Critic's Notebook: In the Decade to Come, Beware Big Brother in the Sky

Martin Scorsese - Getty -H 2019

With power over the majority of media generators resting in a few hands, the current abundance and accessibility of audiovisual material could vanish in years to come, writes THR's chief film critic.

Back in the 1980s, when it wasn’t a simple matter for Americans to visit Cuba, I had the good fortune to be invited to the Havana Film Festival. One of my destinations there was the shabby office of ICAIC, the state-run cinema organization that controlled all matters cinematic, including production and distribution, on the island. Among other things, I was keen to obtain a definitive record of all films — features, documentaries and shorts — made on the island in the quarter-century since the revolution. A list, including title, director and date, was provided and, along with many stories, duly published.

Scarcely had this compendium seen print that I got a call from my friend Nestor Almendros, the great Spanish-born cinematographer. Nestor, who at 18 had joined his anti-Franco father in Cuba and subsequently made several documentaries for the Castro regime before leaving for France and embarking upon his extraordinary career, was very upset that I had accepted the official Cuban record of post-revolution cinema activity at face value. Didn’t I know that many films that had been made since 1959, including two shorts that Nestor himself had directed in Cuba, Gente en la playa and La tumba francesa, were subsequently banned and then stricken from official records, as if they had never existed?

I naturally asked Nestor to write a letter to the editor about this, which was published. The subject then remained tucked away for years, but recently re-emerged with a vengeance as I mulled over Martin Scorsese’s remarks about his concerns for the cinema, present and future. Grateful to Netflix for backing the expensive The Irishman when no one else would, but disappointed over the shorter-than-hoped-for theatrical window, Scorsese lamented what he called the death of the communal experience at movies and singled out superhero films for not being “real movies.”

Alluding to Marvel movies and their like, the director continued, via a New York Times opinion piece, that the pictures "are made to satisfy a specific set of demands, and they are designed as variations on a finite number of themes,” which is hard to argue with. “For anyone who dreams of making movies or who is just starting out, the situation at this moment is brutal and inhospitable to art.” 

Netflix executives could justifiably point out, if so disposed, that the company has arguably backed a greater number of artistically ambitious and estimable projects over the past couple of years than has anyone else. But Scorsese’s point is that the variety available in theatrical experience — seeing something designed to be seen on a big screen rather than on a laptop or even a phone — is contracting at a rapid rate without any hope of the process being reversed or slowed.

But while that debate continues to percolate on a low heat, my Havana memories set off alarm bells warning of a far scarier potential scenario involving what could conceivably lie ahead. As venerable studios with a century or so of filmmaking behind them are being swallowed up or otherwise cannibalized, to the point where they now have no meaningful identity of their own, and the majority of “product” issuing from perhaps as few as five entertainment behemoths, a giant question mark hangs over everything else: Who will control what we can and cannot see, and how will what we have access to be administered?

Through the first half-century or so of cinema, hardly anyone gave a second’s thought to old movies; if you came of age in the 1940s, you had very little chance of ever seeing anything that had been made in the 1930s. Nor did the studios imagine there was any life or money left in films once they had completed their runs in theaters across the country; prints were destroyed, and it’s amazing that far more films didn’t suffer the neglect and indignity of disappearing forever. 

In the 1950s and the advent of a huge new market, television, a second life opened up for old movies. The studios were suddenly able to make some unexpected money licensing their old titles to the new medium, and films made in the U.S. during World War II, when the European market was closed, could finally be shown there. By the late 1960s and 1970s, and the departure of the last of the old moguls, big corporations bought up the venerable studios, and when VHS and, later, DVDs arrived, the wisdom of maintaining and/or rehabilitating old movies — all old movies — became perfectly clear. 

What this also made possible, for the first time in history, was the opportunity for individuals to personally, and permanently, possess films. Just as had always been the case with books and, subsequently, records, you could purchase a title, put it on your shelf and experience it whenever, and however often, you liked. Nirvana for film buffs had finally arrived, and it only improved as better source material, more obscure titles and all those extras continued to issue forth. 

The digital age increased the bounty even further, with various movie channels vaulting over one another in search of more titles to serve an audience that suddenly had virtually the entire first century of cinema at their fingertips. There were video stores in every neighborhood and no reason to think it would ever end. 

How it could end — and disastrously so — has recently become all too apparent. As we are currently witnessing, ownership of the giant corporations that create and control “content” is consolidating. As a result, power over the great majority of media generators in the U.S. — and, therefore, much of the world — will rest in just a few hands. 

At the same time, “hard” copies of media product such as prevailed for the past several decades — CDs and DVDs, to be specific — are far down the road to becoming obsolete, as they are replaced by streaming and on-demand. The result of this can only be the withering and eventual disappearance of the personal possession of creative works. 

Right now it feels as though we’re in a moment of optimum abundance of audiovisual material; anything and everything seems to be available, out there either for free or only a few bucks. But when just a few people control the levers of power and the access gates to intellectual property, the flow of same can be controlled and the population manipulated in the process. Depending upon who’s running the show at any given moment, a decision could be made to immediately withdraw or cut off access to the collected works of anyone — dead or alive — for whatever reason: political, personal or commercial. Entire legacies could be eliminated, obliterated or simply sidelined.

If whoever’s running Netflix or Disney or Apple or their future equivalents have political axes to grind, and if global conflict dictates, or if some CEO decides he or she doesn’t like Lady Gaga or Spike Lee or Amy Schumer or Bill Maher or Rihanna or Woody Allen or their future equivalents, and owns their stuff and just wants to cancel them from history, there will be little or no backup for the present or posterity. If everything’s up in a cloud, it could blow away — or be blown away — anytime, by anyone who can put finger to keypad. 

As if it hadn’t already proved prescient enough about certain human and political impulses, about the usefulness of screens and who and what appears on them, George Orwell’s 1984 once again handily serves as a prophetic warning, as does Nestor Almendros. He was quick to check the rewriting of history in Cuba and I have no doubt that, in the future, as corporate interests increasingly commingle with global politics, what is off-topic, contrarian, embarrassing or simply inconvenient will be shoved aside and, at the press of a button, eliminated from the realm of the relevant, or from existence. 

I plan to keep the books and DVDs that are important to me, for I really can’t be confident about what may or may not be found in the big wide world of channel surfing and internet cruising even a decade from now. I have little doubt that what we are able to see and access in the future will increasingly be at the whim of those in power, turning an old axiom on its head: More could well become less.