The movies are back in cinemas. But what are movies now?

HAVE you seen F9? How about A Quiet Place Part II? Black Widow, or Zola? Have you returned to a cinema yet since the pandemic hit?

As restrictions have eased and multiplexes and art houses return towards full capacity, a handful of releases have done well enough at the box office to feed hopes of a return to pre-Covid normalcy.

Vin Diesel, the Fast and Furious patriarch, declared "cinema is back!", and who wants beef with Vin Diesel?

Certainly not the critics, who greeted the almost 150 minutes of extravagant action, baroque plotting and high-octane sentimentalism of F9 with gentle sighs of gratitude.

In ordinary times, the bloat and incoherence of this late instalment in a weathered franchise might have elicited a measure of scepticism, if not outright scorn.

But after over a year of subsisting on screening links, we found the critical zones of our cerebral cortices flooded with fan endorphins.

Maybe the fans felt the same way. Whether or not this was a good movie, it undoubtedly offered a good time at the movies, and as such a reminder of what we had been missing and what we really cared about.

The same might be said for the Quiet Place sequel, a serviceable horror film that helped fans recover the specific pleasure of being scared in the company of strangers. Black Widow, simultaneously released in theatres and on Disney+, provided a superhero fix. You can find similar experiences - and better movies - on Netflix, Amazon or Apple+.

But there's a special way that things can be sexy, scary, funny and exciting on the big screen, and a particular delight in buying a ticket and sitting through a whole movie, without the option of pausing, skipping ahead or returning to the main menu.

You risk disappointment, but even boredom or disgust can be fun, especially if you have company for your misery. And there is always the potential for surprise.

All of which is just to say the pandemic-accelerated fear that streaming would kill moviegoing has been proven wrong. People like to leave the house. Which doesn't mean the status quo has been restored. Not that everything was great beforehand.

Franchised blockbusters sucking up the theatrical oxygen as smaller, more idiosyncratic films fought over a dwindling share of the market; daring movies from festivals buried in Netflix algorithms or marooned in the video-on-demand hinterlands; a shrinking cultural footprint for art in an expanding universe of content: Is that the normal we want?

A dogmatic, winner-take-all techno-determinism, which sees streaming as the inevitable and perhaps welcome death of an old-fashioned, inefficient activity, is answered by an equally dogmatic sentimentality about the aesthetic and moral superiority of traditional moviegoing.

My own sympathies may lie with the cinephile camp, but I can't help but hear the wishful thinking in the more strident expressions of cinema supremacism, an attachment to the past that is as historical as the bold prophecies of a digital future.

What has changed was a home-viewing revolution that began with video stores and cable channels like Turner Classic Movies and the old Bravo. The sheer variety of movies now available for purchase or rental or via streaming subscriptions is a source of astonishment to an old-timer like me, even as it's taken for granted by my children, students and younger colleagues.

That in itself might be a problem. When everything is accessible, then nothing is special. Movies exist in the digital ether alongside myriad other forms of amusement and distraction, deprived of a sense of occasion.

I fear that movies are becoming less special and more specialised. The big IP-driven studio movies grow less interesting as a matter of policy, while the smaller releases cater to the interests of splintered, self-selected communities of taste.

Global blockbusters, engineered to appeal to the widest possible mass audience, are conversation-stoppers by definition, offering vague themes and superficially complex plots rather than food for thought.

Meanwhile, the broad middle ground that defined popular cinema's glory and potential - the pop-cultural amusements that are worth taking seriously, the things everyone at work or online seems to be talking about - continues its migration to television. If that's the right word.

What is cinema, and what is TV?

That sentence is a paraphrase of something Gertrude Stein said about the difference between poetry and prose. As in Stein's original question, the answer is at once intuitively obvious and theoretically confounding.

For every easy distinction - between the theatre and the home screen; between stand-alone stories and serial narratives; between a director's medium and one dominated by writers; between an art form and a piece of furniture - there is a ready rebuttal. Three words may be enough to throw the matter into permanent confusion: Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Disney, which owns Marvel (and Pixar, Star Wars and ESPN as well as theme parks and cruise ships), draws on unmatched reservoirs of money, labour and talent to sustain its position as the world's dominant entertainment brand.

This year we have already seen three Marvel series (WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and Loki) as well as Black Widow, with Eternals set for cinemas in November.

One reason streaming services and cinemas are going to coexist for a long time is that the same companies hope to derive profit from both.

In its first weekend, Black Widow earned US$80 million at the US box office, and US$60 million more in premium charges from Disney+ subscribers.

Although it does not charge a premium, Warner Bros seems to harbour similar ambitions for the science-fiction epic Dune, which will debut in theatres and on HBO Max in the fall.

Recent headlines provide fresh evidence that, at the corporate level, the boundaries between film, television and the Internet are not so much blurry as obsolete.

Disney swallowing Fox; Warner Bros and its corporate sibling HBO Max being unloaded by AT&T onto Discovery; Netflix, Apple and Amazon scoping out old studio real estate in Los Angeles; Amazon acquiring MGM. Tech companies are movie studios. Movie studios are TV networks. Television is the Internet.

Because what we used to call television is quickly becoming synonymous with streaming, a subscription-based medium, the old ways of measuring success - through ratings and box-office revenue - no longer apply. (Or at least are rarely publicly available.) This gives a measure of freedom to showrunners and filmmakers whose work takes up permanent residence in a library available to anyone who pays the monthly fee.

Maybe it's not about movies

Attention - yours, mine, the aggregation of all the human eyes, ears and brains on the planet - is a valuable and abundant commodity, renewable if not exactly infinite.

Every artist, writer, movie studio, legacy media outlet, social media platform, television network and streaming service is competing for a share of it. This has always been true to some degree, but the intensity of the competition and the global reach of the market it has spawned are new. 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. The question is not 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 back to the movies, but how we take the movies back. NYTIMES

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