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The Death of Cinema

Updated on February 26, 2015

Until recently, cinematography has delicately balanced artistry and technology.Once striving for realism and artistic expression, contemporary films have become automatic and lackluster.

Despite all the cinematic progress and freedoms Americans enjoy today, twenty-first century cinema lacks innovation, quality, and significance.

With Our King and Queen Through India (1912)
With Our King and Queen Through India (1912)
The Jazz Singer (1927)
The Jazz Singer (1927)

A Technical Beginning

Coincidentally, the technical inception of cinematography began with the “wheel of life," or the invention of the photographic device, the zoopraxiscope (1879). The concept of an illusion of motion through the rapid rotation of a series of drawings or photographs was revolutionary. These animated frames would soon become known as “motion pictures.”

Several years later, the production of the Man Walking Around the Corner (1887), a whopping three-second French feature simply depicting a man walking, had begun the silent film era.

Contrary to popular belief, another cinematic milestone was the production of With Our King and Queen Through India (1912), a two hour British documentary feature about the initiation of Indian royalty. The film contained the first natural colored footage.

The introduction of the sound device, the vitaphone (1926), influenced the release of The Jazz Singer (1927), a musical feature about an aspiring Jewish Jazz singer, which had begun “talkies,” or the sound film era.

Teaserama (1955)
Teaserama (1955)
Baby Doll (1956)
Baby Doll (1956)

Artistic Expression and Censorship

The artistic introduction of cinematography began with the simple desire to capture reality and entertainment. Through the transition from theater venues, such as burlesque (1840-1940), vaudeville (1880-1930), and cabaret (1911-1960), cinema began to emerge as the leading form of entertainment. In the American documentary feature, Teaserama (1955), various acts are performed that depict the old-fashioned entertainment on which cinema was based upon.

With the collapse of the stock market during the Great Depression (1929-1942), an overwhelming amount of films were produced to lift morale, including features that were controversial. In the American dramatic feature, Baby Face (1933), a woman uses her appearance to advance her social and financial status. To control the suggestive content of these films, the ‘Hays Code,’ or the Motion Picture Production Code (1930-1968) was established. Enforced by William Hays, the president of the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) (1922-1966), the code was a set of moral guidelines that determined what was acceptable and unacceptable for the general public. Following the MPPDA, the Catholic Legion of Decency (CLOD) (1933-1980) was created, which identified and condemned films according to religious standards, including the American black comedic drama feature, Baby Doll (1956), depicting the seduction of a nineteen-year-old virgin bride.

Replacing the Hays Code was the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) (1966-present), which was the film rating system that began the decline of the strict guidelines. Amidst the censorship, exploitation films (1920-1980) emerged in obscure grind-houses, or defunct burlesque venues that were open to the public twenty-four hours, along with drive-in theaters, challenged morals and exploited aspects of reality. The production of Deep Throat (1972), an American adult feature, had begun the porno chic film era. Nearing the end of the twentieth century, the invention of the Betamax (1975) and the VHS (1976) home videos, as well as, the World Wide Web (1984) had begun the damnation of cinema.

Goodbye Uncle Tom (1971)
Goodbye Uncle Tom (1971)
Foxy Brown (1974)
Foxy Brown (1974)

An Exhausted Novelty

The lack of innovation in contemporary cinematography is astonishing. According to the article, “The Breakdown of Censorship in American Cinema,” author William Boland exclaims, “Violence...from World War II, the civil rights movement, and Vietnam on television opened the viewers’ eyes to the harsh reality of the world. It desensitized them and paved the road for the portrayal of realistic and increased violence in films” (Boland 2). Because the audience is anesthetized, cinema lacks originality and “pushing boundaries” has become increasingly more difficult when the common belief for “good” films is to be distastefully overtly sexual, violent, or repulsive. Admittingly, the modern production, The Human Centipede (The First Sequence) (2009), a Dutch horror feature about a German doctor who kidnaps three tourists and joins the trio surgically from mouth to anus to form a “human centipede,” was a unique concept vaguely paying homage to the film genre, nazisploitation, an exploitation sub-genre that exploits the sadistic experiments performed by Nazi soldiers. Although, before The Human Centipede 2 (The Full Sequence) (2011) was released, the novelty expired.

