When I think about intellectuals and movies, I think of Susan Sontag. For Sontag, movies were the most promising form of modernist expression, in part, because they elided the domineering and interpretative hubris of the intelligentsia. “In good films, there is always a directness that entirely frees us from the itch to interpret,” she wrote in 1964. By allowing surface aesthetics and everyday existence to linger on camera and providing a “direct experience of the language of faces and gestures,” films could force us to experience life in a way the written word never could.
Sontag’s anti-intellectualism, her argument “against interpretation,” was itself intellectual. After all, she championed the avant-garde directors of her time—Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais, and François Truffaut—who were certainly intellectuals in their own right (Godard consistently flashed written words on the screen to explain theories, and Resnais taught literature before going into film). The founding principle of the French “New Wave”—the director as auteur—asserted movie-making as an intellectual act. Even Sontag tried making films (by most accounts, not very successfully).
Sontag’s cinematic enthusiasm withered as the twentieth century wore on. Writing her last essay about “cinema” in 1995, Sontag declared an “ignominious, irreversible decline” in films. “Ordinary films,” she believed, would continue to be “astonishingly witless,” “bloated,” and “derivative.” “Wonderful films” could still be made, she admitted. But lost forever was a “cinephelic love of movies,” that self-educated and intellectual element within filmmaking and viewing she could never quite give up on, even if it was now deemed “quaint, outmoded, snobbish.”
Who could disagree with Sontag? The “television generation” has managed to lower the standards of movies to unfathomable depths. What could be more derivative than a film version of such sitcoms as The Dukes of Hazzard or Starsky and Hutch? We’re beyond an “irreversible decline.” And yet, people continue to make movies. Today there are even some young intellectuals, grounding themselves in the “cinephelic,” who believe movies should convey emotion and challenge viewers. They too have the same enemy that Sontag spotted in 1995: a corporate Hollywood that expects all films to be made via assembly line and then submitted to focus groups. They are struggling to preserve a personal voice in a world of mass formulas.
THEY ALSO HAVE a new enemy that developed at the time of Sontag’s writing. It’s called “independent” film, and any cultural historian will easily identify its contours. They consist of the Sundance Film Festival, now known for celebrity-spotting as much as serious film-watching; the Independent Film Channel; and Miramax studios. As with so much else in postmodern culture, “Indiewood,” as one jo...
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