By John H. Foote
“This is the end, my only friend, the end…”
Prophetic words for right now, are they not?
I remember in August 1979 listening to Jim Morrison mournfully croon those words with The Doors in Francis Ford Coppola’s haunting, searing masterpiece Apocalypse Now. The cinema was the old movie palace – The University – on Bloor Street in downtown Toronto, now gone, the ghosts of the films that played there haunting the street at night. How many films did I see in that magnificent cinema? Too many to count.
The grand cinema houses have long been my church, the movies my religion. My beautiful wife once called movies “John’s heroin” though she knew before she died she was my one true addiction. Of movies, she was not wrong since the age of thirteen I have breathed film, lived for the movies. I became hooked watching the scope and magnificence of The Ten Commandments (1956) during a re-release in 1972.
Fond memories of my teen years saw me bouncing from theatre to theatre seeing three, often four films in a day, a foreshadow of my adult life at film festivals. Having my drivers’ license liberated me to head into the city, Toronto, to the truly beautiful movie houses to see the newest films. The University on Bloor, the Uptown on Yonge, the Imperial Six further south on Yonge, all gone. I was fortunate to find a girlfriend who loved film as much as I did, well, maybe not as obsessive, but she loved going to the movies. Truth be told I felt safe at the movies, because I was surrounded by others with a single-minded goal, to see the film. To fall into the screen. To be one with the story.
Video, laser disc, DVD and Blu Ray have had a staggering impact on movies, just as television did for my parents, but nothing has hit the film business like the pandemic. There is a very good chance the film-going experience as we have known it will die, never to come again.
This year’s Toronto International Film Festival was held virtually. Press were given a username, password and in the comfort of our own home, we could choose the films we wanted to see. Rather than more than 300 hundred films there were 50, a huge drop off. I have covered TIFF as press since 1994, missed one the year after my wife died, and consider it the single most important film festival on the planet. The awards season begins at TIFF and, moving back through the history of that festival, it is remarkable to realize the number of Academy Award nominated or winning films were first screened here in Toronto.
Straight up, with apologies to the organizers of the slimmed down virtual festival, I hated it. Why was Netflix curiously absent? I missed the energy of the city, the excitement in the hallways of the Scotiabank Cinemas and the Lightbox as critics anxiously chatted about what they had seen, as sharp eared industry reps listened close. That all important buzz surrounding certain films was absent, and the awards season started in November. Gone.
Streaming peaked this year as the theatres were forced to close due to COVID, and further, no films were being made with production shutting down. The studios withdrew many tentpole blockbusters in 2020, among them the much anticipated remake of Dune, directed by the gifted Denis Villeneuve; Steven Spielberg’s long awaited remake of the musical classic West Side Story; as well as Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch. The 007 franchise took a hit with the postponement, three times, of the latest a Bond Film, while Marvel sat on their Black Widow epic. DC pushed back Wonder Woman 1984 several times though it seems set for December, finally, though it will likely be streamed as COVID moves viciously through a second wave.
My hunch is movies will never be the same, and I will mourn that.
Going forward, I believe theatres will slowly open again, if they reopen at all, and streaming will become how we see films. Audiences members with a credit card can access new releases, as Disney permitted with Mulan. Going to the movies may never be the same.
Movies might never be the same. This year the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences announced that to qualify for Academy Awards films MUST practice inclusion. Gone will be the freedom of storytelling, replaced by a sad attempt to be politically correct. It sickens me because it censors stories and artistic choice. How dare they? The Academy have long proven to be homophobic and racist but now they are going to jump into the foray? Jesus.
I will mourn the experiences of listening to the chatter before the film starts, that anticipation of the audience. That hush when the lights dim and in their mind everyone is thinking, “Ok, show me”. I will miss hearing howls of laughter, weeping at sad films, the silence of an intense thriller and those collective screams of terror. Movies were meant to be a collective experience, shared by groups of 100 and more. Imagine Jaws (1975) without those primal howls of fear, or the sniffing and tears brought on by E. T. (1982), or the hushed terror while watching Clarice hunt the devious Buffalo Bill in the dark in The Silence of the Lambs (1991). Remember the gales of laughter greeting Airplane! (1980) or Tootsie (1982)? You can laugh while streaming, of course, but it is just you and the person watching with you. The awe and majesty of seeing a film on the big screen will be gone, and while smart televisions continue to grow, are they any match for the giant silver screens we are accustomed to watching?
Filmmakers have made movies knowing they will be screened by a collective audience; they need to have those precious reactions. Films have always needed audiences as much as we needed film.
Without that much needed organic reaction from the audiences, can film ever be the same? Watching alone in my office on my big screen TV, I can determine whether a film is great or not, but that delicious shared experience might be gone with the wind. No bales of laughter, no screams of terror, or a collective jump in shock, no more listening to theirs weep along with you. One of the most profound experiences of my life took place during a screening of Amour (2012). My wife had died at 45 in April, and though I thought I was doing alright; I was in fact reeling in grief. During this heartbreaking film I sobbed out loud during a deeply emotional scene. Silently without a word, the woman next to me reached over and grasped my hand, squeezing it, and never let go. When the film ended we locked eyes, she was older, but had the brightest eyes I have ever seen, they cut right through to my soul.
“You have lost someone recently” she asked, as we stood, still holding my hand.
“Yes, my wife last April”, I answered.
She stood on her toes and gently kissed my cheek before whispering, “it never stops, the pain.”
And then she was gone, like a ghost and I have never seen her again. I look every year hoping I might find her, but no.
Something like that will never happen streaming. The powerful intimacy of seeing films with complete strangers will be lost forever.
And I will mourn that for the rest of my life.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.