One of the many impacts of globalisation has been the almost total Americanisation of film production, exhibition and distribution practices around the globe. Not only in name (Bollywood) but in approaches to a ‘studio’ style franchise focus (China). Some argue that globalisation is really just Americanisation but in mainstream film Hollywood hasn’t just provided the blueprint for how things are done around the world, it has also been forced to address its thematic and representational content in order to stay competitive and relevant in those territories that ape its practices. The result has been a greater narrowing of product and market dominance of that product than ever before, and it’s always been somewhat narrow.
It has led to some of the most vocal voices in cinema culture proclaiming (again, as if this is something new) that cinema is dead. One of these, and the focus of this piece, is Bret Easton Ellis. As a film practitioner he sits on the outskirts of cinema but as a cultural critic he has significant presence, given voice most recently by his successful podcast. His knowledge of American cinema is superb and he engages somewhat with wider cinematic areas, particularly in relation to genre film, and until recently has been a much-needed critical voice providing nuanced, layered and wide-ranging cultural discussion on the state of cinema. Most recently though he has slipped into ultra-negativity and is repeatedly claiming that movies are dead. It’s this I want to address and challenge here, discussing two examples both of which were released this week on Blu-ray and DVD in the UK.
The idea that cinema is dead is always contentious. There’s no doubt that it has undergone seismic shifts in the past decade in terms of its prominence within the cultural discussion, something Ellis is astute on, and the decline of the theatrical experience as the de facto one. However when Ellis says movies what he means is American movies. It’s a sad proliferation from many American film critics and cultural commentators discussing cinema that even as we slide down towards 2017 that is the only prism through which cinema can be viewed. Hollywood is still dominant, explicitly in terms of global capitalist product and implicitly through its influence on rivals including TV and video games. Even if its dominance is not what it was.
Ellis frequently contradicts himself of late, stating that [American] movies are dead and then lamenting that they are hard to find, given that they rarely appear on cinema screens longer than a few days and exist elsewhere via a plethora of outlets and platforms. Either there are no great American movies or interesting American filmmakers, or they can’t be seen. It can’t be, and isn’t both.
Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s Anomalisa is a film that single-handedly rebukes Ellis’ claims about the death of the [American] movie as an art form. Of course subjectivity is relevant but objectively it’s hard to not be astounded by the craft involved in this searing existential comedy starring 3D printed puppets and also not to be blown away by how cinematic it is. Visually and tonally it teeters on the plain of dream logic that makes cinema so profoundly unique. It beautifully deploys sound, point of view, dramatic timing, music and editing to convey deep, tremulous emotion in a story that has little of the plot extravagances common to most contemporary American filmmaking. It is a story made for ‘cinema’ regardless of the screen it is watched on. It’s made for that experience that is simultaneously a personal and communal one-shot engagement with the ‘other’ in order to better know the ‘self’. Ellis claims this is what cinema does best and that TV doesn’t and can’t do this. He describes TV as a site of information and I agree with this to a certain degree. [American] TV as a form is not really interested in space and psychology and visual relationships in the way cinema is, as a form. Proclamations of ‘cinematic’ TV, and video games certainly, are often ill defined and cite the introduction of widescreen vista aesthetics or inter-textual properties and references without really grasping core elements of cinema that have as yet proved untranslatable.
However, Ellis’s didactic negativity also fails to register that there have been TV shows recently that have felt more cinematic, more interested in atmosphere, subtext and symbolic imagery and situation as opposed to information and narrative device. These include the French show Les Revenants and The Girlfriend Experience which appeared on the Starz network. The latter provides a home for some of the singular voices of contemporary American ‘indie’ cinema including Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Semeitz, who created, wrote and directed the show, and Shane Carruth, who provided the score.
Often cited as proof of film’s demise is the supposed exodus of filmmaking talent to TV but The Girlfriend Experience proves that more and more it’s another outlet for audio-visual artists and admittedly one where more adventurous content is currently easier to produce. Many people also claim that TV is not only on the rise but preferable to cinema because of the ‘need’ for longer forms of content to be able to do justice to engaging, profound and complex stories. This feels like a desperate attempt to justify what’s happening, rather than a valid creative reason. Kaufman and Johnson’s Anomalisa is proof again of the idiocy of these ideas and is much needed at a time when the likes of Ellis have given up on complex criticism in favour of doom-mongering. Anomalisa works perfectly as a feature film in ways that it would not if it were a TV show. Not every story needs 10 hours and to say that Anomalisa does not contain achingly complex ideas about human nature and interaction in the 21st century is to dismiss its value for ignorant reasons. The film almost buckles under the contemporary complexities it grapples with and resolves none of them. The film further complicates a complicated modern problem. It is the problem of the increasingly emasculated (necessarily so) male struggling to realise a shrinking place in the world. It does this in 90 or so minutes of humour, betrayal, delicate romance and puppet erotica.
This is a film that won’t be seen or known by everyone, more’s the pity, and Ellis is right that film no longer occupies the central place in the cultural psyche that it once did. His claim though that [American] film culture is dead feels bitter rather than accurate. The Internet has provided a valuable outlet for film culture and one of the results is a widening of the discussion beyond the narrow doors of Western elite cultural criticism that held sway for so long. ‘Film Twitter’ is a hotbed of diverse voices and opinions, the film festival circuit (however problematic) is still a place where cinema is celebrated and championed. And then, to get nepotistic for a moment, there are sites like this one. Directors Notes has been a stalwart site for the interrogation and celebration of cinema for many years. It has been a valuable place for my own writing but also a key place to engage with film and its makers, proof that there are individuals out there who have seized upon the opportunities afforded by the Internet to break down the doors of accepted practice and find their own, vital niche.
