Netflix, Shmetflix: At Cannes 2019, the Movies Needed Every Inch of the Big Screen (Column)

In the May 24 edition of The New York Times, there was a column by Timothy Egan, entitled “The Comeback of the Century: Why the Book Endures, Even in an Era of Disposable Digital Culture,” that celebrated those things that come between two hard covers as a larger phenomenon than mere nostalgia. The column keyed off the surprising strength of books in the marketplace: the hours that people still devote to them, the proliferation of the independent bookstores that were supposed to be going the way of the dodo bird, the falling off of electronic reading devices like the Kindle. In the middle of the column, there was a shockingly extreme and revealing quote from the late Steve Jobs, who in 2008 said, “It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore.”

The reason that quote is so revealing is that 1) it was never really true, and 2), to the extent there was a small grain of truth to it (i.e., highbrow wags have been warning about declining literacy levels since the 1960s), you’d think that a cultural figure as dominant as Steve Jobs would have wanted to hold that glass up to the light and look for the part that was full. You’d think he would have wanted to be a guardian of reading. But no: He looked at book culture — and old media culture in general — and, in a few words, trashed it all, with staggering inaccuracy. What that should tell you, since Jobs was a brilliant man, is that he got the death-of-reading thing so wrong because what he was really expressing was his wish.

I get that same feeling when I hear prognosticators of the pop-cultural landscape talk about the the waning of the motion-picture experience. If you believe everything you hear, then binge-watching is the key entertainment act of our time, and there are 4,379 good reasons not to bother going out to a movie theater anymore. (The ads before the trailers, the cell phones and the popcorn munchers, the general sticky rudeness of it all: We’ve heard the anti-theater litany a thousand times.) If you buy into the catechism of the new technology, movies are still good for spectacle, and will be for quite a while — otherwise, the new Disney-Fox behemoth wouldn’t be plotting out blockbuster universe sequel systems through the next four centuries. But surely the rise, rise, and rise of streaming will do movies in!

That’s what the war of words, at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, between the forces of Cannes and Netflix was really all about: not just the issue of whether Netflix films like “Roma” or “22 July” would be allowed to qualify as festival competition entries (they weren’t), but what the future was going to look like. After all, let’s assume that “Roma” had been part of the Cannes competition, and that it had won the Palme d’Or (which, in hindsight, doesn’t seem a farfetched scenario). What would it say to the world that even a Cannes Film Festival winner would then go out to be experienced, essentially, on a streaming platform? It would say that if they can beat the movies there, they can beat them anywhere.

But this year at Cannes, with Netflix literally out of the picture, all that dialogue seemed a distant memory. No one was sitting around debating the fine points of French government regulations about three-year windows, or whistling past the graveyard of America’s own inevitable streaming-vs.-theatrical, studio-vs.-exhibitor window war — a clash of capitalist–aesthetic forces so titanic it’s destined to make the battle between Hollywood talent agencies and the WGA look like a misunderstanding between friends.

What people were doing at Cannes this year was seeing movies that declared themselves, in dozens of different ways, to be movies. That was their power and allure. And the reason that no one was talking about Netflix very much — beyond the usual industry white noise of chatter about it — is that a number of the key films at Cannes this year owed their impact to the big screen in a way that was so potent and obvious and inevitable, so tied up with their molecular essence, that it literally went without saying.

There was no better example, to me, than “A Hidden Life,” Terrence Malick’s epic, enveloping true-life drama about one man’s journey into the darkness — and the light — of self-sacrifice. Visually, the film is extraordinary. Much of it was shot in the Austrian countryside, where Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), the farmer who refuses to enlist in Hitler’s army at the outset of World War II, works the land in a place that looks like the opening sequence of “The Sound of Music” as painted by Bruegel. But that’s because Malick uses his camera as a virtual sensory heightener, transforming this land of mountains and grass into the Garden of Eden as seen through a wide-angle lens.

And the film’s meaning is rooted in that splendor. This, “A Hidden Life” tells us — this beauty, this paradise, this heightened vision of what all of us call home — is the place Franz has been blessed with, and the one he will now leave, through his willingness to die. Every caress of Malick’s camera eye says (or, rather, forces the audience to ask), But how could Franz leave this place? The world that Malick presents is, in a way, too sublime for self-sacrifice. Yet that becomes the measure of Franz’s radicalism. He will leave this beauty behind because, and only because, he glimpses a mirror of that beauty on the other side. His life will end, but his love, like that land, is eternal.

