Tom Jolliffe looks at the current monopolisation of cinemas from Hollywood tentpoles, and whether timeless classics are at risk of being forgotten…
The debate has raged throughout the last half year. Martin Scorsese was at the forefront. Cinemas are being overrun with Theme park rides. The cultural, dramatic and thematic impact with some of these are also being overestimated at times. The ways in which mainstream movies are told have also moved slightly in line with how modern society consumes imagery and messages.
As Parasite’s Bong Joon-Ho reminds us that subtitles aren’t a huge barrier to overcome, a film like Joker is swooping up award nominations all over. It’s a good film certainly, and in certain cases most definitely deserves the accolades (no less than Joaquin Phoenix for an exceptional performance). Still, to see younger audience members consider it a masterpiece feels odd to me. It feels odd to someone who first saw Taxi Driver over 25 years ago and found the impact of it great. As someone who also loves The King of Comedy too, which unlike Taxi Driver, was fairly overlooked initially (and still it remains a less iconic item on Scorsese’s menu). The point is, they’re key sources of inspiration for Joker, and they’re both superior films employing a nuance that is kind of lacking in Joker as an overall piece. To an extent, its message of exclusion, mental health ignorance and media morality breakdown is kind of hammered into the audience. Messages these days have to be hammered in (as if to say ‘get off your phone and look/listen up at the screen again.’). Marvel as an example have paint by numbers emotion in a lot of their films. They prod token emotional responses and offer Wikipedia summary paragraph subtext (at best). This is how we are increasingly taking our information though. Subtlety, it has been deemed, doesn’t work. You need to be told succinctly and loudly. You need to be prodded to ensure your attention is there.
Foreign films and world cinema even as recently as 20 years ago had a wider platform. People were open to them and perhaps they still are, but the multiplexes aren’t putting them out, and the indie cinemas which still do are few and far between. With increasing cost of living, sometimes travelling 30 miles out to an Arthouse cinema, if you’re even lucky enough to be that close, is difficult. The multiplexes will just load up with the blockbusters, even the big budget turkeys that bombed at the box office. Here’s the thing. Audiences and their ability to appreciate a wider range of cinema, isn’t being respected. Studios are playing the game of consumerist fast food theme park indulgence. Cinemas are furthering it. No, subtitles aren’t a big barrier, of course not, but there’s a growing, disappointing studio and distributor attitude that mainstream audiences won’t go for these and they won’t even think of ways of filling screens and tempting people in (World Cinema Wednesday? 2 for 1’s?).
A lot of my cinematic appreciation comes from my generation but further it came from studying film at University. With tuition fees a full 9 times more now than they were when I studied, I would never dream of studying film theory again. I can understand why, when forking out £27000 for a UK degree these days, why you’d avoid a ‘dosser (some may say ‘easier’)’ course like that. Now people still take them, but there’s also a growing push to see ‘lesser’ courses axed entirely, and individual campuses have ended up doing so any way through lack of demand. So studying, learning, expanding horizons is no longer an option.
If we’re to consider Joker one of the greatest films of all time (and I’ve seen the comments quite often) then I think film criticism, and appreciation may be in trouble. Further, it’s a modernist film in the most disposable period in cinema history. It hasn’t happened yet, but if studios and distributors and large cinema chains want to simplify the products they sell to McDonalds mentality, we’re essentially training younger audiences to devour film with quick digestion, evacuate it quickly in the lavvy and move on to the next. If we forget Joker in 5 years, what is the next pop culture masterpiece of the year? At what point is Casablanca forgotten as cinematic mastery? ‘It’s slow,’ ‘It’s old’ ‘It’s black and white (and not through modern stylistic choice).’ What happens if people can no longer appreciate Akira Kurosawa (‘I have to read and it’s long and has no CGI.’), Ingmar Bergman (‘What is this weird shit?’) or Andrei Tarkovsky (‘Boring!’)?
There’s a danger that Hollywood’s billion dollar gross obsession which sees half the industry blindly waste money on dross like Terminator: Dark Fate (that was only ever destined to flop) could slowly fog over the cinematic past. Audiences won’t look back and appreciate Metropolis as the blue print for modern Dystopian scifi. They won’t appreciate how cinematically bold Citizen Kane was, because the techniques became normalised and then bastardised.
It’s great that films like Parasite and The Farewell have done pretty well, but they’ve not been given wide enough releases (the kind that Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon or Amelie were afforded earlier this century), and there are corners of the baying audience actively wanting to watch films like this, and to watch bolder dramatic work and to have more avenues to watch older films on the big screen. It’s only irony, retro-hip attitudes and capital city cultural passion that keeps cult cinemas going (and they, like the Prince Charles Cinema in London, offer a great range of indie, world, classic and cult cinema). There’s a place for all types but there needs to be a bigger push to encourage audiences to engage with better films (firstly by allowing avenues to actually make them) and more diverse selections of films, because cinema history could be at stake. If a day comes when Persona, or The Seven Samurai, or Stalker aren’t recalled as significant masterpieces, then stop the world, I wanna get off. TV has improved immeasurably. Make braver choices, push boundaries again, because it can work with mainstream film again and I hope they stop trying to wilfully untrain modern audiences in the art of attentive, considered film viewing.
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due in 2020, including The Witches Of Amityville Academy (starring Emmy winner, Kira Reed Lorsch). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.