Tom Jolliffe on whether standards in film have dropped this century…
I’ve made passing reference to it before, but the tail end of the year always brings time for reflection, and I’ve often bemoaned the decline in important cinema being made in recent years. This is the stuff of miserable old git conversations in the pub. I’ve had a few with a couple of mates. We’re all hovering around the mid-30’s mark, so we’re not that old yet but we’ve constructed a faultless conclusion (beer led conclusions following much calculating are always faultless of course)…Film died somewhere in the late 90’s (Died is a little strong I admit). Likewise we’ve discussed exactly the same regarding music (I will say whatever groaning apathy I begin to find about modern film is nothing compared to the music industry now).
I’ve nailed the point of decline (for music, probably earlier for film) at around 1998. My friend reckons 1994. Another friend reckons late 90’s, possibly even the final chime of the 20th, signalling some kind of death knell. Fortunately for the rest of my friends they’re decidedly more normal. Now this is not to say that there haven’t been good, even very good films (or indeed music) but what I find to be lacking is bonafide master works. To an extent there’s something a little unfair here, and that is time itself. I wasn’t born in the early 70’s when The Godfather came out. Did people come out the screening instantly with a firm assurance that it was a timeless master work? Possibly a few. Often you need the benefit of decades of consideration and re-consideration in order to fully judge the timelessness of a film or a piece of music. Some things date well, some don’t.
I thought The Matrix was a genre redefining masterpiece for the first decade of this century or so. The more I watched the more I began to find my love dwindling. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good film, but it’s not nearly as clever or original as the Wachowski’s think, and that is only emphasised by the indulgent messes which followed that film. Their hot streak of Bound and The Matrix ending quite quickly and they’ve plummeted into mediocrity since, right down to outright terrible. The trouble with the Matrix as an example, and you could in many ways use this as a pointer to the beginning of a decline in genre blockbuster cinema, is all who followed it. Those who followed in the films wake took only the most vapid aspects of it. They pilfered the visual stylistics (which weren’t even original in the first place) as well as a tendency to rest on CG money shot moments. Whilst I enjoyed the film I’d always felt the first hour was better than the last and all those aspects borrowed from films like Blade Runner, Metropolis and The Terminator weren’t half as good as the sources. Lets face it too, the film lacks in interesting characters.
Time has ebbed away the impact of Neo’s adventure. What used to be a pop culture phenomenon has become unimportant now. It’s almost becoming a foggy, slightly naff memory, obscured in an all encompassing Marvel led fog. And if the original hasn’t aged all that well, the sequels have aged terribly. What I have found though, is that perennially we are seeing more and more films that will pass into consciousness and disappear within 5 years. I’m not going to pretend this century hasn’t brought with it some fantastic films. It certainly has. If I was pushed, and with both having had the benefit of a decade, I’d say my two favourites were No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood. Both had exceptionally crafted power and offer up more nuggets of brilliance upon repeat viewings. As far as Blockbusters, The Dark Knight is great. It may be a touch too long and push Batman out of the limelight somewhat, but it’s engrossing and complex.
This brings me to auteurs. I feel like a big part of why we’re not seeing enough impacting cinema in quite the same way as we used to is that we’re not seeing as many visionaries coming through. Going back to Chris Nolan for example, his placing in directorial history is somewhat overstated. He’d probably be one of the first to admit. He of course wouldn’t be the first to succumb to director indulgence at the height of his powers. Almost all of the greats did that. The difference is, whilst he’s made some absolutely superb films, he’s never done a Godfather, or a Taxi Driver, or a Seven Samurai. I don’t think you can even point to originality and the eternal search for it as a hindrance to film-makers finding that level above the 5 star rating. By the 70’s, the gangster film was thoroughly old hat (trilby hat). By the time Kurosawa brought Ran to the world in 1985 he’d forged a well worn path in the Samurai genre but regardless, that film was another mesmerising masterpiece.
We find ourselves in 2017 still falling back to old masters too. Scorsese still works solidly. Spielberg, Ridley Scott, Woody Allen and Quentin Tarantino (one of the first to be lauded in this new wave of hyperbolic worship). Granted his first two films are masterful but I feel like he fell off the wagon too early. The 21st century has also seen Tarantino become far too indulgent. There’s no one to reign him back. There’s no gamble to take on winning a career. He’s at the top of the mountain and no one can tell him that Inglorious Basterds needs to lose 30 minutes. He does films with exceptional moments but with too many lulls that don’t quite match up to Christopher Waltz’s introduction for example. There’s a lot of excellent new directors coming through but ultimately we live in the disposable age. The time where everything is quicker, easier and not made to last. Film is replaced with digital. That’s not to say DP’s don’t take care, but the very fact you can shoot a film in half the time needed before, and edit together rough cuts almost instantly doesn’t necessarily make things better. It leaves a temptation to use cruise control. To take your foot off the gas.
