As the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures prepares to open this month, it seems a good moment to consider the big picture. I mean the really big picture.
Specifically, I’m wondering, over the long haul—hundreds, not dozens, of years—how the movies of our era will be regarded.
It’s safe to assume, should mankind survive, that pictorial storytelling of some kind will exist in the far future, as it did in the distant past. Neanderthals, we’re told, painted in caves 60,000 years ago. Add some Paleolithic narrative, and you’re on your way to an art form in which two-hour stories are told in a darkened theater to a mostly hushed crowd. A thousand years from now (or 10?) we may lose the theater, the crowd, and the two-hour framework. But words and images will mingle, somehow.
So, with that said, what will the future think about the Cinematic Century we’re now committing to a museum? Will the movies, as we know them, be remembered? Revered? Studied? Imitated? Re-made? Or entirely forgotten, like the lost arts of letter-writing or scrimshaw?
Personally, I suspect that in a couple of hundred years very little memory of our present filmic glory will remain.
Already, most of the 12,000 or so features and shorts that get submitted, for instance, to a Sundance festival in a typical year disappear after leaving a few tracks on the Internet and at the copyright office. Barely seen, they flicker into oblivion, making way for the next 12,000.
For the lucky hundreds that get prizes and commercial distribution, the prospects for long-term survival aren’t much better. Archivists tell us that half of the features shot before 1950 are gone. Worse, the rapid shift to digital formats has created unforeseen problems with storage, which used to be as easy as tossing a master into salt mines or limestone caves in Kansas and Pennsylvania. Back in 2007, a report from the science and tech people at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences pointed out that digital storage—the cost of which had already risen to $12,514 per movie each year, compared to $1,059 for conventional film storage—was further complicated by constantly changing equipment and formats. To be viewed in the future, a movie will have to be migrated, again, again, and again. Over the next 300 years, even Warner Bros and the National Film Registry will be hard-pressed to keep up.
But the real questions run deeper than technical issues. If, by some magic, our movies are saved for far-future viewers, will those watchers find anything of value in them? Will they ponder our movies, as we do the plays of Shakespeare or the pages of the Bible? Or will they scratch their heads in wonder at a society that could waste so much time and effort on intellectual and emotional trivia?
My guess is that very, very few films will make an impression on distant generations. An austere fable like High Noon might carry an enduring lesson about the human condition, as do the plays of Sophocles or the poetry of a Shelley or a Keats. Possibly, a Star Wars—as silly as it might look in the future—will have the lasting resonance of a Beowulf or the Arthurian legends.
But mostly, I think, our films will be viewed as artifacts, like broken pottery or murals on the walls of Pompeii. They will be seen not as art, but as fragments of a peculiar civilization that spent a great deal of time reflecting on itself. Sic transit cinema mundi.
Of those bits and pieces, a few—along with some apt thoughts and related ephemera– will be collected in the Academy Museum. It’s not much, but it’s better than digital dust.