Thoughts on the current state of cinema.

Spend an hour strolling around a large magazine stand scanning the shelves and it becomes abundantly clear what society is focused at that point in time. During my lifetime, the marketing industry has become the largest single force in defining what our popular culture is and it manifests itself in the cross-section of titles that end up on an urban magazine stand. Marketers have become the arbiters of taste and worthiness, having long ago supplanted the idea that experts with knowledge and experience shaped the public's imagination and its desires. The marketing industry is but an arm of the corporate business world, but in many ways, perhaps its most important. Big Business (a relatively useless term, employed here to help differentiate between the corporate/chain/mega-companies and the small to midsized businesses that once made up most of the economy), no longer has to produce goods and services that have real merit and value, they simply bombard the marketplace with enough advertising to convince the public that they do. Most people don't care one way or the other because we long ago ceased to collectively describe ourselves as citizens, now preferring the more market-friendly “consumer”.

But what does this have to do with film? The answer, I think, is everything. At the newsstand, I counted around 80 magazines devoted to 3G phones, several hundred about cars, around 500 to fashion, another 600 or so about decorating, a few dozen on fishing, 100 or 150 on music, and 10 on film (8 of which were fanboy horror/sci-fi genre zines). What gives? Isn't film the thing everyone talks about when they can't think of anything else to to say? Why then the short shrift at the newsstand? Is Cinema dead?

There's always been an uneasy relationship between the arts and commerce. Some say art is compromised when it's reduced to a commodity and there may well be a grain of truth in that belief. Movies are a little different than most other art forms. For all intents and purposes, they started as a commodity and grew into something we now consider to be an art form in retrospect. Elements from other art forms (stage, performance, play writing, etc.) were co-opted and used in the movies, but the medium itself wasn't regarded as a vehicle for true artistic expression until much later. Cinema as art probably extends back to the earliest moving pictures but it wasn't until around 1950 that it was acknowledged as such. Film criticism evolved along side motion pictures culminating in the Auteur Theory advocated by film director and critic Fran├žois Truffaut in 1954. "Auteurism" is the method of analyzing films based on this theory or, alternately, the characteristics of a director's work that makes him an auteur. Even though the creation of a film is a process requiring a large group of skilled technicians, actors and writers, the Auteur theory posits that the director's creative vision can be distinctive enough to shine through all kinds of studio interference. Film Theory continues to evolve as the medium changes and evolves itself.

Sandwiched between the studio era and the rise of the modern blockbuster exists a brief decade where the idea that film wasn't just a commodity bled into and shaped how young filmmakers approached their craft. This hugely creative period, roughly between 1967 and 1977 found a whole generation of young American directors spilling into Hollywood, writing, producing and directing a different kind of popular film. This independent film renaissance drew on the deep divisions caused by the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement. The old-school studio system had collapsed as the initial stages of the multicultural fragmentation of American society unfolded. Up to the mid-'60s, popular film making relied on the the advancement of unifying national mythologies. Film had once defined that mythology, but the industry's cultural power was clearing waning. As indie film makers deconstructed the myths and ideologies of American contemporary popular culture, the studios found themselves becoming more and more irrelevant. This forced obsolescence required a response and the studios faced fading into extinction if they fumbled it. They didn't.

In a brilliant (but culturally devastating) move, a consensus grew around the idea of a purely monetary response to the rise of the independent film maker, but perfecting the blockbuster required mastery and re-engineering of the genre picture. Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Batman, Superman and a host of other studio-financed movies were green-lighted. These and other films drew on nostalgic narratives and characters reviving national myths from the Great Depression through World War 2 popular culture, the last era of ideological coherence and common belief. Studio film making reached back in time, or out into space, for that which eluded them in the present. Myths.

Culturally, the films that sprang out of this studio maneuver served little purpose beyond entertainment (and increased box office receipts). Differences between the eras represented on screen and contemporary culture weren't part of the narrative. They were simply mining the past for mythology to repackage for the modern film consumer. At best, these blockbusters represented an expression of regret at the loss of former certainties, at worse, they became the manifestation of the rise of a transient, disposable cultural. What is important to consider about this shift is how it fundamentally changed film making to this day. Society's historical record is often defined indirectly by it's popular culture and with the film industry mired in the past, an entire generation of film makers (and by extension, the audience) have lost their opportunity to supply commentary through the movies on (and about) their own time. The Reagan/Bush/Clinton/Bush era has little in the way of popular film to serve as any sort of cultural reference for future generations. 90% of the popular films produced during this period are set in some mythological past, either specifically or metaphorically. While the idea that film serves as a cultural touchstone for its time may seem foreign, directors like Oliver Stone with his Vietnam and political films, Spielberg's Schindler's List, Spike Lee's Macolm X and others have attempted to commit contemporary interpretations of significant modern events to celluloid. One could argue that Katherine Bigelow's Oscar-nominated Hurt Locker has a similar goal. Perhaps the very personification of our era's apparent vapidity is Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds, a film that exists in roughly equal parts amnesia and nostalgia. Historical memory during the past 25 years seems to hang in midair, suspended between too many pasts, no past at all, or completely fabricated ones.

