The Myth of Decline

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The Myth of Decline

I’m telling you, film historians in 30 years will look back in awe at this era and wonder ruefully why nobody’s making movies anymore as ambitious and invigorating as Magnolia and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

There’s an emotional reason for this investment in the myth of decline. We vividly recall the rush of those heady years of our youth when we discovered cinema. Bergman was in his heaven and all was right with the world. As we grow older, that rush seems ever more distant. I hesitate to bring up this generational generality, since I’m on the wrong side of it, but the discourse of decline is dominated by those who Remember When, not by those freshly discovering this brave new world that hath such movies in it.

cover art

It Don’t Worry Me: The Revolutionary American Films of the Seventies

Ryan Gilbey

(Faber and Faber; US: Jun 2004)

The myth of decline depends on rhapsodic recall of the last universally acknowledged Golden Age, the New American Cinema, the late ‘60s and early ‘70s when, as popular wisdom has it, the inmates were running the asylum. We can get a handle on those years, or at least the discourse about them, by glancing at a book from 2004: It Don’t Worry Me: The Revolutionary American Films of the Seventies by Ryan Gilbey.

It has ten chapters, one each for Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Brian De Palma, Terence Malick, Woody Allen, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Stanley Kubrick and Jonathan Demme. Ah, the names roll richly off our cerebellum.

This is a perfect example of a list fabricated from the historical retrospect. After all, the Allen is Woody, not Irwin—that creator of hit disaster-pieces like The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno.  Pick up one of John Willis’ Screen World annuals to remind yourself that in 1972, for example, there was more than enough forgettable garbage flowing into theatres between The Godfather and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.

But wait. The only two directors on that list not currently active are Altman and Kubrick, and Altman was still alive when the book came out. He left us with his final drop of wisdom, A Prairie Home Companion, just before he died. Kubrick too died in the saddle, after giving us Eyes Wide Shut in 1999. (I date the current Golden Age from that year.) Bear this in mind as I wax instructive.

Gilbey spends some time justifying his exclusion of Peter Bogdanovich, Hal Ashby and William Friedkin. He might have better spent his wordage explaining the absence of Sam Peckinpah and John Cassavetes, and let us for a moment consider Sidney Lumet, John Huston, John Waters, Clint Eastwood, Roman Polanski, Mike Nichols, George Romero, Alan J. Pakula, Arthur Penn, even Mel Brooks.

Looking over those names, I see some dead people and some who, like the pantheon, are as active as ever and still cranking out the odd fine picture. Do I deceive myself?

So—it’s a golden age because everyone from the real golden age hasn’t croaked yet? No, now add those who came to prominence in the ‘80s: Oliver Stone, David Lynch, the Coen Brothers, Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch, Tim Burton, Steven Soderbergh, John Sayles, Hal Hartley, Gus Van Sant, Michael Mann, Ridley Scott, Kathryn Bigelow (our best action director) and others I’m forgetting.

And those in the ‘90s: Richard Linklater, Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Todd Solondz, Todd Haynes, Paul Thomas Anderson, David O. Russell, M. Night Shyamalan, Alexander Payne, Kevin Smith, Julie Taymor, David Fincher, Cameron Crowe, Darren Aronofsky, and again, those I apologize for forgetting.

And those who broke out in the last decade: Spike Jonze, David Gordon Green, Ramin Bahrani and a laundry list of newbies I needn’t launch into.

I’m not even mentioning proficient popmeisters like Robert Zemeckis, Ron Howard, Joel Schumacher, and Gore Verbinski, nor the Wachowskis and Farrellys and other post-Coen brother acts, nor imported directors like Peter Weir and Lars Von Trier and Ang Lee, nor those you might think are American but aren’t (David Cronenberg, Paul Greengrass), nor the animation renaissance, nor the documentary explosion, nor the flowering of cable and broadcast TV.

I’m telling you, film historians in 30 years will look back in awe at this era and wonder ruefully why nobody’s making movies anymore as ambitious and invigorating as Magnolia and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which they will recall fondly from their coming-of-age and which will be staples of film courses.

We could perform the same math with any filmmaking country. Do you realize that out of France’s Nouvelle Vague, which dates from half a generation earlier than the New American Cinema, only Francois Truffaut and Jacques Demy are gone?

In other words, Godard, Eric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette, Agnès Varda, Claude Chabrol and Chris Marker are still working! Now, with a nod or two to Belgium, add these upstarts: Bertrand Tavernier, Claude Miller, Claire Denis, André Téchiné, Catherine Breillat, Raoul Ruiz, Patrice Leconte, Luc Besson, Maurice Pialat, Chantal Akerman, Francois Ozon, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Mathieu Kassovitz, the Dardenne Brothers, etc.

By the way, don’t fret if you don’t recognize a name or two; that’s just more stuff you haven’t had time for yet. Still think there’s nothing to watch?

Don’t bother arguing that a great filmmaker’s later works often don’t stack up to early works; later works are often different but not worse than early masterpieces. And the whole point of my bean-counting of older types plus later artists is to point out that never have so many delivered so much to such an ungrateful lot.

It’s as simple as this: We can’t be living in subpar times if so many good artists are making good films!

I think the giddy young cineastes know this already. Their Gone with the Wind was Titanic or Lord of the Rings, both of which are triumphs of auteurist vision and not—as often misinterpreted from the wrong end of the telescope—examples of imperialist blockbuster-baiting by committee. They had to be made in the face of nay-saying industry wisdom. Their achievements were personal and their popularity genuine, and they were the most sweepingly ambitious movies their young audiences had ever seen.

Depending on their tastes and breadths, today’s budding buffs can reasonably embrace among their favorites Fight Club, Kill Bill, Pan’s Labyrinth, Being John Malkovich, Before Sunrise, Amélie, Songs from the Second Floor, Me and You and Everyone We Know, Borat, Master and Commander,  American Splendor, Donnie Darko, Russian Ark, Munich, V for Vendetta or Sexy Beast.

And this is confining ourselves to the reasonably well-known, which we needn’t. Those future old-fogeys will also discuss the cinematic growth of such countries as Iran, South Korea, Finland, Burkina Faso, Thailand, Romania and Turkey, all the while no doubt bemoaning the sad state of the current film scene of 2040.

They will whisper that once there were giants that walked the earth, and they will envy our millennial era for embracing Ken Loach, Danny Boyle, Deepa Mehta, Seijun Suzuki, Mani Ratnam, Takashi Miike, Pedro Almodóvar,  Zhang Yimou, Wong Kar-Wai, Werner Herzog, Michael Haneke, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Amos Gitai, Theo Angelopoulos, Johnnie To, Guy Maddin, Peter Watkins, Shyam Benegal, Peter Greenaway, Neil Jordan, Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi . . . .

Even Bernardo Bertolucci, still dreaming. Even Manoel de Oliveira, the world’s oldest active director and a living link to the silent era. Even Ingmar Bergman until just 2007, who graced us with Saraband on his way offstage.

Sweet Hitchcock, was there ever such a time!

From Saraband

From Saraband

Michael Barrett is a San Antonio-based freelance writer who tries not to leave the house. He has degrees from Trinity University in San Antonio and University of California at Davis. He watches one film a day. In addition to his features and reviews on PopMatters, see also his PopMatters column, Canon Fodder. Since the early '90s he has written a monthly video column for the San Antonio Express-News, and his national publications include Library Journal and the Chicago-based Nostalgia Digest.

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