series) as: “Its ability to compose concise stories which land like a punch in the face.” 

So we can identify at least two main characteristics that separate “cinema” from “shows and streaming/TV”: the heightened aesthetic sense and spectacle, and a narrative concision that is immersive and striking. Is there more? Twenty years ago and before you could say cinema had an explicit frankness with sex, violence, and the general stark and existential nature of life. Once upon a time, TV was cheerful and square, but no longer. I’m not sure any American movie ever made is more violent than the most savage episodes of Game of Thrones and Sons of Anarchy. Sex is almost absent from American film now; even cheesecake films like Fifty Shades of Grey are chaste, but there are seemingly endless prestige TV bodice-rippers (I know because my mom is always watching a new one) with an “HBO after dark” vibe.

Schrader notes that the new, excellent cable series Mare of Easttown is “as dark and as grim as anything in American cinema from the sixties.” That may be true on a granular level — Mare of Easttown has a prickly anti-hero (a tremendous Kate Winslet), unspeakable crimes, and bleak denouements — but it’s missing the soaring sadness: the end of Carnal Knowledge, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Shampoo, The Parallax View, and of course most magisterially, Chinatown. That ending: “Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown” is a perfect emblem of disillusionment, resignation, and despair for a post-Vietnam War, Watergate nation. But it’s also a summation of the artistry of Hollywood Cinema, through an intense period of creative consternation; it’s the perfect stinger. Robert Towne envisioned Chinatown not as a physical place but as a psychological state. Polanski insisted on ending the film in the actual Chinatown of Los Angeles, but their intentions merged: Chinatown was where you think you knew the score, but the bottom fell out; where you thought you were the hero but you were actually the patsy; where the bad guys always win. It’s grim, but rendered as such a real dream, it’s always intoxicating — every bummer time. 

That’s the ineffable quotient separating “cinema” from “media” — the wild, doomed dream. What Cahiers du Cinéma has written about for decades, what every country’s “new wave” tries to whittle and strike into flame, this indelible constellation across continents. It’s Val Kilmer saying “I’ll be your huckleberry” in Tombstone; and the teenage survivor declaring he’ll have cognac and marshmallows after robbing a john in Pixote; the devastating swinging door to expansive endings of The Searchers and Brokeback Mountain; the way cinema echos and skips on itself like rocks thrown on an alpine lake — Winter Light, The Sacrifice, First Reformed, Twelve Monkeys, et al. 

I don’t think this feeling or energy is exclusive to cinema, but I do think it’s rare and elusive, and the vineyard of movies cultivates it more regularly than other fields. Perhaps it’s the tilting-at-windmills, moonshot nature of what making a movie has been, historically speaking: fraught gambler territory — there would be no sequel or second season. There wasn’t the built-in vertebrae of a franchise, the true Nietzschean eternal recurrence, i.e.: You will make a movie adaptation of the Monopoly board game, and regardless of how it is received, another one will be made, and another and another, and in each remake the titular monopoly man will become more twisted and Gollum-like. 

The astute critic Robert Warshow once wrote: “In a movie it is not the intrinsic worth of an idea that counts but the power with which it is made into an image. In the movie theater we think with our eyes.” This is the real dream, the Chinatown vision where cinema excels. Sound and vision symbolized, processed, and received in just a few frames. Nothing has really improved on this mechanism, and I’m not sure anything ever will. Just as when filmmakers get a little too high on the tech and make movies shot at 48 or 120 frames per second (The Hobbit Trilogy, Gemini Man) and they look like strangely repellant soap-operas, perhaps the human mind and its eyes are perfectly calibrated to the 24 frames per second of the modern film camera. Some cosmic equation, like how the moon is an exact fraction of the size of the sun, and the exact distance away to occasionally perfectly align for an eclipse. 

This is what sustains my “hope.” Cinema may be only about 100 years old, but its form seems eternal. The greatest of films exist as monuments equal to any other. Cinema may be in a rut, out of favor, with a disinterested public content to watch endless shows instead — a veritable diet of SnackWell’s and Hardtack (all you can eat). But the greatest films will remain, the same way Monument Valley continues to remain, as both a place and a symbol — the symbol perhaps brighter, more vital, more illuminated than the physical place itself. Like the legend of fizzy 1930s Hollywood, Ernst Lubitsch, said: “I’ve been to Paris, France and I’ve been to Paris Paramount. Paris Paramount is better.”


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Bill Asher May 30, 2021 - 11:58

Goodfellas and Citizen Kane.

Bob May 30, 2021 - 12:55

Deeply appreciate this take Neil and your eloquence, as always. What a pleasure it was to see “Embrace of the Serpent”‘s majesty with you and Michael. I think ‘the classic’ novels are an optimistic comparison, now revived by audiobook apps turning hesitant readers into avid admirers… who knows what the future holds. Sharing your sense of hope here! And thanks again for making me feel like I am utterly incapable of constructing readable sentences.

neil May 30, 2021 - 16:58

yes! serpent was a sublime cinematic experience!

Keer June 2, 2021 - 09:25

Amazing piece for the moment. Grew up in the coolest repertory cinemas of Vancouver, Canada and watched them all sadly disappear. Also: thanks for mentioning frame rates. I do not understand how these are not talked about more often. Seems like every television sold now is preprogrammed for the sports/soap effect and only if you know to change the frame rate will you have the experience the filmmaker envisioned.

catherine lee June 4, 2021 - 13:37

we had the thalia theatre in nyc, way up in the upper west side, sadly long gone since the late 80s. so many amazing films were seen there!


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