Cinema is Dead

Letter from America / Roy H Wagner ASC

Roy Wagner ASC on-set in New York. Photograph by Geoffery Jean-Baptiste.

Cinema is Dead

Letter from America / Roy H Wagner ASC

Several weeks ago I was sitting in on an interview with a very prominent director, during which he lamented the end of the cinema experience. He also regarded that storytelling in a cinematic sense no longer engaged modern audiences. It happened to coincide with an article I had read in The New York Times about the same subjects.

Both the interview and the article flashed me back to a time in the late 1960s in one of old Hollywood's grandest haunts, Musso & Franks, an extraordinary restaurant/bar that was frequented by anyone who was anyone that might just be travelling across Hollywood Boulevard.

Once again, I was honoured to tag along with some of the greatest master cinematographers and directors working in Hollywood to Musso’s. It was a liquid lunch extended by the desire of all to soften the blow of the remaining day.

I listened as they lamented, “There's no doubt about it. It's over. The masterpieces ground-out every week over the Golden Era will no longer be watched by this generation. This generation is not interested in linear story-telling, nor the nuanced performance of a Spencer Tracy and the subtle lighting of one of the masters who were within earshot."

I was crushed. This was going to be the era of my big chance. There must be someone wishing to converse with a hungry audience in a disciplined manner by a crew that worked with the precision of a Patek Philippe watch.

Throughout the ‘70s we discovered the plan was to grind out movies. No make-up needed, because the "stars" were all young. No music necessary, because it denied the reality that we needed. Indeed, we would be working out of bread trucks with an Arriflex IIA wrapped in a furniture pad. No lights. We'd grab everything with concealed cameras, no permits. The French couldn't beat us at cinematic truth!

Here were my idols, Harry Stradling, Bob Burks, Arthur Miller, Joe Ruttenberg, Ted McCord, Joseph LaShelle, all lamenting the end of the world I dreamed of embracing all of my 16 years!

After a couple of hours we all walked back to the ASC Clubhouse.

The youngsters amongst us, Conrad Hall, Billy Fraker, Laszlo Kovacs and Vilis Lapenieks were quiet for a very long time. "Surely the old men were wrong,” I pleaded silently in desperation. I wanted to stand beside those rack-over BNC's or Technicolor cameras.

"The old masters thought they had nothing more to say. For the most part, they never actually knew what made their work unique and so, if an audience reacted favourably to a particular picture, they would attempt to find a new way to communicate that same success. They were no less brilliant. They'd just lost their way."

- Roy H Wagner ASC

Billy began to mumble something about the future. He was more wise than anyone has ever given him credit for. "You just have to keep reinventing yourself. Those guys have shot hundreds of features the way they were told to film them. MGM had their look. Warners had theirs... and it went through the rest of the studios. They have so much more to say. They just don’t know how to step out of that old studio contract look.”

What did he mean?! Films were changing. Studios were making drastic cuts. What I didn't realise was that I was in the right place at the right time. I'd not really gotten into filmmaking because of the Mitchell BNC or the big sound stages – it was quite simply that I love movies!

The old masters thought they had nothing more to say. For the most part, they never actually knew what made their work unique and so, if an audience reacted favourably to a particular picture, they would attempt to find a new way to communicate that same success. They were no less brilliant. They'd just lost their way.

Now back to today's reality. I observed the sadness in this Academy Award winning director we were interviewing. He'd educated his audience. They agreed and embraced his films. He thought he had nothing more to say. His sadness should have turned to joy for he had succeeded in altering millions of audiences beliefs. Now he needed to step through that gate of success to the next impassioned thoughts he had.

Yes, the tools had changed. They've changed hundreds of times in my 50-year career. Can you imagine how many changes from the flickering images cast upon cave walls to the silent era, through Technicolor, VistaVision and Stereophonic Sound?

I think it was Moss Hart, the US playwright and theatre director, who said, "The show's the thing", but if not fill in the blank of one of your favourite artists.

We will continue to express ideas on cave walls maybe at 24K 3D with more richness than Technicolor, but we'll "Always have Paris" as Bogart said in Casablanca and it's up to the extraordinary, frail, frightened, impassioned storytellers that must tell you something that's so deeply embedded it must be chiseled on some technology that will preserve it forever.

Last afternoon, my wife continued to insist that I show my four-year-old, super charged, Spiderman-loving grandson an old film. I insisted for over 30 minutes that he'd be bored by the B&W and the simplistic linear set-up. Finally I relented. He watched The Wizard Of Oz (1939, DP Harold Rosson), forgetting his brand new Spiderman glove he'd gotten the day before for his birthday. He watched it again. "There's no place like home!"

Forever, those filmmakers, worn-out amidst the thousand foot-candles of light, six-day-weeks and relentless schedules, will live on in that piece of celluloid. To a child who knew nothing of their great careers, talent or fame, they had communicated something so primeval that it caused him to forget the fancy new toy. He's now watched the film six times. I suspect some other tired old filmmaker who is ready to give up might have something to say to him, me or you once again.