How Many Cinemas Are There?

“The Serpentine Dance,” the Lumière Brothers (c. 1899) (still).

[Update 30 Jan 11: I've since written a follow-up to this post: "Why Do You Need So Many Cinemas?"]

“The movies” used to mean one thing—or we acted like they did. “I’m going to the movies.” “I saw a great movie the other night.” “You really ought to watch this movie.” But even though we often talk about “the movies,” or “films,” or “cinema,” or “the cinema” as a single, homogeneous thing, there is not just one thing, and never has been—a fact that grows increasingly apparent every year.

When most people say “the movies,” they mean “feature-length films.” These have existed since the early 1910s, and can be considered cinema’s most successful form—they’re the stereotype of motion pictures. They run somewhere between 90 minutes and 2 hours, perhaps a bit longer, and they debut (most of the time) in movie theaters. Then they become available on DVD; later they broadcast on TV, with commercial interruptions. That said, even this familiar model is changing; the length of time between theatrical run and DVD release has been shrinking, and we can see how DVDs themselves are doomed, the way that CDs have long been doomed: you don’t need little plastic discs when you can stream a feature directly to your computer or your TV, via Netflix or Hulu.

Still, we have, and will have, features. Filmmakers made many hundreds of them in 2010—the most complete list I could find lists 880, and I imagine there were even more. (For one thing, that list doesn’t include porn.) It seems reasonable to assume that there will be feature-length for a long time to come, regardless of where and how we experience them.

What else exists? Well, there are shorts. They’ve been around even longer than features—since the late 1800s. The earliest movies were shorts:

Shorts differ from features in that they rarely play in theaters (although they sometimes precede features; this used to be more common). Sometimes theaters host programs of short films—but these are special events, not weekly programming. They’re also sometimes made available on DVD collections, and recently there’s been something of a revival of the “anthology film”: Three…Extremes (2004); Paris, Je T’aime (2006); To Each His Own Cinema (2007); New York, I Love You (2009). Still, I imagine that all of these things mainly appeal to film scholars and dedicated fans of the format—hence our tendency not to mean “shorts” when we say “the movies.”

Yet, despite this, shorts are amazingly popular. Indeed, we seem to be in the midst of a short-film renaissance. YouTube in particular is practically custom-made for watching short films and videos:

And it’s not designed for features. Even when a full-length film is up in its entirety, it’s typically broken up into ten-minute sections.

In fact, I’d argue that shorts are even more popular than features—although it depends on how we define “short.” Until now I’ve been considering short films as a single thing—short narratives and docs—short features, essentially. But they are not just one thing. There are also music videos:

And commercials:

And once we open the door up to commercials, we also allow in TV programs.

Historically, television has been considered something distinct from “the movies,” but that has had more to do, really, with how the content is transmitted than with anything else. Movies were shipped to and projected inside theaters; TV shows were broadcast to receivers inside homes. Today, that distinction is breaking down. At Hulu, I can just as easily watch the Banksy documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop as I can an episode of 30 Rock. Meanwhile, it’s become commonplace to buy and rent complete seasons of TV shows on DVD. And there have always been hybrids, like made-for-TV movies and miniseries, many of which are highly critically regarded. So why can’t a TV program be considered a kind of short motion picture?

There are substantial differences, of course. TV tends to be more serial, or scenario-based, and it has its own grammar and vocabulary (its own conventions). The underground/experimental film scene has long understood this. In his illuminating essay “The Trouble with Video,” critic Fred Camper outlines key several differences between film and video:

  1. “A film image is generally projected on a screen, and viewed in darkness. [...] A TV image emanates from a box, which is itself a piece of furniture which occupies a particular place in the interior architecture of a room. Its inevitable materiality and objectness is in stark contrast to the film image’s utter ethereality. [...] Further, TVs are often viewed with some ambient light, which further places the image in a definite setting.”
  2. It is well-known that a standard video image lacks the sharpness and definition of even 8mm film. [...] In video, the range of darks and lights, the differences between the blackest black possible and the whitest white, is far narrower than in film. As a consequence, there are fewer intermediate shadings possible. Video colors lack the fullness and saturation of pure film colors; they are less intense.”
  3. The most serious difference between the two media is the differences between the two kinds of light. Cinema light is absolute: it is a succession, rapidly-projected, of still images. On a modern projector, one might see each frame projected three or more times, for 1/144th of a second each, with three 1/144th-of-a-second intervals of darkness following.”
  4. “Movement, either of the camera or of the objects depicted therein, is rendered very differently by film and video. [...] In video, since the light itself is constantly moving, any motion of the subject-matter is merely additional; a quantitative rather than qualitative change, and is not at all like the change from stasis to movement one gets in film, for in video there is no true stasis.”
  5. “It is at the borders of the image that the filmmaker makes much of his statement, because there it is revealed what he has selected, and what he has excluded, from the implied larger setting that spread out before his camera’s eye. [...] Video reduces the effect of the frame’s borders from cinema’s firm and absolute edge to that of an indistinct blur, because of the natures of ‘the box,’ of its presence in the room, of the light, and of the monitor screen, whose curved shape tends to efface the image’s boundary-line.”

