With the world in turmoil, why isn’t cinema tackling our myriad issues head-on?
Welcome to the dystopian future which is the 2014 summer movie season. Mrs Brown’s Boys D’Movie is currently top of the UK box office, having made over £4 million in its first week, and across the pond the nearly three-hour-long Transformers: Age of Extinction has earned over US$100 million in roughly the same amount of time.
In the 1960s post-war world, US conflicts abroad and assassinations at home took the shine off the ideals of Manifest Destiny
If we have already hit the nadir of 21st century mainstream cinema, then instead of swinging the other way we appear to have plateaued, comfortable in our escapist fantasies and completely unwilling to directly confront society’s problems at the multiplex. Granted, there have been many authentically great blockbusters in the last ten years or so (mostly thanks to Marvel Studios and Christopher Nolan), and some of these films have engaged in important social issues amongst their explosions and fisticuffs. But where is our equivalent of the New Hollywood renaissance of the 1970s?
By the end of the 1960s, American audiences were growing tired of the business-as-usual Hollywood blockbusters. With the Vietnam War in full swing, the escapism of musicals and historical epics were just not cutting it. Americans were unable to understand their place in the post-war world, as conflicts abroad and assassinations at home took the shine off the ideals of Manifest Destiny, and the higher American flag was raised, it cast a longer and darker shadow. Audiences craved confrontation over the more negative aspects of the American experience. In the 1970s, when Hollywood’s escapist confections stopped dominating the box office, they turned to a bunch of movie brats just out of film school.
Filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Hal Ashby exploded on to the scene with their no holds barred approach to cinema. The Godfather repackaged the American Dream as one of darkness and violence, Taxi Driver essayed a tortured soul trying to find a place in the world, while Coming Home brought the issues of the Vietnam War front and centre. Here were artists who lived in the real world, and who wanted to tell real stories.
Our current problems are so myriad as to be suffocating, and the cinema is the only refuge from the ever growing pile of burdens
The 21st century has produced films to confront the problems of our age, but they are largely low budget, independent pictures that, while exciting and critically acclaimed, do not make more than the briefest appearance in the box office rankings and therefore go relatively unseen by the public at large. The current climate of economic instability, protracted conflicts across the globe, rising global temperatures, increasing social discriminations and fear for the individual creates a status quo of isolation.
Perhaps this is why we rush to the cinema to escape rather than be confronted. Our current problems are so myriad as to be suffocating, and the cinema is the only refuge from the ever growing pile of burdens we feel it is our lot to suffer. Also, media from dozens of other platforms is scattering our attention spans to the point of non-existence. It could still be quite a while until audiences are young and angry enough to be accepting of the next generation of filmmakers who wish to confront us with their uncompromising films about contemporary issues.
If there is going to be a mainstream cinematic renaissance of the kind we saw in the 1970s, what would it look like and where would it come from? The members of the New Hollywood movement were themselves inspired by the films coming out of Europe, so perhaps the new breed will need to look to another region for inspiration. The growing global influence of China and the money the country is starting to pump into Hollywood could lead eventually to a new crop of artists in the West taking their cues from the talented filmmakers working in the Asian region today.
Hollywood up and comers could be influenced by A Touch of Sin’s Zhangke Jia, from China, or Bong Joon-ho, from South Korea
Whereas the filmmakers of New Hollywood were influenced by Michelangelo Antonioni and Jean-Luc Godard, the new up and comers could be influenced by A Touch of Sin director Zhangke Jia, from China, or Bong Joon-ho, from South Korea, whose new English language film Snowpiercer is being touted as a bona fide masterpiece. With these influences, the next crop of movie brats could make hard hitting and, most importantly, popular films about the problems we face today. The aforementioned A Touch of Sin is a perfect example of a film that covers a wide range of concerns while tying them all in to an overarching theme.
Using the portmanteau narrative structure, Zhangke Jia adapts stories he read on the Chinese version of Twitter to address how disillusioned citizens can be driven to violence in a world where they have no control. If we can’t get catharsis through cinema one film at a time, then perhaps, in this instantaneous internet age, we need one film that allows us to confront them all at once.
Read more: Why Hollywood can’t tackle the recession
Featured image: Koch Lorber Films
Inset images: Columbia; United Artists