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.