Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Story of the 2000s: Film

As in the previous media I discussed, this has been a tumultuous decade for cinema. For one, film has lost its position as the preeminent visual medium in culture. Through a variety of forces, TV rose up to take the lead role in discussing societal issues and telling the most artistically ambitious and challenging stories of the decade. But, where did that leave cinema on an artistic, and commercial level? Read on to find out.

Look at the box office this weekend and you’ll see a prime example of the way that response to film has shifted over the course of the 2000s. New Moon opened to an absurdly high box office total, with people storming the multiplex to see the film and experience it on opening weekend. People weren’t going based on anything they knew about the film itself, and its quality, they were going because of the pent up demand that built up through the lengthy marketing schedule of trailer releases and actor appearances at events like San Diego Comicon.

The release of the movie is something of an anti-climax, that’s not the story, it’s the build up to the release that’s the real story. Next week, the box office numbers will plummet and the culture will move on to talk about something else. The film’s place in the news cycle ends with its release, and the obligatory news story about its massive box office take.

What this has done on a cultural level is make the quality of the film irrelevant. When people will turn out for sequels to films that were outright terrible, like Transformers, it’s clear that the real art behind those movies is the marketing, of saturating the culture to the point that you feel you need to see Transformers 2, if only to be part of the cultural dialogue. That’s made it a lot tougher for films to succeed on their actual merits, since even if a movie built an audience and grossed a respectable tally over many weeks, that’s not going to be what people are talking about.

Take as an example Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a film that will likely be one of the most listed films on Best of the Decade recaps. Everyone you know has seen the film, right? Yet, it made less money in the theater than notorious bombs like Catwoman and Taxi. People did not go to the best movies in theaters, they went to the ones that were most promoted. That’s fine, that’s probably how it’s always been, the problem is that the rise of DVD meant that the window for theatrical releases radically shifted, and movies didn’t build into hits much anymore. That meant that it wasn’t a wise investment to make smaller or mid-level movies, you’ve got to swing for the fences, or go for cheap schlock you know will have an audience.

Let me talk a little bit about the impact of DVD because, even as it moves towards its own obsolescence, it really did reshape the way we view films over the course of the decade. In 2000, DVD was still far from a mass medium, and the jury was out on whether it would be the next VHS or the next laser disc. But, it quickly rose to popularity, and for the first time in cinema history, it was possible to view films in great quality, in the aspect ratio they were meant to be viewed, at home. It’s crazy to me that ‘pan and scan’ existed in the first place, but thankfully it’s a thing of the past now.

This was perhaps the biggest film story of the decade. We saw almost every important film of the past come out on DVD, and with services like Netflix, it became easy to watch anything you wanted any time you wanted it. That’s a massive shift, and it’s hard to imagine that as little as 25 years ago, you just couldn’t watch movies from the past, outside of revival screenings or TV broadcasts. Now, we have the entirety of film history available to us.

But, on a production level, DVD has changed the way that the theatrical business works. With windows shrinking, the importance of the theatrical experience was diminished. There were still massive films that became cultural events, but a lot of smaller films were hurt by the fact that people knew they could wait three months and watch them at home for much cheaper. That meant that smaller films, that weren’t in the cultural dialogue, generally didn’t get the theatrical business they would in the days when you could only see a movie in theaters. For me personally, I love to go to the theater, but at the same time, I’ve let movies slip because I can watch them in almost comparable quality at home.

All of this has enforced a conservatism in film production, with studios almost entirely abandoning movies based on original screenplays, and instead drawing on existing properties as a way of guaranteeing their investment and limiting risk. It’s sad to look at sequels to remakes coming out, but I can understand why they do it. Put out a movie called Transformers and all the work is done for you, people know what it is and there’s a built in fanbase. Put out a comparable original film and the movie itself has to do the work. Watching the failure of huge budget original films like Australia is harrowing because it makes it less likely that studios will back similar films in the future.