As the 2010 Oscars fast approach, the expanded 10 Best Picture nominees represent an opportunity to look at the films that will serve as important social institutions for storing and interpreting our present somewhere down the road. What do these pictures say about the world? Do they collectively serve as a reflection of who we are? It should be said that the Academy walks a fine line between popular and acclaimed film and often errs on the side of quality but the inclusion of a film like Up in the Air undermines the entire effort. While there's nothing particularly wrong with the film, as a contemporary dialogue it has absolutely nothing to say. What about 500 Days of Summer, Moon, In the Loop, Goodbye Solo?, hell... even The Hangover was at least about something.

Which brings me full circle back to the idea that the cultural significance of film is fading fast and might be terminal. At the risk of restating the obvious, a film like Avatar advances cinema's manufactured decline as well as any other. In some ways it's the culmination of that long ago studio efforts to build a purely transient blockbuster film factory. If it's a reflection on anything about our society and time, it might be our inability to face truths and our desire to lose ourselves in illusion. The marketers have convinced us of Avatar's significance and cultural importance and we've responded by making it the highest-grossing picture in history. Perhaps that says everything that needs to be said about our time. If the limited film analysis journals and periodicals on display at the magazine stand are any indication, most appear to have stopped looking at film an art form anyways. For the lion's share of the audience, the medium has devolved into merely a commodity to be consumed and discarded, just like the studios had hoped for.
Here's hoping for a win by The Hurt Locker. Not only would that send a message about how film can articulate elements about our time, but it would reinforce the idea that Avatar is a commodity and not a great and/or important film. Simply nominating it already overstates its merits by half. 


the coelacanth said...

some excellent points to ponder here, though i can't say i agree with all of them. i think you are being unfair, or at the least, too general, when you say that film as an art form is dying. perhaps, had you said (or was it implied?) that the HOLLYWOOD film as an art form is dying, that would be acceptable, but there are soooooo many worthy, in fact, stellar examples of modern filmmaking as art that are available to us, more so now than ever before. you just have to look a little harder.

i think the point about the good ol' days of '70s cinema now being a distant memory is in fact a disservice to current film - and when i say "film, i mean "film", not "a movie" - from abroad and from the independent realm. perhaps the perfect storm of the '70s was a high water mark, or merely a coincidental stroke of luck, but we need to stop whining about a past that's never gonna come back. it's like saying "why doesn't hollywood make (good) film noirs anymore? each era has its own cinema, unfortunately the current mainstream is the most vapid it has ever been, and it only looks to be getting worse. what it comes down to is this: instead of waiting for hollywood to change (talk about righting a massive freighter), we must instead vote with our film dollars. if this is what hollywood has to give us these days, you either choose to "consume" or turn away. there is a cornucopia of alternative options outside the mainstream.

the sad reality is that, as a video store employee, one is unrealistically expected by the customer to have watched every single film in the shop. i'm sometimes embarrassed, but more often emboldened, when someone asks if "i've seen anything good lately" (by which they of course mean "what are the new releases that came out this week, and are there any copies of the most popular one in?"), to which i respond "ummmmmm, no, not really, it's been a pretty slow week" as our eyes both furtively scan the top shelf. i often direct people to my staff picks shelf, which i try to populate with just the sort of fare that is the antithesis of the "new release", and while people often pick up "in my skin" and read the back, they more often nervously glance at the crazy video store worker with the dark rings under his eyes recommending the film with such zeal, politely place it back on the shelf, and say, "oh, that looks good, but i'll be watching this with my wife/husband/dog/jar of shea butter at my side and my favourite pair of black socks as my only clothing". "oh", i reply, "well this one's really good, i think it's exactly what you are looking for", and their faces brighten, and they nod in agreement as i hand them "the reader/revolutionary road", having seen neither...

on second thought, you're right...we're fucked.

La Sporgenza said...

Yes Coleslaw, I probably should have clarified that it was Hollywood film making (and more specifically the major studio efforts over the past 25 years) that had changed. The endless formulaic genre retreads that have come to represent the majority of the major studio's output in recent decades has proven financially sound, but artistically and creatively stunted the industry. I was most interested in the idea that Hollywood had relocated their thematic output away from the contemporary to concentrate on American mythology from the past in an effort to find common ground with an increasingly fragmented audience. I contend that the result has been pat, dull, safe and less than challenging Hollywood film that has dumbed-down the average film fan. That the typical film goer has bought into the this corporate vision of a consumable movie was my intended point.

the coelacanth said...

yes, yes, well-taken.