Once upon a time, Hollywood gave us food for thought. Before film stagnates, it needs to become less about things and more about ideas again.
A filmmaker is a small man standing on stage, covered in Christmas tree lights and chained to a megaphone. He rants about his family, his government, how we can’t get his girlfriend to climax, a book he once read, the price of melons these days and his grandfather’s nose hairs. He makes weird noises with his cheeks, insults the audience and spits on them. People shout and throw things and occasionally someone cries. Surely, no one would pay to see this. Much less allow them into their living room.
The point of art was never just to make you feel good. Film is meant to enlighten, to say all of the things that you dared not utter
But the point of art was never just to make you feel good. It was to confront you with a shrieking, vomiting vision of yourself and all the monsters sitting with you in the Wimbledon Odeon. And you might be enlightened by it. Confrontation is the name of the game. Film is meant to say all of the things that were at the curve of your lips but you dared not utter. You might not like the guy covered in Christmas tree lights, but you shouldn’t trust the other guy. The one who gets up on stage and tells you that you are a good person in a good country, with only adorable failings and every chance at redemption or, more than that, that your life is simple.
Apologies for the academics, but let’s state the terms of the argument before we take off our trousers. Story, since time immemorial, is the means by which we give meaning to our existence. As screenwriting mandarin Robert Mckee said in his book, Story, “story isn’t a flight from reality but a vehicle which carries us on our search for reality, our best effort to make sense out of the anarchy of existence”.
Story is the means by which we give meaning to our existence. Film, the best vehicle for it, allows us to articulate ideas and desires
It is the difference between human and animal perceptions of reality – a chaotic arrangement of fundamentally neutral obstacles around which to fuck, fight and eat, or a frustratingly complicated yet profoundly beautiful swirling morass of thought, confusing emotions and troubling fantasies. They are the fictions that construct our reality. So as the biggest, newest, loudest, best vehicle for stories of the last 100 or so years, we can ask what is unique to film that other persuasions of storytelling just cannot give us. Well, it’s a shared experience; it’s a mouthpiece for short, sharp statements. And from this high ledge we can say that film allows us to articulate ideas and desires; even fringe ones, as a society. This is when films are at their apex and it’s why we need them.
Richard Nixon is the true star of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. A film that articulated a simple truth about the post-Watergate age: cynical power prevails. Several months after the film was released, Richard Nixon was pardoned by the grotesquely bland folds of Gerald Ford’s newly presidential face. I’m undoubtedly nostalgic for a time that I never saw, but films apparently used to be like this – no longer. The high curve that sprang from cinema of the 60s reached its far side in the early 1980s. The oft-cited golden age of New Hollywood had started when movie execs lost the plot and started throwing money at young, unstable, wild-eyed filmmakers to make unstable, wild-eyed film.
Hollywood films of the 1970s offered catharsis as well as an understanding of a changing world
There were films, like Easy Rider and The Graduate, that not only allowed people to understand a changing world, but to perhaps claw a measure of earnest catharsis out of the experience. Quite simply, that audiences were not alone. Films of the 1970s did this, and they made money. New Hollywood continued on in this way, until – ridden with VD and caked in gak residue – the brilliant young weirdos ate themselves. Lodged high up their own assholes, those filmmakers started making indulgent, cloying films which lost more and more money.
But by then, Hollywood had found a new toy – the likes of Jaws and Star Wars had proved to the money men that they didn’t need these unruly, pretentious little pissants, but could do things in a new way. A new way which meant action figures, vertical integration, a high return and – with the birth of high concept – films that could be about things and not ideas. Say, a movie about cars that talk, quickly followed by a movie about planes that talk.
As communities weakened and society eroded, so did the need to talk about society and thus project ideas to the filmgoing audience
But it wasn’t just the newfound formula for success that the blockbuster provided that lobotomised much of moviemaking. It was bigger than that – the world changed in the late 70s. There was money to be made and ‘what can you do for your country?’ turned into ‘what can I get for myself?’ The rise of little Reagans and Thatchers all over the world did not happen in a vacuum; it signified a fundamental shift. So as communities weakened and the notion of society eroded, so did the need to talk about society and thus project ideas to the filmgoing audience.
In a way, movies continued to articulate the zeitgeist. Unfortunately, the zeitgeist was not about confrontation, but about gratification. Money was cool, cocaine was cool, Huey Lewis was cool, killing countless waves of brownish third world revolutionaries was cool, being a conservative was cool. And so the radical politicisation that had characterised so much of great filmmaking had undergone a refreshing return to the John Wayne style of wholesome reactionary blandness. A style that, at the very least, assured everyone in the theatre that they were good people and that, in the end, everything was going to be fine.
The same kind of bile that inspired the greatest films of the last 50 years seems sparse today; commodity is valued over artwork
Don’t get me wrong – some of these were great films. But a time travelling cyborg was never going to speak to the dark, deep and probably disgusting cloisters of anyone’s soul. The sea-change survives to this day, in the same way that a bold dose of neo-liberalism characterises the governing ideology of western governments – films about alien robots that turn into cars mar our cinema screens. The same kind of bile that inspired the greatest films of the last 50 years seems sparse today; commodity is valued over artwork. And if you don’t value that, you should at least recognise that there are few films being made about you. And there should be. A friend of mine once said the last film about his generation was Human Traffic. And Human Traffic was shit. Don’t say it wasn’t. It was.
In fact, the best film about our generation was made 50 years ago; we live in a world that makes all young people into The Graduate – deeply alone and infected with a mix of vicious malaise and confusion. And it is exactly that which filmmakers should be talking about, not those cars that turn into robots. A good film reaches out and touches you. And even spits on you a little, leaving a mark. But it is, I assure you, a marvellous stain.
Featured image: Embassy Pictures/United Artists
Inset images: Paramount; Paramount