They called it the seventh art, following the six arts of architecture, sculpture, painting, literature, music, and performing.
It was a lucky number, lending joy to families for so long. In fact, it was often referred to as the greatest of the arts because it could embrace them all, making them accessible to viewers who would have otherwise never heard a symphony, watched a ballet, read a great novel, or seen a fabulous painting.
Cinema’s greatest asset was not only its capability, but the number of people it could reach, in the millions, perhaps even billions. What other art could do that?
Not only was it a combination of all arts, it incorporated technology, industry, and commerce.
It was the art of the people, of democracy, of those who did not possess the means to attend a symphony orchestra or a great theatrical performance.
It was all right there on the big screen for you to enjoy at a reasonable cost.
It has been the primary art form, educating and entertaining rich and poor alike.
What a thrill it once was to escape the drudgery of our daily lives and enter a darkened room, with hundreds around you, sharing a sort of camaraderie, as they were all present for the same reason. We all roared with laughter, gasped in horror, held our breath, stared in amazement as we shared the emotions of the protagonists on the screen.
They were real; they were exciting, glamorous, beautiful, elegant, daring, romantic — oh, how we wished to be like them. We all tried.
Something happened along the years that is putting at risk this fine treasure and pleasure of the century.
Many believe that the villain is that nasty coronavirus that destroyed many industries with ignoble fury. Was it, as they say, the final nail in the coffin of a dying art? There was after all a 66 per cent decline in attendance at movie theatres. Not so.
The coffin was already there. It was home-viewing that “killed the beast”, so to speak. Television happened. When boredom of TV became obvious Blockbuster and brothers came to town — more home viewing.
In the US, 60 per cent of Americans regularly went to the movies, in 1940. By 1970 only 10 per cent showed interest in the big screen. Ownership of TV sets had increased and everyone predicted it was the end of the motion picture industry.
Quite the contrary, it propelled it to improve. Filmmakers added stereo sound, improved cinematography, provided wider screens, making TV seem puny in comparison. Off with the robe and slippers and back to the theatre. The green mountains of Austria, the voice of Julie Andrews made the hills come alive only on a big screen.
Television was challenged to improve its product. For many years, both mediums challenged each other, to our delight.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, as in a Hitchcockian script, an indomitable villain appears: technology.
It seemed to favour television, providing a set of special effects, digital access, streaming and the like, giving little reason for us to abandon those slippers, put on our dancing shoes and fly off to the nearest movie theatre.
Not content with boosting TV viewing, technology provided the public with so many choices — Internet, lap-tops, IPhones, etc, leaving film lost in the crowd.
What was once a grand and noble art, the primary source of pleasure to all families, an escape tool from the mundane, was struggling for survival. Cinema was the only riveting and compelling experience, collectively. If you are climbing the Himalayans that is another story.
The art form had survived serious attacks throughout the century, but still could gross $700 million with the latest release of Spiderman. There was still life in this old art, not ready for the coffin yet.
The grandeur of film, the power of the big screen and the stunning images of the fantastic travels in outer-space is still its forte without equal. More and more such films are enticing even the young to experience this uniquely glorious sight.
The short attention span of young and old is not to be ignored.
Social media accustomed us to enjoy tid-bits of this and that, making a 90-minute focus on a movie rather impossible, especially with that IPhone in your purse or pocket, calling, messaging, texting, quite a distraction to say the least.
Home-viewing is similar. You cannot give the subject 100 per cent attention, running for coffee, a snack, a pillow — all is lost.
Does film, therefore, have a future or is it a relic of the past?
It depends on us. All the arts have sponsors and we the public are the sponsors for the cinema. If indeed we attend a movie theatre, pay for our ticket at the box-office, head for the concession stand for some candy, pop and a large bucket of popcorn, we provide revenues for movie theatres which in turn help finance the production of such films as Titanic and relate the experience to others.
Have you ever seen Titanic on TV? Ninety per cent of the chills and thrills are lost.
Cinema will rise again to live another day. It will re-create itself and its product as it has through the century and once again, going to the movies, will not be a thing of the past.
“A film is never good unless the camera is an eye in the head of a poet.”
Orson Welles (1915-1985)
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 June, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.