The Arts and the Left
Occupy Your Couch: Films for the 99 Percent
by WILLIAM KAUFMAN
Originally published at CounterPunch
During my graduate-school years in New York City in the mid-seventies to early eighties, Manhattan was the world’s vibrant center of repertory film theaters: each night yielded an embarrassment of the world’s great cinematic riches, meticulously programmed at a dozen or so great “art” houses. There were four of the best on the Upper West Side alone: the Regency, the New Yorker, the Thalia, and the Carnegie. Domestic or foreign, classic or au courant: the city in those days was a nonstop banquet for every cinephile taste.
And these were places where you earned your cinéaste stripes—the seats at the pre-renovated Thalia were so ragged and tightly serried, the atmosphere so grungy, that the ache in the knees and backside that followed a two-hour stint of Bergman or Bresson was a Purple Heart earned in the noble cause of film art.
With the inexorable march of video technology—first the VCR, then the DVD, and now the blandishments of the high-def home theater—these shabby shrines to movie madness are now ghosts of collective memory, fondly recalled informal universities of the twentieth century’s leading art form. What remains are a couple of burnished, nonprofit curatorial emporia, devoid of their forebears’ ramshackle charm, stubbornly upholding the imperiled tradition of the movie “art house.”
In one sense, the community’s loss is the individual’s gain—armed with Netflix and a remote, we can now program our own festivals of cinema’s greatest hits and savor them while dissolutely splayed on bed or couch, clothing optional, yet with something approaching the audiovisual impact of a theatrical projection thanks to hi-def LCD or plasma screens and hi-fi speakers—minus the stresses of someone else’s show times, the yakker in the row behind you, the varsity basketball star blocking your view in the row ahead, or the wad of chewing gum that adheres to your hand if you touch the armrest.
Yet the conveniences of the home theater scarcely compensate for the loss of the communitarian ethos of moviegoing that made the cinema more than just an art form for previous generations. In that pre-VCR era in New York—and Paris and other cinematic metropoles— going out to a repertory theater was a shared experience that bound audience to the art and to one another in a community of cultural aspiration and expression; beyond mere connoisseurship, art-house moviegoing, along with jazz in the 1950s and rock and folk in the 1960s, defined a way of life, a subcultural revaluation of values in the arts and in life. As a blogger wrote in reaction to a You Tube-preserved performance by the jazz singer/pianist Blossom Dearie from 1958, “If anyone out there remembers NYC or Bucks County in the 1950s, then they know that this video is as close as it gets to the real experience. She embodies an entire post-WWII generation determined to create a new world through art and music.” 
In that era the arrival of a new Godard or Truffaut film, or Coltrane or Stones or Dylan album, was an event of great moment, as eagerly anticipated by some as the debut of the latest model of an X-box or iPad is now; and the lines outside the theater, the ensuing reviews, the passionate debates in cafes and diners about the merits of this or that film or director, were common currents of life of the postwar urban subcultures. In fact, the most influential American film critic of the postwar era, Pauline Kael, got her first paying gig as a reviewer in just that manner—animatedly discussing movies in a Berkley coffee shop, where a magazine editor overheard her and on the spot offered her a job reviewing Chaplin’s Limelight. And remember Alvy Singer’s obsession with The Sorrow and the Pity in Annie Hall? Or his exasperation with the guy behind him in line at a movie theater who was pontificating pompously about Fellini to impress his date? Such displays of ardor about film were not far to seek in the generations of urban bohemians and radicals before the advent of the VCR and the DVD player.
Since that technological sea change, the cultural importance of film in general and serious film in particular has suffered a marked decline. There are no directors now whose work attains to the cultural preeminence—or inspires the passionate devotion—of the generations of postwar auteurist innovators extending from De Sica and Bunuel to Godard and Fassbinder and Wenders (the Belgian Dardenne brothers, for example, make contemporary films of that caliber, but few know of their work).