Thus, the experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage was famously reluctant about having his films transferred to video, and I recall several arguments in the 1990s as to whether the unique qualities of his work were even reproducible on video. (See these comments by Camper for more on this topic.) And, Criterion’s two-volume By Brakhage releases notwithstanding, this divide can still persist today: Matthew Barney (who often calls his videos “sculptures”) has refused to issue his Cremaster films on DVD. (Actually, his gallery made 10 copies of each film, which they sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars each. Though to be fair, the discs came packaged with amenities such as “a custom vitrine and DVD case made from hand-tooled saddle leather, sterling silver, polycarbonate honeycomb, beeswax, acrylic and nutmeg.”) If you want to see those films, you can view them in installation (alongside their sculptural components), or when they tour arthouse cinemas (as they recently did).

Still, very little prevents me from BitTorenting an AVI copy of Cremaster 4, and watching it on my laptop. Right alongside an episode of Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Japanese commercials starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, a porn clip at RedTube, a Flash animation, a Maru video posted at YouTube

So the boundary between film and video, and between the movies and television, has become increasingly blurred. Many TV programs have acquired higher production values, and many movies in the theater look increasingly like TV. Meanwhile, video resolution is no longer the limited affair that Camper described (as he himself has acknowledged in his writing since). I didn’t realize until after I saw David Fincher’s Zodiac that it had been shot on video—so, for me, 2007 was the year that video finally passed the cinematic equivalent of the Turing Test. The end result of this convergence (in both form and means of distribution) is that we might consider TV and other videos a kind of cinema—a kind of motion picture-making…

What else is out there? There’s the whole world of experimental film and video. Many of the artists working there are preoccupied with exploring and challenging the physical boundaries of media, resulting often in highly singular work quite distinct from anything in the cineplex or on TV:

Similarly, some artists use film and video as part of their installations, such as Bill Viola’s “The Tree of Knowledge” (1997):

One image from the video part of the exhibition.

And there are also video games (which I’d argue can be considered a form of art, as well as a kind of cinema, of a more interactive sort).

Today we have also works of web art, such as flash animations:

(Here’s a link to the actual site. I just wanted to be able to embed the YouTube version.)

Even animated gifs might be considered a kind of cinema. I haven’t seen any particularly interesting or experimental ones, but they have to be out there, right?

And then there’s an entirely different region of “moving image art,” of a non-electrical variety: flipbooks:

(Of course, once you film a flipbook, it becomes an animated film, but that doesn’t prevent the non-filmed experience’s moving-image quality.)

…camera obscuras:

…and magic lanterns:

…among other things. For a while now I’ve been enamored by a phenomenon I call “natural cinemas,” or observing the shimmering, abstract reflections on windows as I walk or bike past them. (Some windows produce better results than others.) And there’s the Moiré effect that grids and advertisements on buses and trains often create:

Photograph by Figgles1 (Flickr).

To recap: the moving image experience used to be rather “one-to-one.” You saw a feature at a set time in the theater; you caught a music video on MTV. And they were different things. But since this is changing, we might consider all kinds of moving images “cinema,” then differentiate them according to:

  1. Their types: length, genre, medium (film, video, nonelectrical), etc.;
  2. Their venues (where and how we experience them).

And in the end, to account for all this variety, we might adopt an expression such as, “the cinematic arts,” the same way literary critics discuss “the literary arts.” Literary scholars know and understand that there are substantial differences between stories, poems, novels, letters, journals, riddles, spoken word CDs, song lyrics, hip hop, and graffiti—and that they are more than different genres; they are different rhetorical modes with their own histories and forms of internal logic—but that all of these things are still “literature.”

And literature is richer for that. The cinematic arts can be richer, too.

10 thoughts on “How Many Cinemas Are There?

  1. Quite true, Adam. I was very recently thinking how the feature-length film should not be understood as an adequate synechdoche for “film” or what you’re calling “cinema.” I was thinking about the oft-discussed dearth of female directors while, at the same time, there’s a very strong tradition of video art by women. In particular, I was thinking about the work of Cecilia Vicuña since I’m planning very soon to see her “film poem” called Kon Kon Pi at the Moma:

    http://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2010/online/#works/03/95

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