The company this week releasing the two films discussed here, Curzon/Artificial Eye, is part of a wave of companies trying to ensure cinema experiences and important cinematic texts find a foothold. They have excellent cinema sites, support independent cinemas with programming, distribute films and have embraced day and date releases – where films screen simultaneously in cinemas and at on demand streaming services.
Cinema isn’t dead, it’s morphing and you have to keep looking for it. It’s changing because people coming through in the wake of the older generations who bemoan its loss are refusing to let it die. They may not even know what they are saving, or helping to survive, beyond a feeling that comes from that unique experience of engaging with a film. Ellis moans that contemporary film students don’t know who John Ford was, whilst simultaneously eulogizing the 1970s ‘New Hollywood’ era as the defining moment for [American] cinema above all others. My questions are why should they? And do they need to?
A couple of weeks ago I gave a paper at the first international hip-hop studies conference. Part of the weekend was a cipher and the DJ was a young man who has a huge reputation on the UK hip-hop and grime scene, SK Vibemaker. As the cipher started the conference host asked him to give a shout out to the title of the conference. Vibemaker had to ask how to phrase it. The phrase that underpinned the conference was Rakim’s famous line ‘It’s not where you’re from, it’s where you’re at’.
To hip-hop heads of a certain age this is, one of if not the, defining hip-hip lyric. This lyric according to many defines hip-hop. Yet here was a young man making a career out of hip-hop, seen by peers as vital to the contemporary scene and culture, who had clearly never heard of this lyric. He may never have even heard Eric B & Rakim.
Does it matter though, if he is respectful of what hip-hop represents and is helping to move it forward? Do we place too much emphasis on the past? I include myself as a film educator in this. Do we ignore the intrinsic nature of a thing that connects to audiences who become creators, favouring the icons over the insides? The idea that things were always better in the past is a poisonous one. Yes, cinema needs to be protected but we need to make sure that we know what we are protecting and also that we support those who are protecting it, even if what they make sits outside our own subjective desires.
So let’s take Ellis to task for constantly aligning ‘movies’ with the unspoken American before it. Let’s stop equating cinema with work solely coming out of America and remember that cinematic forms and languages are being explored and celebrated all over the globe, that American filmmakers are part of this community, and that film content is easier to see now than ever before. The idea that there are no cinematic outlets for interesting film work is absurd. I live in Cornwall, not at the forefront of dynamic film culture yet there were two places near me, one within a ten minute walk the other an hour’s drive, that screened Anomalisa, and more impressively, the other film released this week by Curzon, Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Oscar nominated Mustang.
Mustang is a defiant and beautiful piece of work. Resonant of Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides it is also its own beast. Lyrical, subtle, full of delicate political and social comment it is funny, moving and full of hope that manages to outweigh the direct despair faced by the characters’ lives and the changes they seek to bring to bear on the cultural systems that glacially underpin them. The film is about women, not only in the specific cultural context of Turkey but around the world. However, this is not social realism. The film is vibrant and alive. Beautifully shot and open to joy and life despite the, sometimes, crushing forces the group of 5 girls and young women at the heart of the story are up against. Bret Easton Ellis rarely talks about cinema beyond America’s borders unless it chimes with his interests. This is of course okay as it his show and his prerogative and recently he gave vocal support, which hopefully translated into direct engagement with, to Alain Guiraudie’s mesmerizing Stranger By The Lake. What is sad is that Mustang is a film that does everything he laments as absent and he ignores it.
It would be welcome if those with a voice used it to discuss positives that may lie beyond their own interests, for the good of the form they claim to love. Mustang is not even a deep cut, featuring as it did as one of the select few examples of ‘world cinema’ deemed worthy of inclusion on the Oscar ballot. I’m not advocating a lack of criticality or ignorance of the vast problems faced by cinema but many people will assume the proclamations of the death of cinema as accurate because yes, getting to see films like Anomalisa and Mustang is harder because cinema no longer dominates the cultural conversation in the way it did. The American Hollywood movie offer, one that seeks to dominate global audiovisual media consumption, dominates theatrical spaces. But there are pockets of resistance, and these pockets provide a home for those for whom cinema still is the defining artistic medium of their lives. Even within the seemingly endless nostalgia fest that makes up mainstream American cinema currently there are gems to be found. Ryan Coogler’s Creed is one of the year’s best films. It manages to be respectful to a cinematic tradition whilst also carving new ground for the future. And it’s damn entertaining. Just this past weekend Charlie Lyne in The Guardian got to grips with the wave of nostalgia, trying to find positives in the seemingly endless parade of old properties being polished up and pushed out. They are there, and admitting their worth doesn’t mean submitting to the dire majority and the way of things. It’s called being critical. As the savagely under-attack female critics trying to stave off abuse on twitter constantly remind repressed, ignorant and weak young men, you can be critical of something and still enjoy it.
At his first Manchester United press conference new manager Jose Mourinho expressed the view that a lie, repeated and repeated and repeated, remains a lie and does not become truth. Just because those who shout loudest proclaim cinema is dead and those who have been too rigid and not flexible enough to weather its changes have found themselves ousted from the big table now shout that cinema is irrelevant, does not make it so.
Incredible pieces of cinema are still made in America and Anomalisa proves this. Around the world there are films that consistently show how vapid the idea of Hollywood as the central artistic representation of cinema is, step forward Mustang. This week seek out these films from Curzon/Artificial Eye Blu-ray, read some pieces on this site (not mine, I’m not that vain), listen to the Film Comment podcast and if you are in Cornwall, check out what is on at the Newlyn Filmhouse. Cinema is dead. Long live the cinema.