The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, also called The Oscar People, has voted to expand the nominees for Best Picture to ten titles, thus “widening the field” and reflecting earlier practice during the first 15 years or so of the ceremony. I see that someone has finally gotten my memo.
True, I never sent it to anyone in particular, but my vibe was out there. I have many tentacles. Perhaps in a later column I’ll explain how I secretly run the world, but for now I wish to explain what I’ve been tirelessly telling a disbelieving circle of friends and strangers: We’re living in the Golden Age of Cinema.
What? I’ve lost you already?
Haven’t I read the sorrowful eulogies for cinema by Pauline Kael and Susan Sontag and all the other whiners, may they rest in peace?
Don’t I know that world cinema is dominated by Hollywood and that Hollywood is run by committees of craven accountants who throw together lowest-common-denominator concepts for over-caffeinated, under-educated teenagers? Don’t I know that the blockbuster mentality rules? Don’t I know it’s all about the opening weekend grosses?
Don’t I know that quality films go begging for distributors, that art houses are closing, that multiplexes show wall-to-wall sequels and remakes? Don’t I know that Hollywood went creatively bankrupt somewhere between Jaws and Star Wars and it’s all Steven Spielberg’s fault? Don’t I know everything is hype and buzz and dreck?
Actually I don’t, and proceeding from the principal that the truth is usually the opposite of what people think it is, I don’t believe any of that. Oh, some of it might have a grain of truth—a grain, mind you—but more important things are also true.
There’s never been a better time to see movies. I’ve never lived near a major city with revival houses and museums and festivals, and for that I felt sorry for my poor self, but no longer. I have access to great swathes of film history, from the earliest silents to Bollywood classics to the festival fodder of critical darlings like Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Hong Sang-Soo. I don’t care how many theatres are closing. Everything I want is on a big screen near my remote control, and that’s true whether I live in the big city or in a barn in Nebraska.
But you’re growing impatient. Yes, okay, a golden age of access, but how does that translate to creativity?
Well, do we think access to great art doesn’t translate to creating new art? Aspiring auteurs now have the inspirations, the means of production, and the means of distribution. Jean-Luc Godard, who made his earliest features in 16mm on the streets of Paris, once said the problem wasn’t getting your film made but getting it distributed. Today, after shooting your film digitally and editing on your laptop, you can burn your own discs and sell from your website. You stream it, download it, or put it on YouTube.
The new problem is getting it noticed amid all this overwhelming superfluity of access, but I submit that this is a much happier problem than not finding a distributor—of which there are a surprising number during this so-called decline, and an increasing number of festivals and labels and channels hungry for product. I said I didn’t live near a city with museums and festivals; that’s changing, but I haven’t moved!
You’re still restless. Okay, the hurrah-for-technology argument means every untalented jerk has the power to pollute the mediascape with self-indulgent spewings, but how does that signify a golden age of film? Surely I acknowledge that the general level of cinematic quality is in decline and that superior movies are few and far between?
Not at all. Excellent movies are thick on the ground. We’re tripping on them. If a Golden Age is four or five good new films a month, we’ve been hitting that for several years now. After all, for the first time in your life, isn’t it impossible to keep up with all the movies worth watching that you have at your fingertips? Haven’t they become like those stacks of unread books that taunt you from your shelves with an air of patient pity?
Now you’re finally getting annoyed, perhaps, at my stubborn, mulish perversity, the annoying rattle of my cup at your orthodoxies. And everyone from the average “serious” filmgoer to the most hollow-eyed film addicts and the most widely-viewed critics, all of whom should know better, take this axiom of decline to be self-evident. If it’s not a given that Hollywood has gone to hell in a handbasket, of what can we be certain? How can my assertions be true when my conclusion feels so wrong?
From Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
The Myth of Decline
From Pan’s Labrynth
The Myth of Decline
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.
It Don’t Worry Me: The Revolutionary American Films of the Seventies
(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!