Why do we watch movies? Why do we care about them? Why do they matter? Cinema has been facing an existential threat ever since streaming picked up steam, and the pandemic and ongoing strikes have really pushed the medium to the brink. When I write about movies and when I talk about movies, I find that mostly I focus on story and characters. Even with documentaries, my focus is on what they’re about. And you don’t need movies to tell stories. We’ve got books, and podcasts, and shows, and miniseries, and TikTok. So why do we need movies?
I think if you were going to ask that question to Tom Cruise, his answer would be shared experience. When you go and watch a movie at the cinema, it’s really the only time where you’re forced to put your phone away and really focus on just a single screen. And you do that with a hundred other people in the theater. You get to feel the tension in the room during a thrilling action sequence. With a crowd, comedy is funnier and horror is scarier. Like his ex-wife says, “somehow heartbreak feels good in a place like this.” But these are arguments for why going to the movies is important, or at least worth saving. The question I asked is why do we need movies in general.
To go back to plot, one answer is that some stories are just better when told in one two-hour block. Movies are the only art form we’ve got that allow so many creative people to pour so much time, money, and effort into so small a thing. I know for sure all these goddamn Marvel miniseries would have been better off just being movies, especially since they cost just about as much. How many documentary miniseries are released today that would have been better off being just a single movie? I know it means there’s less “content” but I also believe Faulkner when he said that “you must kill all your darlings.” Honing your work down to its finest point makes it much sharper.
Which brings me to Moonage Daydream, a movie which is more about trying to get the audience to feel the wholeness of David Bowie’s career than teach us about it. If you don’t already like David Bowie, I imagine this would be a difficult introduction. And if you dislike any of a) the music b) the persona c) the man, I doubt very much this will do anything to change your mind. But I assume those are the concessions director Brett Morgen chose to make so that he could build this movie, this experience, for the fans. Made with Bowie’s estate’s blessing, this documentary blends never-before-scene footage and interviews with psychedelic imagery and new mixes of some of his best songs. It is an immersive journey into knowing and loving David Bowie that taps into the intangible essence you won’t find on Wikipedia.
This is unique and this is important. Moonage Daydream would be exhausting in any other form. And that’s really the best answer I’ve got for my question. While I’ve argued for the importance of going to theaters for a shared experience and the potency of a short length, I can’t deny that films are still just sound and vision, no different from shows or miniseries or YouTube videos. So why do we need movies? Because they give us filmmakers. Movies are made for audiences in cinemas. To quote the only Marshall McLuhan quote I know, “the medium is the message.”
All of that is to say, I wish I had seen Moonage Daydream in theaters last year. I love David Bowie and this was a phenomenal tribute. And go support your local art house theater. Hell, go support the nearest multiplex. Solidarity with the WGA and SAG-AFTRA. No more content, only art.