The Last Critic

Ciao to the Cineplex; I Miss Mass Culture!

Just getting used to Twitter, e-books and your new iPad? Here’s another paradigm-shifter: In one year—two years, tops—the movie theater will begin its inexorable slide into extinction.

The Federal Communications Commission has just decided to allow the Motion Picture Association of America to send recently released films directly to your television or computer before they are released on DVD or Blu-ray. That will be the final blow to “mass culture.”


Remember the anxious term? Like radon, mass culture was supposed to seep invisibly out of the bedrock of democracy, taint the air and ruin our health. Hollywood movies, network television, commercial radio, commercial book publishing, magazines like Time, Newsweek, Life and Look—all these profit-driven monsters striving for a “middlebrow” style with the broadest appeal allegedly destroyed our ability to think for ourselves. They represented, some thinkers feared, a creeping “totalitarianism from within.” From Mayberry RFD, it was a short step to the gulag or the concentration camp.

Needless to say, democracy survived the blitzkrieg of corporate-sponsored diversion and information. And a funny thing happened. Running parallel to the rise of mass culture after World War II was not a corruption but an expansion of American democracy. As I Love Lucy went into reruns and the Beatles crooned on The Ed Sullivan Show and Hollywood movies influenced everything from the way people smoked to the way people kissed, racial segregation ended, women became empowered and Stonewall happened. Mass culture was actually good for the individual. It turned out that being comfortably part of the masses made people feel confident about thinking for themselves. There was really nothing mass about mass culture at all.

But with blogs, YouTube and Twitter, we now make our own culture. Culture for the masses has given way to culture by the masses. So farewell, movie theaters! First, though, a question. Will culture by the masses still be as good for the individual as culture for the masses was?

Let’s start with, as the philosophers used to say, the phenomenology of being in a movie theater—with the anthropology of it. You are sitting in a social situation, yet the vast room is dark, like a private situation. You are in social limbo. The people around you are strangers, yet being awake in a dark room with your imagination racing is the setting for sex, and you don’t (usually) have sex in a room with dozens of strangers. You are sitting in the theater clothed yet with a naked mind.

That’s just the beginning of the social paradox of watching a movie. Everyone in the theater is being entertained by the same fantasy, yet everyone is experiencing his or her own personal fantasy. You are witnessing the most emotionally affecting situations, yet you have to stay silent, even though you are surrounded by people. You are all watching the same scenes, yet that is not a pretext for getting to know each other. On the contrary. You have all come to the same giant, darkened, flickering room to escape from each other—except that experiencing the same emotions with many other people whom you don’t know is also strangely consoling. It gives you the confidence to emerge from the audience and be yourself.

Fast-forward to the new age, where many people will never know the experience of sitting in a movie theater. In the solitude of living rooms, dens and bedrooms, there will be no friction between social and private. (The innocent first kiss will be replaced by the cordial first blow job.) You will not walk out of the amniotic darkness of the movie theater struck hard by the light and then struck again by the vividness of your inescapable self. You will not experience the revelation that even in the deepest recesses of the unconscious, everyone wants the same fundamental things. Rather, you will pause the newly released movie you’re watching, fix yourself a sandwich in the kitchen, send a few texts, talk on the phone and Tweet for a while. By the time, you return to the movie and hit “play,” you will have fulfilled your desires even before the film’s characters are able to satisfy theirs.

Older societies had various forms of Carnival, in which the unconscious was permitted to erupt and play. The boundaries of public and private were abolished so that public and private life could be refreshed and restored. We have the darkened movie theater. You sit there as your unconscious desires rise to the surface, manipulated before your eyes. You leave with a heightened sense of what you want and of the obstacles in the way of getting it. You feel empowered by the fact that the other people in the theater are just as aroused and disappointed as you were. Against the audience, the mob, the mass, you carve out your own peculiar self.

Now, however, thanks to the FCC, the unattainable, alternative world on the screen will soon give way to the easily satisfied desires within your reach. There will be no audience to feel empowered by, and to measure yourself against. Lacking an audience, everyone will feel uncertain about what they should really be feeling and wanting. But everyone will be uncertain in precisely the same way—no one is going to feel confident about thinking for themselves. So instead of emerging confidently from the mob, people will seek it out. And that, ladies and gentlemen, will be the first true mass culture.