Killer robots again?
Or, how about this: kung-fu warriors in slo-mo? Or this: superheros with personality issues? Or tough guys with hearts of gold? Animated animals are ordinary; anti-heroes are anathema, and super-smart wise-guys are a dime a dozen. Spotlights on dysfunctional families have squeezed the juice from were once obscure pages in the DSM-V, and super-spies are now the stuff of self-referential slapstick. The once death-defying production risk of subtitles is now the stuff of hit TV shows. When we contemplate the possibility of turtles moonlighting as ninjas the thrill fades fast because, of course, they’ve been kickin’ it for years. Been there, done that. After Avatar told us that the future of everything would be 3D, that format is now little more than an in-theater ruse to part us not only from our Fistful of Dollars, but a Few Dollars More.
Ecclesiastes says, “There’s nothing new under the sun” (if you believe that sort of thing), and in the era of global media consumption, one has to wonder if that old book had at least one thing right. People are starting to chafe at movies in a way they started to chafe with symphony orchestras a few decades ago. Audiences are losing their patience for fully featured narratives, beginning to end. Without theatrical pause buttons for patrons to check their social media streams like gerbils tapping levers for snack pellets, people are actually beginning to wonder why they should ever give up two perfectly good hours entirely to someone else’s vision. Moving pictures in a dark room? Where’s the interactivity?
In my opinion, that’s a profoundly sad trend. But see that? My own blog got hijacked by the distraction of social media’s tsunami. Let’s go back to the original point.
There used to be something about new ideas that made us pause. Bigger, better, faster, more: we’d pay attention to edgy ideas because we hadn’t seen them before. The same was true for smaller fare: we loved them because they took us places we hadn’t considered before, even if those were tales from someone else’s domestic travail. The Matrix made us not only watch in wonder at its visual inventions, but also made us tingle with the thrill of discovering a whole new world, a whole new set of rules. When The Crying Game made audiences around the world complicit in a secret that called into questions universal issues of identity, it did so by straying into edgy territory that hadn’t been discussed that way before. Even the comparatively new Slumdog Millionaire arrived just as the rising tide of a multinational marketplace began to flood past the lowlands of more adventurous coastal audiences. Insight into lives lived in the developing world, even if refracted through a splashy, spectacular fairy-tale of a movie, had the ability to electrify because we (in the developed West, at least) were suddenly in a world that felt bold and adventuresome. Only a couple of years later, the cities with names we once couldn’t pronounce were part of many people’s corporate org chart.
I’m focusing on movies here, but I could just as easily be talking about books or television or music or fashion or food. How many Americans even knew of sushi in mainstream 1985 America? Back then the word itself was a mild punch line of a meal, something uttered with a snarky note by Molly Ringwald's character in “The Breakfast Club” when, as a rich kid, she mentions what she brought for lunch. Back then, we all knew that no one else in the room had ever seen it, let alone eaten it regularly.
Are we better for this diversity of ideas, this sharing of concepts big and small? I won’t answer that straight: the question itself isn’t even fair. What I fear has been lost is the ability to be invested in new ideas in the first place. The moment it’s possible for life-like dinosaurs to chomp pedestrians without audiences reacting beyond more than a casual “Yeah, that was cool,” is the moment we know there’s a problem. A culture that’s immune to the thrill of new ideas is a culture at risk of trading probity for irrelevancy masquerading as accomplishment.
The global phenomenon of the latest Star Wars saga is of an more anomaly than anything else. Sure, I too, grew up a fan of Jedis and Wookiees and talking droids, but their staying power came from the fact that they genuinely described something that hadn’t been imagined into being before.
As far from that galaxy far, far away, the 2014 Oscar winner for best Foreign Film was called Ida, and hardly anyone in the United States saw it. It’s a black and white meditation on identity, family, and personal discovery, and it neither blows anything up nor sports a pop-music montage in the middle. That said, it’s a photographic tour-de-force. Set in 1962 Poland, this is a movie that operates on the premise that an audience might want to sink into an alternate reality, namely one that’s lost to the tides of time and changing mores. It’s provocative, beautiful, and moving. Most of all, it’s a movie I continue to think about, to turn over in my mind, to respect.
Don’t misunderstand: I’m a huge sci-fi fan, and I’m quick to give over my hard earned cash for the latest starship-across-the-cosmos adventure. Aliens and wormholes? I’m a sucker. Dystopian fights for freedom? What’s not to like?
But the question really should be, “Do we care anymore?” Why is this dystopic revolution any more relevant than the last one? Why, after the many animated marvels to emerge from Pixar’s famous render farm, should we regard the latest digital creation as anything more than disposable entertainment? Whatever happened to the concept of contemporary creative works reflecting and refracting our world in order to help us make sense of it? There was a time when writers like Philip Roth and Saul Bellow were actual topics of conversation at dinner parties, simply because their observations were trenchant enough to provoke conversation. Sadly, who even reads books anymore?
Stories are the only real things in the world. To be a real story, the trappings do not need to be real. Dinosaurs? Spaceships? Magic powers? Spandex suits? Fine. But make the stories matter first. The trappings and color palettes are the least of it. That’s why the Coen Brothers continue to be vital. For all of their bravura art direction and technical excellence and even laugh-out-loud diversions, their storytelling gusto is the real reason to spend time with them in the dark.
We no longer wonder what’s possible in terms of technique. Almost any imaginable picture or sound is now within the realm of what’s possible to make. We no longer show surprise when a dinosaur strolls down Main Street, regardless if that dino is friendly or mean. So therefore, since technical wizardry isn’t the thing anymore, we’re back to the beginning. Make me care about what you have to say. Sure, you'll have to say it well for it to work, but as filmmaker Spike Lee knew full well when he recast an ancient Greek drama into a fantastical Chicago to make a vital social statement, it’s the story above all that makes people stop and pay attention. And care.