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Soraya Roberts | Longreads | September 2019 |  9 minutes (2,452 words)

The new release I most wanted to see during the Toronto International Film Festival was Unbelievable, the Netflix series that is neither a movie nor was it screening at TIFF. I was more taken by this miniseries, based on the ProPublica and Marshall Project investigation of a number of real rapes in Washington and Colorado, than by any of the movies I saw. But then, I have a particular affinity for this kind of mid-budget drama: real-looking people solving real problems in a real world, wading through the complications of humanity — “God shows up looking for someone to be of service, clean things up a bit, and he says, ‘Whom shall I send?’” — this is my shit. It’s the kind of thing you saw regularly at the cinema in the ’70s but that now tends to be relegated to streaming sites. I wonder how much of my affinity for Unbelievable — eight hours, three days — had to do with the fact that I could watch it at home. Alone. For free (well, Netflix-account free). Whether if all other things had been equal, but it had been playing at TIFF, I would have felt the same. Would I have felt the same had I chosen it over something else, doubt over my decision percolating in the background? Or if I were watching next to critics who liked it much more than I did, or much less? Or if I’d had an anxiety attack because I was assigned a middle seat (aisles only)? When the stakes are high, it’s harder to see past them.

“You judge movies you see in the cinema more harshly.” My boyfriend didn’t say this for posterity, he was observing something about me. I hadn’t noticed it. But it’s true. I’m not kind to films I have to see in public. I tried to remember the last one that blew me away; it was probably Apollo 11, that Todd Douglas Miller documentary made up of unreleased 70 mm footage from NASA. That was about six months ago, direct cinema injected into our eyeballs and earballs at a downtown Toronto IMAX. It was the perfect setting: Space launches are meant to be watched in a crowd, all spectators looking up together, mouths hanging open like a line of hooked fish. Contrast that to this month’s TIFF screening of Proxima, which focuses on everything up to the launch. Alice Winocour’s quiet drama is the opposite of spectacle, as demure as a rocket launch can be. And had I been streaming it alone, at home, I probably would have quietly loved it. But I watched it at a festival, choosing it over hundreds of other films packed into a packed schedule, flanked by two critics who did not particularly like it. Instead of getting lost in it, I wondered what was beyond it. When I said I liked it, it came out like an apology. This was the opposite of Netflix and chill. It was tense freneticism, perfectly captured by TIFF’s critical boner Uncut Gems, the Safdie brothers’ nervous system roller coaster in which Adam Sandler plays a swindling jeweler. Two hours and 14 minutes minutes later I had no fingernails left, but this new genre of stress cinema felt perfectly timed.

But I still preferred Proxima, the rocket movie without much rocket, the one I could have seen at home. Last year David Cronenberg said that cinema “is no longer the cathedral that you go to where you commune with many other people.” Instead it’s turned into a proliferation of individual communions, in which the pressure of each of our daily lives is suspended, our thoughts relax, and we return to a form of pre-apocalyptic calm. In the privacy of our homes, with no expectations, cinema can be as pure as church.

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When they first came around in the late 19th century, movies, even when they weren’t exactly communal, were. The kinetoscope, which predated the projector and gave the illusion of a moving strip of images, could be viewed through a peephole by one person at a time. But you know there was a line a mile long behind each person when that thing showed up at an exhibition, so it wasn’t exactly a solitary experience. A year later the Lumière brothers killed any chance of a solo movie experience by inventing the cinematograph, which officially introduced the movie audience as a collective. It took a few more decades for television to come along, but that only pushed film to more spectacular heights. Home video offered an extended respite for teenagers like me who just wanted to watch movies all day, but it was the internet that really made cinema personal. Around the time I left for university, online media was still nascent, so the only thing limiting your downloads was your bandwidth. My hard drive became my movie library and it was perfect: Cinemas were getting more expensive, and my anxiety was getting worse. This way I could stay home and commune alone.

“In the same way that social media approximates the experience of being in a community, I think the way we now watch these things — whether on our flat screens or laptops or phones — is also an approximation of what the original foundations of this medium always were,” director Barry Jenkins said in June in a New York Times roundtable on the future of cinema. “It’s bittersweet. Five years ago, you couldn’t just get on your laptop and find Claire Denis films. Now you can, which is a really awesome thing and better for the world, for sure. But there’s a trade-off.” No one seemed inclined to take this deal, beyond those — filmmakers of color, women — who had actually been shut out of those original foundations. Those who had the privilege to be purists held on to the past so single-mindedly they refused to acknowledge that the cinema was no longer trading in the likes of The Godfather and that theatrical release was less about artistry than ego. While the studios were comparing penis size, streaming sites like Netflix were busy rejuvenating the mid-budget genres they had left behind. Per Paul Feig, who produced this year’s Netflix rom-com Someone Great, directed by first-time filmmaker Jennifer Kaytin Robinson, “It’s harder to get a studio to invest in new voices because the stakes are higher.”

Hundreds of millions of stakes. Stakes to make the movies, stakes to publicize them, stakes to sell them. Stakes even just to buy popcorn to watch them. Forbes reported two years ago that while there had essentially been a 20 percent decrease in movie tickets sold in America over the decade, box office earnings had increased by about 10 percent because of inflated ticket prices. Movies were originally a low-cost form of entertainment, but now they’re as pricey as anything else. But if you already pay to subscribe to streaming sites, which cost less per month than a single ticket, it’s easier to find little-known international or mid-budget films there than in any of the movie theaters around you, which increasingly overrepresent the $300 million blockbusters you may have no interest in for extortionate prices. One no longer goes out to make discoveries, one stays in. (Though even that option is becoming occluded as streaming sites begin fracturing to reflect individual production companies, turning online into a mirror image of cable television, except every channel is premium.) Jenkins was one of the few filmmakers in the Times roundtable to address the issue of money — he made his last movie, If Beale Street Could Talk, for $12 million: “I don’t know how you offset that cost, and that’s why there’s so much tension between theatrical and digital distribution.”