But, I can’t really worry about business stuff. Most movies are going to be bad, that’s a bottomline thing, but there’s also always going to be some great films coming out. That said, I think what defines a ‘great film’ has been irrevocably changed by the storytelling approaches of TV shows. Would a film like The Godfather have the same impact after The Sopranos has aired? Can Scorsese’s many years in the works Gangs of New York stack up to the rich world of Deadwood?

Movies struggled to address contemporary issues in post 9/11 America, leading to a lot of wishy washy movies about the Iraq War that made no real statement, while shows like The Wire and Battlestar Galactica made bold statements about what America was becoming. What movie is the definitive document of the Bush era? This man was the worst president in the history of the nation, what’s the movie future historians will look at to sum up attitudes about the era? In today’s instant media world, we can’t wait decades for movies to step up and document the world, it needs to happen now, and film didn’t do that.

Getting back to story, for me, the purpose movies changed. They couldn’t match the story and character scope of TV series, so my tastes moved more towards the avant garde and experimental, movies that used techniques and style that could not be sustained on a TV budget. This could mean the precise style and hyperpop aesthetic of Quentin Tarantino’s 00s work, which pushed genre to the limit in the service of creating movies that are just saturated with joy. Nobody was as consistent as his work this decade, and I think his 00s work is much stronger than his oft lauded 90s work.

Also notable was the stylistic experimentation of post MTV generation filmmakers like Gaspar Noe and mid 00s Tony Scott. Noe’s Irreversible is the single most technically dazzling film of the decade. As the decade progressed, CG effects were horribly overused in virtually every blockbuster film, Noe pointed to the way that seamlessly integrated CG effects can be used to change the possibilities of what the medium can do. His filmmaking was intense, making the movie something you experience, love it or hate it, Irreversible was unlike any other film ever made. He’s rereading the grammar of cinema. Scott didn’t go as avant garde as Noe, but he applied avant garde editing principles to mainstream entertainment on films like Domino and Man on Fire, films that push the boundaries of how fast and how crazy you can get on a mainstream movie. I love Domino, I think it’s a perfect example of pop action cinema, totally abandoning narrative in favor of creating a mindset and experience. It’s one of the most underrated films of the decade.

That’s something that TV shows can’t do. Similar in purpose, but totally different in approach, Wong Kar-Wai and Terence Malick created masterpieces of subjective cinema, that told stories in different ways. I guess that’s ultimately what I’m looking for, films that engage in ways that go deeper than just the typical three act structure, that pull you into a world and way of perceiving that changes your state of consciousness.

And, unfortunately, not that many films tried to do that. The obsession with replaying the same stories of the past is pushing us towards a strange terminal situation. In twenty years, what films will be made, remakes of remakes? Or maybe we’ll bottom out and return to original material.

Again though, it’s not so much the narrative subject matter that’s important. The New World and Miami Vice aren’t telling new stories, but they offer us new ways of seeing the same stories. Vice in particular is a blockbuster that on the surface seems to suffer from the lack of creative direction and inspiration that I’m complaining about, but because the film is so well executed, and so emotionally real, it feels new and fresh. But, of course, the film was seen as a failure.

So, the medium is at something of a turning point. In a digital age, with theatrical distribution become exclusively about the biggest movies. Will there be revenue streams for smaller movies, and will there even be an audience for those films? I guess we’ll see. But, I’m confident that good movies always will be made, it’s just a question of how many.


JF said...

While there have been changes both subtle and collossal in the way we watch movies and experience media in general this decade, I don't think it's impacted the quantity of good stuff out there. If you live in or around a major metropolitan area, you can see all kinds of great, sometimes challenging and experimental movies in a theater. As long as there's an audience for that, it will exist, and I think there will always be adventurous cinephiles who want to have a more interesting experience in a theater than Hollywood will nine times out of ten be able to provide them with.

