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 François 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.