There aren’t as many risk takers either. Risk to me now seems to revolve purely on the notion of shock value over stylistic, characterisation or structural risks. To me people like Tarkovsky, Cassevetes, Hitchcock and Bergman were the guys who took risks. It’s not the guy who wants to show an erect penis in mainstream film or a 3D jizz shot. Or push boundaries in violence. Sometimes a director’s idea of taking risks these days rests all too largely on how far they can push the MPAA or BBFC. Watch Stalker or Persona and you’ll see examples of films that people would almost never attempt to make now, and the only ones who might dare wouldn’t have the skill to pull it off.
I certainly believe we have directors who could potentially offer us timeless tales. Paul Thomas Anderson, The Coen brothers I’ve already pointed to. People like Steve McQueen too, possibly Jordan Peele. Get Out is an auspicious bolt from the blocks. Could he Usain his way for the full 100 metres of his career and build momentum? We shall see. Again though, I absolutely loved Get Out but I felt that its cinematic impact was overstated. Look again in 10 years and lets see, and above all it needs to be seen 3, 4 times before we can feel whether it has a lasting legacy. It’s definitely timely, no question, but timeless? A masterpiece? I don’t see it…maybe in the future, but not yet. What I will add, further to mentioning McQueen and Peele is that we need to see more impact from ethnically diverse film-makers. They could hold a key to telling stories of real force, impact and offer cinematic timelessness. Not just that, but we need to feel more of a voice behind the camera from female writers and directors.
If we’re focusing primarily on blockbusters for a second you could assuredly say that the current best, of which Marvel undoubtedly lead the way, don’t come remotely close to the golden age of the original Star Wars films, or Indiana Jones etc. There’s a point to which Marvel reach and certainly a consistency but almost every year we’re told to behold the best Marvel film yet. The trouble is even the older decent ones kind of fade from memory. I dug the hell out of Iron Man upon its release but is it one I feel myself being drawn inexorably back to? Not at all. Such is the overriding consistency (the bar has been set at a steady, attainable level) and bar a few miss-steps, they’re all much of a muchness. It’s just they don’t feel like films I’ll be watching 30 years on. I’ve grown up watching and re-watching Raiders of the Lost Ark, and there will doubtless be another dozen or so viewings before I pop my clogs. I really enjoyed Thor: Ragnarok but will I watch it more than once more? Unlikely to be honest.
Even looking at more high brow, there’s a sense of monotony almost. We’ve seen plenty of films telling harrowing, compelling or engrossing stories (fictional or true life). 12 Years a Slave was excellent, but indeed, certain kinds of films are Oscar magnets. That has perennially been the case. A harrowing period drama is a common occurrence in the best picture category, or a good war film. Has anything topped Saving Private Ryan since? Not really, and a lot of people felt Spielberg’s war drama paled in comparison to films like Bridge Over the River Kwai or Apocalypse Now for example. I can’t think of too many Best Picture Winners (or nominees) in this century that people will remember with great reverence in 20 years time. That’s not to say being an Oscar winner or nominee is the ultimate benchmark of quality, but I’m using it as an easy example for comparison.
This year has generally been pretty solid as far as the films go. Given that my favourite film is Blade Runner, I was of course really looking forward to Blade Runner 2049. For me the sequel delivered. I was mesmerised and enthralled. Whether I can look back in 10 years and call it a masterpiece or re-watch with the regularity of the original, remains to be seen. However I feel of all the films I’ve watch in this decade certainly, it’s the one with potential to get a placing in my masters list. Certainly I would say it ranks as one of my favourite post millennium films, along with the aforementioned No Country For Old Men, There Will Be Blood, as well as Let The Right One In. What I am increasingly finding though, is that post film-studies degree (which I began formally in 2003 and ended in 2006), my horizons have broadened. As such in the last decade or so, the majority of the films I’ve watched for the first time which have really struck me have been older films. The majority of which are pre-1990. So it’s not merely a case of nostalgic feelings to films I’ve grown up with. Part of studying film was to step back and look objectively as possible when considering a film.
Let us know your thoughts below. Which 21st Century films would you describe as a masterpiece?