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.
You will not walk out of the amniotic darkness, struck hard by the light and then struck again by the vividness of your inescapable self.
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 the Second World War was not a corruption but an expansion of American democracy. As I Love Lucy went into reruns and the Beatles crooned on Ed Sullivan 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.