All of this hinges on our grand immersion in the world that “A Hidden Life” shows us. The movie is cinema at its mightiest and holiest. It’s a movie you don’t just watch; it’s a movie you enter, like a cathedral of the senses. Some, in fact, will prove resistant to it (it was not universally beloved), but “A Hidden Life,” as much as any film I’ve seen in the 21st century, is totally contingent upon the big screen. It needs to be bigger than you are, because it’s about bigger things than you — or anyone else. It’s about how the quietest acts of resistance are part of what save civilization.

The fact that Fox Searchlight paid $12 to $14 million to obtain distribution rights, in the U.S. and several international territories, to “A Hidden Life” may seem like a corporate folly, given that Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” which starred Brad Pitt, only grossed $13 million domestic. Yet that film made $61 million worldwide, and “A Hidden Life,” with its European vantage on Third Reich fascism (an unfortunately timely theme right now), has the potential to be a landmark event in foreign territories. That said, the audacity of the Fox Searchlight deal — $12 million for a three-hour Terrence Malick art film — is that it felt like more than just a deal. It felt like an act of faith, a vote for nothing less than the unique transcendent appeal of movies. (We’ll learn, later this year, if it is vindicated.)

There were other Cannes films, many of them, that needed to be bigger than you. Movies like “The Lighthouse,” Robert Eggers’ thrillingly atmospheric and tempestuous gothic face-off between a grizzled lighthouse keeper (Willem Dafoe) and his surly apprentice (Robert Pattinson), a movie that plunges you, with stunning authenticity, into the hardscrabble spookiness and mechanical ingenuity of the 19th century. Or another rapturous period piece that worked in exactly the opposite way: “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” Céline Sciamma’s tale of the slow-burn dance between a budding artist (Noémie Merlant) in the late 18th century and the young woman (Adèle Haenel), about to be married, whose portrait she’s engaged to paint. Sciamma has made one of the rare romantic costume dramas that’s rooted in the creaky quietude of the era — it’s there in every inch of her delicate, hovering images, which the actresses undermine only with their eyes.

The films at Cannes that demanded, and earned, the big screen also included “Les Misérables,” Ladj Ly’s jagged propulsive tale of police brutality in a French housing project; “Little Joe,” Jessica Hausner’s stately trancelike horror film, with its armies of creepy red-tendril flowers and its sly skewering of psychotropic drugs as a conformist conspiracy; and the Palme d’Or-winning “Parasite,” Bong Joon-ho’s grand teeming scurrilous social thriller about an impoverished family of con artists who launch a scam so gnarly and chaotic that every mad detail of it needs to be writ large.

And then there was Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood,” a movie I saw close to a week ago, and what has stuck with me more than anything is the sense-memory of Quentin’s Los Angeles — not just the cars and fashions and pop songs, the sculpted mid-century neon kitsch of the restaurants and movie theaters (at one point, there’s dazzling montage of fabled nightspots flipping on their lights at dusk), the TV-Western backlots that are like knockoffs of old movies that were themselves imitations. No, it’s the way they all combine in your head, the way Tarantino invites you to take a dip in his heightened vision of a Hollywood backwater that once was. I seriously doubt I’d be thinking about that movie in the same way if I hadn’t seen it on the big screen.

For a hundred years now, movies have been sparked by the art-vs.-commerce dialectic. How ironic it is, then, that in the movie-theater-vs.-streaming showdown, the old paradigm of going out to a movie (even a major commercial one) is now on the high-end/boutique/art side of the equation. The argument goes: People want what they want, at least where technology enables it, and what they want now is streaming. They want to belong to the Couch Potato Forever Club.

But just as books made a “comeback,” not the way vinyl made a comeback, as an analog-geek so-old-it’s-new-again novelty fetish object, but because books never went away, since it turned out people had a primal and timeless love for them, the motion-picture experience isn’t going away, because people have a primal and timeless love for it. Yet the essence of that love is that it refuses to be measured only by numbers. Going to the movies, as the key films at Cannes proved this year, is a sacramental experience. It cannot be replaced. It cannot be reduced. It cannot be streamed without a loss of some of that essence. In reminding us of that, Cannes got back in touch with its glory.