November 16, 2018

Hollywood celebrates … Itself

Everyone likes an ego boost.

In Hollywood, merely a few months ago, critics and commentators were lamenting the lost luster of movie magic.

In a blunt commentary last November titled “Film Is Dead? What Else Is New?” New York Times film critic A.O. Scott put it this way: “It can be hard to escape, and even harder to argue against, the feeling that something we used to love is going away, or already gone. … Are movies essentially a thing of the past? Does whatever we have now, digital or analog, represent at best a pale shadow of bygone glory?”

Less than a month later, Scott and his Times co-critic Manohla Dargis discussed their favorite films of the year under the brighter headline “Old-Fashioned Glories in a Netflix Age.”

A love affair with the past was the common thread. But the modern presence of “old-fashioned glories” implies Film Is Not Dead — changing, maybe, as any organic art or living thing does with sufficient time. Filmmaking, after all, is still a relatively young medium, not much more than a century old, with the first films appearing in France at the turn of the 20th century. Cinema itself might be the one thing in Hollywood permitted to age and still be considered youthful.

But to couch this year’s movie season as simply an homage to the past, or a longing to return to the days before “Green Lantern” was considered worthy of celluloid, is only part of the point. If there is any theme to the conversation about this year’s Oscar frontrunners — arguably, “The Artist” and “Hugo” — it would be that Hollywood likes to celebrate itself.

From the moment it hit theaters, the black-and-white paean to silent film, “The Artist,” was lauded (and voraciously marketed) as “a love letter to Hollywood.” Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo,” about a 12-year-old boy who finds refuge recovering the lost world of film pioneer Georges Méliès, has largely been praised as a tribute to the early days of cinema.

Perhaps during a moment in history when an economic downturn reinforces a primary pleasure of cinema — the ability to escape — splendid but slight fare is immensely appealing. Add to that the fact that real escape seems almost impossible these days, systematically subverted by the ubiquity of technological gadgets (has anyone been to the theater this year and not been disturbed by a phone ringing or a neighbor brightly text-messaging in the dark?), a celebration of what cinema was and the possibilities of what it can be was just the ticket.

Remind you of anything? Year after year, Jews celebrate their origins, their history, the central narrative of their tradition on Passover. It is a Jewish imperative to remember, to retell, to revisit the past. There is always something to learn from history, yes, but there is also a value in the act of remembering, of cherishing one’s roots, paying one’s debts to the seminal moments that made possible so many later ones.

But unlike the stories of the Jewish tradition that do not change, the magic of art, of movies and literature, is that dreams and fantasies can be realized. In his memoir, “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” Israeli writer Amos Oz tells how, as a young boy, he would revisit Jewish history’s tragedies in his head and change their endings — he’d reverse the outcome of the revolt against the Romans, the destruction of the Temple, the tragedy at Masada.

“And in fact,” he writes in the book, “that selfsame strange urge I had when I was small — the desire to grant a second chance to something that could never have one — is still one of the urges that sets me going today whenever I sit to write a story.”

The past, for so many artists, is a deep well, overflowing with ideas and inspiration. To celebrate the past is to acknowledge the struggles and innovations of those whose stories have sprung us forward, into an age when Scorsese can recast the past in 3-D, when a silent film is not retrograde but, rather, respite from the noise of the world.

Reality will always present its inhabitants with challenges; it must be lived, not imagined. The blessing of art, in its ingenious renderings of other ages, past and future, is that it permits a temporal experience of our ultimate ideals, not the world as it is, but as it could be. As the film philosopher Stanley Cavell wrote, “It is through fantasy that our conviction of the worth of reality is established; to forgo our fantasies would be to forgo our touch with the world.”