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Ballad of Narayama

"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

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Who killed the movies?

For Francois Truffaut, it was James Bond. In a 1979 interview with Don Allen in Sight & Sound, Truffaut said he felt "the film that marks the beginning of the period of decadence in the cinema is the first James Bond -- 'Dr. No.' Until then the role of the cinema had been by and large to tell a story in the hope the audience would believe it... For the first time throughout the world mass audiences were exposed to what amounts as a degradation of the art of cinema, a type of cinema which relates neither to life nor the romantic tradition but only to other films and always by sending them up."

As Ronald Bergan points out in his book "Francois Truffaut: Interviews", the Cahiers du Cinema critic turned nouvelle vague auteur was "recognizing postmodernism before the concept became current in the 1980s." Truffaut (himself known as "The Gravedigger of French Cinema" for his scathing reviews in Cahiers during the 1950s) died in 1984. Surely there were those for whom the French New Wave itself indicated the End of Cinema -- a decline in professional production values and, well, what Truffaut himself attacked as the tradition "the well-made film."

"Stop! It was somewhere right along here that I lost all interest in life. Aha! It was right here!" -- Cyril (Daniel Stern) in "Breaking Away" (1979)

I haven't spotted the end of cinema for me yet, but I wouldn't be surprised if, some day, I reach the point where I become disillusioned enough to throw in the towel. After all, I've certainly been through phases -- even years at a time -- when I felt alienated from popular music, when what my friends were listening to just didn't interest me, or had nothing to say to me. During those periods I turned my attention (mostly backwards) to other kinds of music I loved -- jazz, chamber music... I also found myself fascinated with '50s and '60s "mood music," from tiki-bar exotica to actual Muzak™. (Brian Eno re-imagined the concept of musical atmosphere as "ambient music," but I think of it as a form of "industrial music" -- not as in Throbbing Gristle or "Metal Machine Music," but as in manufactured musical environments "to work/play/live by.")

So, I guess I can imagine reaching a point when I just say, "Forget it. I'd rather concentrate my energies studying and (re-)discovering great movies that already exist than keep expecting to find something satisfying in next week's mainstream theatrical releases just because they're 'new' products" -- whatever "mainstream" means, if anything, in our increasingly balkanized, niche-ified pop culture landscape. I recognize that, in the late 20th and early 21st century, the chances of me discovering what I'd consider to be a genuinely "new," compelling movie at the multiplex have grown mighty slim.

I'm sure that I've mentioned something the late, great film historian, collector, programmer, teacher and cinephile William K. Everson said to me in the mid-1980s. He averred, without apologies, that he really wasn't interested in movies that were made not long after World War II, when the American studios went into decline in the early 1950s. And who can blame him? That was the movie-world he grew up with, knew and understood, the one he cared most about, and why shouldn't he stick with his enthusiasm? As one person who knew him said: What was Bill supposed to make of "The Graduate" or "Easy Rider"?

Exactly. I know others who mark the endpoint of their interest in mainstream movies by the arrival of "game-changing" popular phenomena that changed what audiences came to expect from movies, how we experienced them, and how they were marketed and exhibited -- like "Jaws" or "Star Wars" or "Avatar." A friend who expressed bewilderment over "The Dark Knight"-mania wondered how anybody who was familiar with Fritz Lang was supposed to get excited about that -- even if parts of it were in IMAX.

Last year there was a meme going around asking people to name "15 movies that almost made you give up seeing movies." I can't really say that's happened to me, though I've had miserable experiences sitting stonefaced in theaters, surrounded by people who were absolutely enraptured (laughing! crying! cheering!) by what I considered to be sociopathic barbarities like "Mississippi Burning" (or any Alan Parker movie), "Look Who's Talking," "Crash" (Haggis), "Clerks," "Natural Born Killers," "Steel Magnolias," "Always" (Jaglom) and "Porky's 3: The Revenge." (Just kidding about the last one. The audience pretty much hated that one, too.) But that's a facetious list. While I admit those movies left me feeling disgust and despair, they didn't really make me want to give up on movies. They just made me want to give up on people. If anything, they strengthened and clarified my cinematic values, helping me to bring into focus what it is that matters to me in movies.

I have more I want to consider, but I'm going to stop there for now and ask you: Has there a movie, or a development in movies, that made you feel like saying "That's it! I'm done!"? Where would you draw the line? What part of film history -- past, present... or future -- interests you most and why?

"Why, Dolores? Why!?"

ADDENDUM: From Roger Ebert's 2002 Great Movies review of "Annie Hall":

"Annie Hall"contains more intellectual wit and cultural references than any other movie ever to win the Oscar for best picture, and in winning the award in 1977 it edged out "Star Wars," an outcome unthinkable today. The victory marked the beginning of Woody Allen's career as an important filmmaker (his earlier work was funny but slight) and it signaled the end of the 1970s golden age of American movies. With "Star Wars," the age of the blockbuster was upon us, and movies this quirky and idiosyncratic would find themselves shouldered aside by Hollywood's greed for mega-hits. "Annie Hall" grossed about $40 million -- less than any other modern best picture winner, and less than the budgets of many of them.

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