All long-term relationships have their ups and downs. You have to work at keeping passion alive, they say. Well, this past summer I’ve been through one of those periods of doubt to which all of us in relationships are prone. The cinema and I have had a wobbly period. And the physical side of things has broken down completely — I haven’t been inside one for a good many weeks. Consequently I’ve developed a wandering eye.
My gaze has drifted chiefly but all too predictably to the new, young and sexy TV box-sets which flaunt themselves shamelessly on our broadsheet culture pages. It’s been quite satisfying if only for the novelty of instant gratification, but chiefly it has made me aware of what is lacking in my real relationship, and the fact that, despite everything, I am desperately keen for it to continue. But this summer, my loved one has been making it very, very difficult.
That’s enough of the laboured metaphor. You get the picture. While your back has been turned during Standpoint‘s brief summer hiatus, you have missed precisely nothing on the big screen. The cinema hates and fears heatwaves for obvious reasons, but it should perhaps be grateful that there were more people drinking and watching the world go by outside and not witnessing the terrible quality of what has been on offer. Being a critic, I’m asked fairly regularly what is the best film I’ve seen recently, and this year I’ve been genuinely stumped. Behind the Candelabra (which I reviewed in the last issue) was very good — but really, only by the standards of what has truly been an annus horribilis.
For the past 20 years or so, summer has belonged to the blockbuster. There’s nothing wrong with that. Some blockbusters — such as Jaws, which really started it all back in the 1970s — are popular classics which can bear repeated viewings. Independence Day had real flair, the very first Batman a gothic, operatic panache. But along with special effects and sensationalism they paid the audience the compliment of adding suspense, narrative logic, some wit and a few well-drawn characters one could root for (the joyful Indiana Jones for example, now seems firmly of a different era). Now, the major seasonal releases pass before us as we watch, for the most part, dead-eyed and uninvolved. And they disappear, forgotten, offering no real highlights for us to recount, no funny, scary or audacious moments. There are no great lines, nothing to re-enact or report. They just happen, and then they’re gone.
The very titles of this year’s big releases — Man of Steel, Wolverine, Elysium — seem designed not just to pull in the global comic book and sci-fi community (a huge army of real and superannuated teenage boys) but actively alienate the rest of humanity. And in the case of some of them, it’s been working: The Lone Ranger, starring Johnny Depp, has been a disastrous flop, as has Will Smith’s After Earth, with other titles such as Whitehouse Down and Pacific Rim seriously underperforming. For most of us, the mention of these movies brings forth a sense not of must-see but ennui. You just know that there’s something seriously awry when it takes a studio more than $200 million to tell the familiar tale of a kids’ Wild West hero and his trusty Indian sidekick. Not for nothing did Steven Spielberg warn earlier this summer that the studio system was in serious danger of breaking down.
I am piling on the agony here, but a quick detour around the more grown-up offerings has proved little better: Summer in February, a drama about the painter Alfred Munnings, suffered from a debilitating pointlessness (as well as a meaningless title). The relentlessly arty Only God Forgives, with Ryan Gosling, required not just the patience of Job but a strength of stomach which should not be required of anyone who’s paid to see what they rightly assume to be, at one level or another, entertainment.
A kind of cultural exhaustion has set in. Contemporary superhero blockbusters are successful, when they are, because the lack of nuance in dialogue — or lack of any meaningful dialogue at all — allows them to be easily translatable to Chinese, Japanese and Hispanic markets. So it’s a hard-nosed commercial decision. But perhaps there’s more to it than that. Years of equating the merits of Superman and Stendhal may have taken their cultural toll. The seriousness with which such movies are taken by the cultural relativists who set our critical parameters means that audiences find themselves giving considered attention to something which bears little analysis. Most adult minds, when watching this stuff, finally rebel with an inward cry of “but it’s just a comic strip!” But turning to the media coverage, we find that such instinctive judgments mark us out as antediluvian. The laughably po-faced broadsheet examinations of the themes in Christopher Nolan’s 2008 Batman movie The Dark Knight, for example, showed not how knowing and sophisticated we were, but how craven and infantilised we’d become.
The autumn will bring us a string of releases which will have enough merit to be considered for next February’s Oscar nominations, and jaded palates will be revived. I’m counting on it for the sake of my relationship. As for the state of things now — well, it needn’t be this way. It’s not inevitable that cinema should, as is so often claimed, become gradually more irrelevant, that exhaustion must be terminal. Always question the received wisdom: back in the 1980s, a group of City analysts looked at the rock-bottom movie attendances and the massive growth in home video and concluded that the game was finally up for the beleaguered cinema. What they didn’t count on was home video actually stimulating interest in the medium and henceforth causing an unprecedented rise in people buying tickets to see what I stubbornly refer to as the real thing. There remains tremendous goodwill towards the cinema, and the audience, of all ages, is still there. The ball is in the film-makers’ court. As Kevin Costner nearly said in Field of Dreams: if you make them, they will come.