And I don't see TV drama as having completely supplanted film as the dominant art form, any more than a bunch of great 1000 page novels diminish the greatness of a bunch of great short stories/novellas/200-300 page novels. This has been an amazing decade for American television, but it's also been an amazing decade for movies, maybe the best decade for American movies since the 70's. David Lynch, Terrence Malick, Michael Mann, Wes and PT Anderson, the Coens, David Fincher, Charlie Kaufman, and many, many more made magnificent movies this decade, some of them career-bests. Documentaries experienced a veritable renaissance (and with the advent of blogging, I'd argue, so did film criticism). Low-budget indie film wasn't quite as good as it was in the 90's, but the sometimes-maligned Mumblecore phenomenon produced a couple really good little movies, like Mutual Appreciation. And overseas, Europe and Asia produced a seemingly endless stream of amazing, original movies. Be it Claire Denis (Beau Travail, Trouble Every Day, Friday Night, L'Intrus) and Arnaud Desplechin (Kings and Queen, A Christmas Tale) in France (have yet to get into Noe; he scares me), Bela Tarr (Werckmeister Harmonies) in Hungary, Hou Hsiao-Hsien (Three Times) and Edward Yang (Yi Yi) in Taiwan, Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Syndromes and a Century) in Thailand, Bong Joon-ho (Memories of Murder) and Park Chanwook (you know him) in Korea, WKW in China, Takashi Miike (Gozu), Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Pulse) and Sion Sono (Love Exposure) in Japan.

In terms of straddling the TV/cinema divide, I think Desplechin and Sono in particular are really on to something, by making maximalist, ambitious, stylistically experimental, tonally-all-over-the-place but still human-centric movies that pack a whole TV season's worth of stuff into something that can be absorbed in a single sitting. Sono's Love Exposure, which hasn't gotten US distribution yet, is my Movie of the Year. It's an incredibly wacky and perverse comedy that would be easy to merely have a lot of lighthearted fun with if it were the length of an average movie, but it's 4 hours long, and by spending so much time with the characters and in that world it acquires a borderline Shakespearean dimension and thematic/narrative complexity. It's currently floating around the Internet and well worth checking out, if you have 4 hours. It's the kind of thing that doesn't just make me hopeful for the future of movies, it makes me want to go out and make something myself.

Patrick said...

I'd agree that a lot of great stuff was made, and I certainly think there's still a place for film. I think those artier filmmakers are even more important since even the greatest TV shows aren't really pushing the boundaries of how to tell stories, it's more about just telling really large scale, great stories. I think shows like Mad Men and The Sopranos look fantastic and are meticulously constructed, but they don't have the same mission as a WKW or Malick film.

What I'm hoping is that the next decade will see a more global film culture happen on the art film end, and movies will be distributed across territories with more regularity. It makes no sense in the age of the internet for a film like Love Exposure or Noe's Enter the Void to be distributed in only a few territories and not come out in others for years. Why would waiting a year to put out a film make you more money? It's particularly absurd with stuff that is guaranteed to suffer due to internet piracy, like the Rebuild of Evangelion movies.

I think the 90s was a stronger decade for film than the 00s, but I get your point about the strength of the decade. And I think it'll seem even stronger in retrospect when you can point to 20 or 30 all time great 00s films, and the mediocre or bad films slip out of the cultural consciousness.

I guess my big issue is that the best films are so rarely the ones that become part of the cultural discussion, and though obviously popularity isn't a reflector of quality, I think one of the things that made the 70s so significant is that the best movies were also among the most popular, and the cultural dialogue was at a high level. Even on the internet, a lot of the auteurs you're talking about are only talked about in a few isolated places, and the haphazard foreign and independent film distribution means that smaller films don't get a single moment in the sun.

But, I do think the internet has had the great effect of making it a lot easier to discover new and more obscure films, and it's been a huge influence in what I've watched over the course of the decade.

Anonymous said...

Wow, I thought I was the only one who liked Domino! Then again, I'm a lifelong Tony Scott fanboy.