On the latest episode of Roger Ebert’s excellent new television show “Ebert Presents At the Movies” (a reboot of his earlier, long running “At the Movies” show), co-hosts Christy Lemire and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky each named five films that made them critics. Among the picks of the Chicago-based Vishnevetsky was Jean-Luc Godard’s massive eight part video opus Histoire(s) du Cinema. Not only did Vishnevetsky speak wisely and well about a work of art that more than one critic has referred to as the Finnegans Wake of the cinema, lucky viewers got to see a few ravishing clips of Godard’s monumentally important but deeply obscure work.
At the end of the segment Vishnevetsky slyly noted that while Histoire(s) du Cinema was not available on home video, it could be found “on the internet.” That a film critic on a nationally syndicated movie review show could recommend a work as formally innovative and intellectually audacious as Histoire(s) du Cinema, which must be illegally downloaded to be seen to boot (not that Godard cares about such things), is a good indication of the sea change that has recently occurred in American movie culture. It also offers further proof (if any more is necessary) that, contrary to all of the premature speculation about the “death” of either cinema or cinephilia, world cinema has actually entered a golden age approaching a realization of the “universal language” that Fritz Lang enthusiastically spoke about in the 1920s.
Coincidentally, only a few days before this episode of “Ebert Presents” aired, I illegally downloaded, for the first time, two movies I have been wanting to see for decades: Jacques Rivette’s legendary improvisational epics L’amour Fou and Out 1: Noli Me Tangere. Neither title has ever been officially released on home video in any format and neither has played theatrically anywhere near where I’ve lived. While the picture and sound quality of both titles is sorely lacking on the digital files on my computer, the greatness of the films somehow still manages to come through (to paraphrase something Godard once said about watching The Searchers on television decades ago). Is it an ideal way to view movies that were originally shot on film and intended for theatrical distribution? Of course not. But I am now able to see at least a facsimile of these films that may have otherwise eluded me indefinitely.
And, contrary to what some believe, the digital downloading of movies will not be the death of theatrical projection any more than home video has been. If given the opportunity, I will still jump at the chance to see Rivette’s movies projected, just as I recently shelled out money to see Polanski’s Repulsion in 35mm even though I already own Criterion’s superb blu-ray. Pronouncements of the death of cinema usually come from older critics who are lamenting the death of the specific means of how movies were distributed and exhibited when they first encountered and fell in love with the medium; in essence, they are lamenting nothing more than the loss of their own youth. As someone who rents movies regularly from two sources (Netflix and Facets), regularly purchases blu-rays and regularly goes to the movie theater, I see downloading as just another means of being able to experience cinema. I doubt that the primal experience of strangers congregating in the dark to see movies on a large screen will ever be completely replaced, even if those movies are eventually no longer seen via celluloid projection.
Another byproduct of cinephilia in the digital age: I have also not been experiencing Rivette’s endurance tests in a single viewing the way they were originally intended to be seen (L’amour Fou is four and a half hours long and Out 1 is more than twice that length). Instead, I’ve been watching them in bite-sized chunks, a few minutes here and there on my laptop during downtime between going to work and, of course, watching other movies.
The “Ebert Presents” segment on Histoire(s) du Cinema can viewed here: