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The Loss of Cinema as a Centripetal Force in Culture

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The 1985 film My Science Project depicts a scene where one high school student interviews another for the school yearbook.

OK, what do you want to know?
Your major?
Major. I don’t know. Auto shop?
Favorite video game?
World Series.
All right, how many times did you see “Jedi”?
I never saw "Jedi".
You never saw "Jedi"? Have you been under a car for ten years?
The joke works, because one student is "out of it" having never seen Return of the Jedi. Harlan's gearhead credentials are established, in part, by this fact.

There was a time when the sprawling nation of the United States was held together by a common experience of film. We didn't go to the same churches. We didn't cheer for the same teams. Some of us shoveled snow in the winter, while others of us fought mosquitoes in the summer, and the least fortunate of us did both. But what we had in common was a dream life. In 1985, we all got the joke, because it was expected that almost everyone would have seen Return of the Jedi.

Movies offered us a culture shorthand. They offered a stock of examples for comparisons and characterizations. We may not have known "Bill," but we all knew "Biff" from Back to the Future. And if someone told us Bill was like Biff, we spontaneously had an image in mind. We "knew" what was being said about Bill.

Films offered us something to talk about, a chance to get a feel for each other. Opinions about The Godfather or Titanic would not only give us an ice-breaker for conversation, but also to get a feel for another person's personality in their evaluations and interpretations of shared texts.

More than this, films were a source of common topics and cultural wisdom. Thus, they were an inventional resource. If someone had never heard of Plato's Cave, there was a very good chance that they had seen The Matrix. Quotable quotes from movies, for decades, served to generate our adages, aphorisms, and proverbs. I can't tell you how many time I have uttered something I thought was profound only to realize (sooner or later) that I had merely quoted a favorite movies.

As Audrey Hepburn put it,

"Everything I learned I learned from the movies."
Movies thus sustained and generated cultural values and folk wisdom.

All of this brought us closer together. It was a centripetal force.

Today, when I speak to people, specifically young people, I find that they're functionally illiterate with regard to filmic knowledge. They've never even heard of some of the most important films of the last decades. And they don't really care.

The meme economy goes fast and the latest meme format will perish almost as fast as the application on which it goes viral. Life goes by pretty fast (Ferris Bueller, eh?), but they're not only speeding past these common experiences, they're all drinking from different wells.

In effect, we're siloed into echo chambers. We've voluntarily entered into walled ghettos, thinking that they're "gated communities." We hate each other now. I've never seen people hate each other as they do now. Empathy depends on a psychic connection to the humanity of the other person. The loss of the filmic experience is one resource, arguably an important one, for catalyzing empathy and allowing for discussion.

We lack that and we're spinning apart like a solar system without a sun. We from the death of God, to the death of Man, to the death of shared cultural experience. In the end, it is the algorithms that sort us into our interests, reflecting and directing, mirroring and driving, that are masters of increasingly fractured cultural unconscious. The apotheosis of this trend would a hypothetical day when we're all safely ensconced in our own "seclusions" (anyone see Session 9? Great word I got from this film) merely talking to ourselves, not unlike this songbird, the last of its kind.




Interesting OP. I'm sure someone will come along and knock holes in your hypothesis, whilst others will come along and high five with a rep or a 'yes sir, that's the way it was'...Me? I guess I can see some truth in what your wrote, but truth can only be viewed from a fixed and defined grid on which to measure it. If we use dissimilar grids to gauge the truth, then we will end up with differentiating view points and truth becomes elusive like tears in rain.

It's true cinema use to be much more of a shared experience that shaped society's norms and goals. But the heyday for that was a 100 years ago when just about everybody went to the movies on a weekly basis. Since then movie attendance has been steadily going down, blame that new fangled television...generations later can blame the internet and online streaming for the lack of a shared movie experience.

But to me it seems the more things change the more they don't. I mean back in the 'good ole days' of the 80s I went to movies but I was oblivious to all the great films of the past and to all the amazing cinema from around the world. But thanks to the internet and MoFo I'm now aware of cinema that I'd never had heard of back in the good ole days...and that's a good thing.



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My sincere thanks for responding to my "chirp."

Interesting OP. I'm sure someone will come along and knock holes in your hypothesis,
Almost certainly.

whilst others will come along and high five with a rep or a 'yes sir, that's the way it was'
Possibly.

From antithesis, to thesis, to synthesis?

I guess I can see some truth in what your wrote, but truth can only be viewed from a fixed and defined grid on which to measure it. If we use dissimilar grids to gauge the truth, then we will end up with differentiating view points and truth becomes elusive like tears in rain...
That's a interesting thought. It rather reinforces the point, doesn't it? Cinema used to be a shared grid of experience, right?

I don't really share the ontological assumption (i.e., that truth is relative to a grid) and the epistemic claim (i.e., that truth-articulation requires a grid of commonality) is in the orbit of my lament.

It's true cinema use to be much more of a shared experience that shaped society's norms and goals. But the heyday for that was a 100 years ago when just about everybody went to the movies on a weekly basis.
As much as we hate blockbusters, the more popular the film, the more common the experience. And even people who didn't really like films could be called upon to have seen the blockbusters.

Since then movie attendance has been steadily going down, blame that new fangled television...
It's not so much the mechanism as it is the number of options. When we only had three channels on TV, so you could count on people knowing what The Ponderosa ranch was or the formal pattern of The Love Boat.

Television was very much a shared experience when you're only sci-fi was Dr. Who or Star Trek or Buck Rogers.

generations later can blame the internet and online streaming for the lack of a shared movie experience.
But it is different. I spoke with a person this week who reported spending X amount of hours on Tik Tok. The number of platforms has exploded along with the number of channels. Television is now being hermetically sealed into "+" services that demand rent from various parties. We are fractured into Hulu+, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney+, and how many other pretenders to the throne? If you want to watch Star Trek, you will need Paramount+ and the latest news reports indicate that new feature length films will be exclusive to the platform. New media has uniquely exacerbated balkanization.

But to me it seems the more things change the more they don't.
Perhaps, but the phase transitions between changes, the changes between A and B can be very disorderly.

Then again, maybe I am just Sheriff Bell in No Country for Old Men, upset at the dismal tide of youngsters who don't know who the Coen brothers are.

I mean back in the 'good ole days' of the 80s I went to movies but I was oblivious to all the great films of the past and to all the amazing cinema from around the world. But thanks to the internet and MoFo I'm now aware of cinema that I'd never had heard of back in the good ole days...and that's a good thing.
Good movies is one thing. It is a good thing. Here I am more concerned at the loss of connection that film used to provide us.



Isn't there a hidden assumption behind OP's conjecture that the formation and transmission of culture is not possible without presupposing a clearly defined set of (mainstream/"blockbuster") movies that resonate with the masses? First, I challenge the significance attributed to the necessity of some sort of popular culture in shaping a people's psyche and creating opportunities for them to interact. Certainly there are other sources of culture that aren't related to cinema which are more fundamental to constituting this "centripetal force". Secondly, this over-emphasis on having a shared repository of knowledge can come into conflict with more creative ("centrifugal") forces that engender new ways of thinking and communicating. Very frequently I hear the lament that modern technology divides and individualizes us, or that the new media and their algorithms have pigeonholed us into dogmatic ways of thinking. Such a view is almost Luddite in nature because it repudiates pluralism and diversity as detrimental to society rather than conditions for progress. In fact, the opposite seems more likely to hold true - that algorithms far from ossifying our prejudices do also expose us to new ideas without unifying all of them under a single penultimate logic.



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Antithesis, eh?

Isn't there a hidden assumption behind OP's conjecture that the formation and transmission of culture is not possible without presupposing a clearly defined set of (mainstream/"blockbuster") movies that resonate with the masses?
Well, that I think it is "significant" is hardly a "hidden assumption." That is my message. As for culture being "not possible" without it? I don't know about that. I will say, however, that many things are possible without being ideal. And some things can be endured for many decades which are not sustainable in the long run (e.g., was neither built nor destroyed in a day, we were able to throw a lot of carbon in the atmosphere for decades before global warming started to significantly kick in).

First, I challenge the significance attributed to the necessity of some sort of popular culture in shaping a people's psyche and creating opportunities for them to interact.
Hypothesis: The larger the geography of a society, the greater need there will be for popular culture to supply artistic experiences to compensate for the loss of shared "everyday/real world" experiences (e.g., working in mines, attending churches, sharing climates).

Certainly there are other sources of culture that aren't related to cinema which are more fundamental to constituting this "centripetal force".
Sure, but that does not mean that we have, at least for the time being, not lost a resource that interconnected us in some valuable ways and that we are not diminished by the loss of it. Your thumb is more fundamental than your pinkie, but I would rather lose neither.

Secondly, this over-emphasis on having a shared repository of knowledge can come into conflict with more creative ("centrifugal") forces that engender new ways of thinking and communicating.
I am not sure you have proved the charge of overemphasis yet. There is something vaguely straw-manny here, isn't there? We've moved from questions about hidden assumptions directly asserting a commitment to an absolute relation (i.e., no movies = no culture), but this seems a little unfair.

And again, I grant that phase transitions are necessary to make way for new resources to come. For the time being, however, we certainly seem to have lost something. Moreover, today's changes seem to tilt to more and more seclusion (e.g, echo chambers are a thing) as we are increasingly targeted as individuals (micro-casting) rather than groups (broadcasting) and segregated into finer and finer groups.

Very frequently I hear the lament that modern technology divides and individualizes us, or that the new media and their algorithms have pigeonholed us into dogmatic ways of thinking.
Yes.



Such a view is almost Luddite
If there is a fallacy in viewing all change as bad, so too is there a fallacy in seeing all change as "progress" rather than "regress" or thinking that there is "no change" at all. "There have always been!" - was a cry that would have had purchase during the Black Death and our current pandemic, but the former killed two-thirds or the world's population. Things are not always the same. Things are not always getting better. The finger-waggling at Luddites can be met with counter-waggling at techno-optimists and chrono-relativists.

in nature because it repudiates pluralism and diversity as detrimental to society rather than conditions for progress.
Progress toward what? What is the telos of a society? Progress is a nice buzzword, a God term in fact, who can stand in the way of progress, but it is empty without definition, a term which signifies "change." But change, just for sake of change," can take you forward or backwards or sideways. It's not necessarily a good thing.

As for pluralism, that is a vague idea, which if we were to caricature it, as you appear to be caricaturing my own position, would see its perfection in a balkanized babble, a noise made up of too much signal.

It's not either/or with regard to permanence and change, but a question of getting the balance right. Are we moving so slow that we're fossilizing into dogmatism? Are we moving so fast that we're mowing over Chesterton's Fences left and right?

Given the disfunctions of the early 21st century, I am inclined to say that that balance appears to be moving in the wrong direction--unless that is, there is some new "island of stability" just around the corner. And even if there is, we can lament the loss of touchstones that used to make our lives more connected in the "now."

In fact, the opposite seems more likely to hold true - that algorithms far from ossifying our prejudices do also expose us to new ideas without unifying all of them under a single penultimate logic.
We shall see. I'll tell you honestly that I have seen a resurgence of racism online. Even antique hatreds like anti-Semitism based on The Protocols of Zion have sprouted back up. Flat Eartherism is spreading. In this forum, we're seriously debating whether the moon landing happened. Does that sound like progress? It's certainly "pluralism" of ideas.

And the algorithms are not your friend. Tulsi Gabbard has a good night at the Democratic debates and she asks people to go to her website. Google takes here site down. She complains. They say it is a momentary error, that it is the algorithm. YouTube videos are randomly demonetized. Again, we're told that it is "the algorithm."

"The Algorithm" is the new Secret Recipe of Coke. We don't get to know how it works, because that it is a trade secret, even though it controls our lives, even though research has shown that algorithmic interventions can change the outcome of elections. Tech is watching you and collating data and selling it to the Axiom corporation and other groups, but you don't get to see this information yourself.

In short, we don't entirely know what the algorithms are up to, because we're not allowed to see how they work. What I can see, however, is that we are culturally divided in ways that are disturbing.



This is such self-important tripe I'm sorry. I love films as much as the next person on here, but before films it was photography, paintings, literature, music, and before that spoken word, and before even that nature itself... somehow because films are "suffering the casualty" of not being the main part of our "cultural song" and other mediums like internet culture and video games, etc. etc. and on and on and on as time goes, somehow this is cause for alarm and not just the way time presents itself? As a naturally occurring experience? A natural course of action? And, two who's to say the human race belongs on this Earth forever and ever Amen? Just because we have a forebrain and have the ability more than most species to be self-aware somehow the human race is exempt from extinction? As other protists, bacteria, fungi, plants, or any other animals out there? Somehow because some dude on the street can't seem to place, "Here's looking at you kid," we're losing our beloved "song?" What was the song before then, and before that and that and that and that, to the regression of mankind into the caves? And what will come after and after is for any person to guess. It doesn't matter and ultimately methinks at some point in time in our lives this all isn't going to really matter and perhaps as Monty Python so eloquently put it and to cap and perhaps phase your own "hypothesis": "Life if quite absurd, and deaths the final word, but remember that the last laugh is on you..."

NOTE: Quote me and "debate" me if you want, but I'm really not interested in this too much. You said your opinion, you think it's fact. I said my opinion, I think it's fact. The incessant back and forth of debate with someone on the internet is a waste of my intellectual resources. Again, don't care too much or am too terribly interested... just thought to add in my petty cents of opinion for what they were worth, take them or leave them... don't care. I'm out.
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Imagine an eye unruled by man-made laws of perspective, an eye unprejudiced by compositional logic, an eye which does not respond to the name of everything but which must know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception. How many colors are there in a field of grass to the crawling baby unaware of 'Green'?

-Stan Brakhage



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Antithesis, again.

This is such self-important tripe
Ruh-roh!

I'm sorry. I love films as much as the next person on here, but before films it was photography, paintings, literature, music, and before that spoken word, and before even that nature itself...
Sure. We have always relied upon common resources to draw upon common experiences.

somehow because films are "suffering the casualty" of not being the main part of our "cultural song" and other mediums like internet culture and video games, etc. etc. and on and on and on as time goes, somehow this is cause for alarm and not just the way time presents itself?
Possibly. Films are a great example of an old sort of technological craft that has been with us since the dawn of poetic and rhetoric -- the broadcast message of one-to-many -- the message crafted for a mass audience. Today's messages, crafted and distributed under the all-known algorithms - are microcast messages that depend on metadata. Your Google search, for example, will get different "hits" than another person's Google search, because Google wraps itself around your internet history. There is an illusion of transparency. A says, "We should go see movie X, because everyone is talking about it," not realizing that these messages have been filtered and curated to create precisely this illusion.

If the medium is the message (or can be), then we should take seriously the ramifications of technological changes.

It does not matter, per se, that we're losing films as a touchstone, but that the general drift of modern media and social media is the erasure of touchstone and the creation of segregated bubbles of "reality" with "alternative facts."

As a naturally occurring experience? A natural course of action? And, two who's to say the human race belongs on this Earth forever and ever Amen?
Am I not allowed to be saddened at the prospect of our extinction, let alone the extinction of cultural forms? Do I not even get a period of mourning?

Just because we have a forebrain and have the ability more than most species to be self-aware somehow the human race is exempt from extinction? As other protists, bacteria, fungi, plants, or any other animals out there? Somehow because some dude on the street can't seem to place, "Here's looking at you kid," we're losing our beloved "song?" What was the song before then, and before that and that and that and that, to the regression of mankind into the caves? And what will come after and after is for any person to guess. It doesn't matter and ultimately methinks at some point in time in our lives this all isn't going to really matter and perhaps as Monty Python so eloquently put it and to cap and perhaps phase your own "hypothesis": "Life if quite absurd, and deaths the final word, but remember that the last laugh is on you..."
I don't know that we should expect or accept "progress" without question or "extinction" without question.

Are we not special in the scheme of things? Well, that depends on your metaphysics. If all you have is materialism, you have no resources for value judgments, let alone valuation of culture. You should not be moved either way.

NOTE: Quote me and "debate" me if you want, but I'm really not interested in this too much.
Well, you did enter this thread. You did offer a refutation of my OP. Why wouldn't I want to respond.

You can't lead with "self-important tripe" and not expect a response.

This is a bit like throwing a drink in someone's face, and saying that they may challenge you if they want, but you aren't interested in conflict.

You said your opinion, you think it's fact. I said my opinion, I think it's fact.
I have changed my mind before. Haven't you? Indeed, I have agreed that I have been refuted in threads much like this one. More frequently, I have denied being "really" refuted in a thread like this, but I have, after intense dialectical engagement, recalibrated my justifications and conclusions.

The incessant back and forth of debate with someone on the internet is a waste of my intellectual resources.
Self-important? Perhaps, just a little?

Again, don't care too much or am too terribly interested... just thought to add in my petty cents of opinion for what they were worth, take them or leave them... don't care. I'm out.
Well, you cared enough to leave a pothole in this lawn. Some engagement is better than none.

Very well. Thank you for your opinion. Perhaps I shall roll up into your hood sometime, do a drive by, and then announce that I have no interest in further engagement.



...NOTE: Quote me and "debate" me if you want, but I'm really not interested in this too much. You said your opinion, you think it's fact. I said my opinion, I think it's fact. The incessant back and forth of debate with someone on the internet is a waste of my intellectual resources...
Amen to that. The adversarial style of debate is so MoFo 2019, this is 2021 and MoFo is a kinder gentler board. Corax you'll have a longer shelf life and more fun if you forget the 'take on all comers' attitude.



minds his own damn business
It does not matter, per se, that we're losing films as a touchstone, but that the general drift of modern media and social media is the erasure of touchstone and the creation of segregated bubbles of "reality" with "alternative facts."
Probably would have been a better idea to center the thread around these algorithms, which effects pretty much how all information is consumed, and demonstrably not in a positive way, and is not exclusive to film, or even entertainment.


It's almost like you needed a reason to post this thread in the General Movie Discussion forum, rather than one more broadly pertaining to tech issues.
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Amen to that. The adversarial style of debate is so MoFo 2019, this is 2021 and MoFo is a kinder gentler board. Corax you'll have a longer shelf life and more fun if you forget the 'take on all comers' attitude.
Perhaps, but I am not really seeing the party foul in this instance. I offered an idea, then I was told it is self-important tripe (followed by an apparently devastating refutation of some sort), but also told that further discussion will not be entertained. I don't recall leading with an attack on anyone in particular. Rather, someone else entered this thread to do a mic drop and then bail. Isn't that a bit rude? Isn't that a bit adversarial? If you don't have something nice to say...



One phenomenon that I have noticed is that, when I was coming up, everybody knew the names of the purported "Greatest Movies Of All Time" regardless of how old they were. Like everybody, not just movie fans, everybody I knew, had at least heard the names of these films and a lot of people had seen them whether they were in black and white and 4:3 or in "Technicolor" and 1.85. I was like the last person I know to see Casablanca and I saw it when I was like 26 (a long time ago).
I did not meet a person who hadn't seen The Wizard Of Oz or Gone With The Wind, everyone at least knew about Citizen Kane, by the time I got to college everybody had seen or was about to see Apocalypse Now and The Godfather 1 & 2. Hell, a lot of us had seen Eraserhead by the time we graduated high school. Most people had seen a few musicals too.
And on and on.
Yet now it seems that only cinephiles see any of the classics. ****, I've got a friend just turned 30 and she will not watch a movie filmed before about 2000. Just won't do it.
The shared experience and shared vernacular, I agree, seems to have been lost, I assume forever.



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Yet now it seems that only cinephiles see any of the classics. ****, I've got a friend just turned 30 and she will not watch a movie filmed before about 2000. Just won't do it.
The shared experience and shared vernacular, I agree, seems to have been lost, I assume forever.
Part of what drew me to cinema was that it was a culture commons. No matter where I was, this was a store I could draw upon to play the game of conversation. Politics is dangerous in a new situation. Film, on the other hand, allowed for dexterity and hilarity. Recalling quotations, offering novel interpretations, hot takes, lists, the link game, etc., were there to function as a social lubricant. No matter where you were, you knew that people shared some of the same dreams with you.



I cannot comment in a thread that uses a word I don’t understand. Viz: centripetal. “Pretentious diction” Orwell called this kind of thing.
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I cannot comment in a thread that uses a word I don’t understand. Viz: centripetal.
Said the person commenting in the thread?

“Pretentious diction” Orwell called this kind of thing.
Said the person breaking out "Viz" and "Pretentious diction" and George Orwell in response?



Part of what drew me to cinema was that it was a culture commons. No matter where I was, this was a store I could draw upon to play the game of conversation. Politics is dangerous in a new situation. Film, on the other hand, allowed for dexterity and hilarity. Recalling quotations, offering novel interpretations, hot takes, lists, the link game, etc., were there to function as a social lubricant. No matter where you were, you knew that people shared some of the same dreams with you.
Man, we used to play the movie-quotes game pretty much round the clock. There was hardly an hour in a day when somebody wasn't quoting a movie at me to see if I had it.



Said the person breaking out "Viz" and "Pretentious diction" and George Orwell in response?
Your point being?



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Man, we used to play the movie-quotes game pretty much round the clock. There was hardly an hour in a day when somebody wasn't quoting a movie at me to see if I had it.

Yep.



Our shared experience in film was transient (no one really remembered the really old movies), but it was slow moving enough that we had reference points. You could count on big films being in the cultural consciousness for a few decades.



Welcome to the human race...
Your point being?
I'm guessing it's because name-dropping a famous author in an attempt to intellectually justify why you refuse to engage with a topic simply because OP used one word you didn't already know is in itself rather pretentious. If I refused to finish 1984 and called it pretentious because I had never heard of the word "oligarchy" before I started it, that would be ridiculous.
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