Cinema used to educate and expose the audience to situations or places generally unavailable to the public. The production, Sex Madness (1938), was an American propaganda feature that warned teenagers and young adults of the dangers of sexually transmitted infections. The production, Goodbye Uncle Tom (1971), was an Italian shockumentary feature, or a documentary produced to shock, that depicted the racist ideology and terrible treatment of Africans in slavery. The production, Foxy Brown (1974), was an American blaxploitation feature, or an exploitation sub-genre that was made for the urban black audience, about a woman seeking revenge on a drug and prostitution ring fronting as a modeling agency. The production, Let Me Die a Woman (1978), was another American shockumentary feature that explored the subject of sexual re-assignment and transsexual citizens.

Cinema has been synonymous with cultural and historical movements, whether it documented a period of time in history or invoked a social movement. The censorship of yesteryear left one wanting to break the rules and make a statement, whether it was a positive or negative reaction.

Hellraiser (1987)
Hellraiser (1987)
Decasia: The State of Decay (2002)
Decasia: The State of Decay (2002)

Quantity Over Quality

With the increased accessibility of technology and the ability to seamlessly share virtually anything within seconds, the quality of cinema has decreased. Granted, the equipment and programs are more refined than years prior, but contemporary films no longer require that “special touch” to become produced. With one push of a button, cinematography has become automatic with the majority of the film being produced during post-production or even entirely within camera, such as the production, Avatar (2009), an American science-fiction feature about the relationship between humans and extraterrestrial natives on the twenty-second century planet, Pandora. The creation of virtual cinematography, computer-generated imagery (CGI), and newly improved 3-D animation has replaced the innovative use of special effects, such as the stop-motion clay-animation as seen in the productions, Hellraiser (1987), a British horror feature about an otherworldly puzzle box and harvesting blood to resurrect a man; and A Grand Day Out with Wallace and Gromit (1989), a British short feature involving a man and his dog building a rocket to the moon to sample cheese.

The quality of contemporary cinema leaves the audience restless and the films are forgotten. In fact, only three films, out of the last fifteen years of the twenty-first century, have been added to the National Film Registry (NRF), including the obscure productions: 13 Lakes (2004), an American documentary about the thirteen great lakes in the Untied States; Decasia: The State of Decay (2002), an American feature incorporating found footage that paid homage to silent film era; and lastly, Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of Kindertransport (2000), a British documentary about the Kindertransport operation that saved over ten thousand lives of Jewish children during the Nazi occupation.

In the article, “Cannes: Quentin Tarantino on Digital as the Death of Cinema; A Django Miniseries; Hateful Eight Prospects and More,” Tarantino boldly expresses, “The fact that now most films are not shown in 35mm means the war is lost. The death of 35mm is the death of cinema” (Tartaglione 2).

Titanic (1997)
Titanic (1997)

The Digital Revolution

Although, some critics argue that contemporary cinema has only improved since the dawn of the twenty-first century. The success of the production, Titanic (1997), an American romantic re-enactment of the sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic passenger liner in the North Atlantic ocean, could only be accomplished through the use of CGI.

Tarantino has also stated, the “good side of digital is the fact that a young filmmaker can now just buy a cell phone, and if they have the tendency... can actually make a movie” (Tartaglione 2). There are limited restrictions and infinite possibilities one can achieve through virtual cinematography due to the cost being considerably less than building sets or traveling to the locations.

Would you watch the films mentioned in the article?

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To combat this issue, it is strongly suggested that one should support local filmmakers and artisans in the community by being involved with screenings and visiting art institutes and museums. Instead of watching a “popular pick,” challenge oneself to research films one would not normally view. Another suggestion is to ask for recommendations and to communicate the critique one has on a recently watched film. The cinematic progress and freedoms Americans enjoy today will prove to be useless if films continue to decay.


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