So, why was so much transformative change packed into the 1920s? One explanation is that the cinematic medium was old enough to be popular, and to some extent ingrained in society, but young enough to still be an experimental art form. Filmmakers were able to take big risks, knowing that audiences would come along for the ride. The sort of change we saw cinema undergo during these years can never be matched going forward, because these changes affected the bedrock of the medium; its very foundation as both an industry and a storytelling language.
That is not to say periods of great change cannot or will not happen again. In fact we are living through one at the moment – though the great change of the current period relates to motion pictures (encompassing all kinds of moving images including movies, video games and even phone apps) rather than cinema, which of course involves audiences sitting in front of a big screen in a public place.
The introduction of streaming is still a fairly recent major development, allowing contemporary audiences unprecedented access to incredibly large repertoires of content. More significantly we are also currently experiencing the embryonic years of various emerging technologies likely to have an impact on art and popular culture going forward. These include AI (artificial intelligence), AR (augmented reality), VR (virtual reality), MR (mixed reality) and holography (holograms).
The potential for these technologies to evolve and coalesce presents many thrilling possibilities. It’s also quite possible that one day the idea of large numbers of people congregating in the dark in front of a giant screen, to watch a single unalterable narrative, may be considered quaint and passé. Existential discussions about the nature of cinema and its purpose and place going forward have increased in recent times, given the closure of cinemas worldwide due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has accelerated the already rapidly growing streaming industry and caused a number of titles intended for cinemas to go straight to digital release.
Motion pictures will survive, unquestionably, as will cinemas – at least in the short term. The doors of the picture palaces will open, and we will be able to sit in front of a huge screen and wolf down popcorn once more. And amid decades of upheaval in cinematic history, one decade – the Roaring Twenties – will always stand out from the rest.
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