The Movies Are Back. But What Are Movies Now?

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Today, an international economy exists to fill our time with images, stories and other diversions. The byproducts of this economy — fan culture, celebrity news, secondary media that help with the work of sorting, ranking, interpreting and appreciating — occupy the same virtual space as the primary artifacts, and so both complement and compete with them. You can watch the show, read the recap, listen to the podcast and post your own responses, using whatever screens and keyboards are at your disposal.

That’s also, increasingly, how we work, socialize and educate ourselves. We aren’t so much addicted to screens as indentured to them, paying back whatever convenience, knowledge or pleasure they provide with our time and our consciousness. The screen doesn’t care what we are looking at, as long as our eyes are engaged and our data can be harvested.

Movies didn’t create this state of affairs, but they are part of the technology that enabled it. Moves stimulated the human appetite for imagery, narrative and vicarious emotion in a way that nothing had before. But the movies are also a potential casualty of the screen-saturated world. It used to be that you could buy a ticket and slip away from reality; the communal space of the theater was also a zone of intimacy, privacy and anonymity. Now, of course, screens are tools of surveillance. When your Netflix screen asks, “Who’s watching?” the real message is that Netflix is watching you. The act of watching doesn’t offer escape; it induces passivity. The more you watch, the harder the algorithm works to turn its idea of you into a reality. As art becomes content, content is transmuted into data, which it is your job, as a consumer, to give back to the companies that sold you access to the art.

The question isn’t whether the movies will survive, as a pastime, a destination and an imaginative resource. It’s whether the kind of freedom that “going to the movies” has represented in the past can be preserved in a technological environment that offers endless entertainment at the price of submission; whether active, critical curiosity can be sustained in the face of corporate domination; whether artists and audiences can resequence the democratic DNA of a medium whose authoritarian potential has never been more seductive. Not whether we go to back to the movies, but how we take the movies back.

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