At a film festival the stakes are that much higher — tickets are pricier and time is budgeted. If you’re a critic, the weight is more psychological: the awareness that you are occupying a coveted slot, that you are on the line for your publication’s coverage, that you have limited time and limited choices to make the whole distraction worthwhile. The unofficial starter pistol for awards season, TIFF screened 245 features, out of which I saw 25, out of which I only felt the impulse to recommend two (Uncut Gems, aforementioned, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Céline Sciamma’s painterly lesbian romance). I was surrounded largely by indie film critics whose palates were more bolder than mine, whose recommendations I should have reacted to. But instead, having had little experience as accredited press, I chose according to my taste (Rocks, The Audition) and to the cultural “homework” I thought I needed to do (Hustlers, Joker). But even when you consider the consensus of which films were deemed great, most of which I had seen, it came to less than 3 percent of the entire program: A Hidden Life, Marriage Story, Martin Eden, Parasite, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Uncut Gems, The Vast of Night. I wondered if so many of us hadn’t been compelled — even assigned — to cover major releases like Jojo Rabbit (I didn’t see it because I heard it was shit) or A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (manageable if not mentionable), we would have discovered more films like Antigone, an immigrant story told through the lens of Greek tragedy by Québécois filmmaker Sophie Deraspe, which, despite generating no buzz I could perceive, won Best Canadian Feature Film.

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TIFF’s mission is “to transform the way people see the world through film,” but I saw mostly the opposite: The big budget films that dominate mainstream cinema also dominated there (Hustlers premiered around the same time as it was screening at the festival). Critics made decisions almost en masse, affected by one another in the natural way groups are. I was primed to hate Joker before I actually hated it. I missed Collective, a journalism documentary I was initially drawn to, because I couldn’t be sure about it (I later heard it was one of the strongest entries). Imaginary external standards dictated what I watched instead of my internal compass. I could predict nothing, yet everything seemed predictable.

My favorite experience at TIFF was watching a movie I hadn’t actually heard of before my boyfriend mentioned it. The Long Walk is a Laotian time-traveling ghost story by Mattie Do, the country’s first and only female director. It’s a film so spare that the moment there is a sudden brief otherworldly special effect it rattles your brain. It was all the more eerie because the theater was almost empty. Susan Sontag once described cinema as a religion, and critics, starting with the French New Wave in the ’50s, as its apostles. “Cinema began in wonder,” she wrote. “All of cinema is an attempt to perpetuate and to reinvent that sense of wonder.” For me that involved being alone in the dark; for my boyfriend it involved the opposite. He and a number of others described the Midnight Madness screening of Ugandan director IGG Nabwana’s Crazy World as TIFF’s apogee. One of those infamous zero-budget, zero-rules Wakaliwood franken-actions — a group of kung-fu master kids is kidnapped by the mob — the screening included live “video joker” commentary, which is like a cross between subtitles and Mystery Science Theater 3000, including a staged chase of the programmer by the VJ over accusations of piracy. “It’s wild and broad and silly, less a conventional movie experience than a celebration of the effect decades of action movies have had on the filmmaker and his cast,” Norman Wilner wrote in Now magazine of the film, adding, “It’s alive and aware in ways most mainstream movies simply aren’t — even if technically it’s also kind of a mess.” What struck me was how such contrasting atmospheres could affect me and my boyfriend to such similar degrees: the loud community of his screening versus the quiet solitude of mine.   

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The movie I least wanted to see at TIFF was Joker. I had no interest initially. Then I heard it was bad. Then I heard he was some kind of “alt-right” hero. Then I got nervous. At the screening there were cops stationed outside the doors (this is Canada — I have never seen cops at a screening before). Our bags were checked. I didn’t leave, but these are the sorts of stakes that start to make cinema look untenable. “If cinema can be resurrected,” Sontag wrote in 1996, “it will only be through the birth of a new kind of cine-love.” But how to love something so weighed down by so much? If not by threat, then by money; if not by money, then by cliché. In The New Yorker back in 2012, Richard Brody brushed off critics who were prematurely lamenting the death of cinema at the hands of digital technology. To make his point, he summoned French New Wave filmmakers like François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, who, instead of bowing under the force of the studio system, manipulated its commandments in order to create a new kind of cinematic language. The New Wave, Brody wrote, “understood that watching a movie means being both inside and outside of it, and that the emotional power of a story is undiminished by the presence of quotation marks and virtual frames-within-frames — and that these implicit fourth-wall-breakers have been present from the start of the business.” He was referring to the tools of filmmaking, but why not extend this to film viewing? 

If we reconfigure how we consider the various screens available to us as simply one more element of framing, the emotional power of film may be similarly undiminished, unaffected as much by screen size as by audience size. All that to say that movies don’t necessarily require a cinema, that communing with this particular art form no longer requires community. That in some instances, in fact, the story only exists because it is outside the cinema, its emotional power enhanced by the presence of a smaller screen. In 1948, critic Alexandre Astruc seemed to gesture toward this moment in his manifesto The Birth of a New Avant-Garde: The Camera-Stylo, which would go on to inform the New Wave. “It must be understood that up to now the cinema has been nothing more than a show,” he wrote, describing how television and 16 mm would ultimately transform the medium into a personal possession. “From that moment on, it will no longer be possible to speak of the cinema. There will be several cinemas just as today there are several literatures, for the cinema, like literature, is not so much a particular art as a language which can express any sphere of thought.”

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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.