Okay, look. I know you come here for the bus stories. But this one only looks like it's about movies. It's actually about the same thing all my posts are about: point of view. This ten-part analysis(!) is a three-headed dog nobody asked for, and it is the biggest blog post I will ever write. Pardon the length! This stuff means a lot to me. I know there's shorter things you could read... but look at these fun bite-sized sections! And anyways, doesn't procrastinating just feel so good?
There is a disease spreading in movies today, and I want you to know it's not something you have to get on board with. If others want you to think hopelessness is sexy, and nihilism fashionable, this is the end-all, be-all essay I give you full permission to wave in their face.
[A PDF version is available here–]
Without further ado:
1. Oh, Those Oscars
When did the Oscars become the Grammys?
I don't mean, when did they lose relevance in identifying the actual best films of the year. That's always been the case. Everyone knows Citizen Kane, which lost Best Picture in 1941, is a better movie than How Green Was My Valley. Or that Rocky, the big winner in 1976, is easily the blandest, least artistically compelling of the five films nominated that year for Picture. Or that Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick are probably good enough to have won something, anything, at least once.
We know of these egregious errors, but we take them in stride. Blows like this are easy to throw, and we thank the Academy for generally rounding up an admirable crop of pictures each year. If every year you watch everything that gets nominated, as I do, you'll find yourself taking in a pretty good selection.
If you want the really trailblazing stuff, however, you'll need to go elsewhere. Try the Cannes fest nominees and winners. Or Berlin. These are the things you show people when they tell you modern film isn't creative anymore: The Square (trailer), or Winter Sleep (trailer), or Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (trailer). For an in-between, look up Venice, Telluride and Toronto, which have become the de facto Oscar season launching pads and often contain pictures in addition to the final nominees that were too creative, too challenging, or too, well, foreign, for the Academy's tastes. If Roma (trailer) wins Best Picture, it’ll be the first foreign film in history to do so. These festivals got over that hurdle a long time ago.
2. What We Do Like About the Oscars
But I bet you knew that already, more or less. You know what you're getting into with a list of Oscar nominees: above average quality, by and large. Often great quality. At worst you'll have a few too many actor-centric pieces (the Academy is mostly comprised of actors) that lean too heavily on script and performances for quality, rather than more cinematic means: directing, editing, cinematography.
Like The Queen. Or A Beautiful Mind. The King's Speech.
But rubbing shoulders alongside, you'll also find genuine masterpieces. There Will Be Blood (trailer). Birdman (teaser). Tree of Life (trailer). The Social Network (trailer). Uncompromising films of undeniable talent, with a singular authorial voice untainted by the studio system and often not made within it. In so many words, you could expect quite a few of the year's actual best films to show up.
You don't do that at the Grammys. You and I know the Grammys are a joke for a myriad reasons, not least of which being that they depressingly only focus on pop music, while somehow managing to ignore most any refreshing, forward-thinking or otherwise creative trends in... pop music.
3. Films in the Age of Extremism
This is the first time in recent history where I feel the Oscar nominations do the same. I don't expect hidden gems, personal favorites or cutting-edge works to dominate the list, but they're absent here in a way I find unique, and instructive.
Calendar year 2018 was a curious one for the movies. Films have always lagged behind popular culture by a year or two because of how long they take to make. They can instigate cultural trends, but they take a while to catch up with existing ones. This is the first year in which most of what we are seeing was greenlit for production after the 2016 election. How has cinema, both domestic and international, responded to the global push toward prejudice and nationalism?
Films this past year, both popular and highbrow, together fell, with a few exceptions, into one of two categories:
1) Totally Escapist, or
2) Everything Sucks.
Neither of those do much for me.
4. “Totally Escapist”
Black Panther (trailer), an example of the former, revels in its well-meaning bombast as it skirts our country's legacy and silence on its past. It ignores the complicated push toward isolationist thought propelling the aforementioned nationalism, sidestepping the strands informing that trend, such as the reactive nature of the 2016 election to the Obama years, the immigration crisis in Europe, and our peaking wealth disparity. The US's complex relationship with the atrocity of slavery is collapsed into a few lines from the villain. Black Panther reflects current concerns without actually dealing with them.
And more power to it, I say. It bears no mark of having such intentions, so I will not take it to task accordingly; but nor will I pretend, because of its very refreshing casting and much-needed normalizing of positive role models of color, that it is something more than what it is: a children's movie.
Like many of this year's many superhero movies, it is loud, colorful, and dumb, designed for the little(r) ones. It restates plot points, names and themes, just in case you forgot something you saw fifteen minutes ago, or weren't paying attention. And it has all the problem-solving diplomacy of a primary-school playground, where the noble intentions of its characters are realized, disappointingly, through numbingly staged scenes of computer-enhanced violence.
It shares these elements with most every superhero picture of late, and though it is by far the best Marvel movie yet, it is best appreciated as what it is, and not more. It is admirable; it is diverting; it is a culturally essential milestone of casting inclusion and in that regard an important event; but it is not art. It's entertainment.
5. “Everything Sucks”
The Favourite (trailer), Cold War (trailer), The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (to name three nominated films), Zama (trailer), and Happy as Lazzaro (to name two that aren't) all aspire to be capital A art. These 2018 dramas about human nature and humanity at large hail from around the world, are all spectacularly well directed, extremely well reviewed, and feature prominently in this year's Oscar lineup.
These pictures fall into the Everything Sucks category.
Narratives differ from life in having predefined end points, and it is from where narratives choose to end that they derive much of their meaning. In order to discuss how the films achieve their conclusions of hopelessness, I need to briefly discuss what those endings are. I won't name which film is which, but as regards the five films above, spoilers follow.
Fade to black.
How are these conclusions useful to me?
6. Cruelty, Abbreviated
And you thought those were bad. Even more revealing are the Academy’s selections for Live-Action Short. They’re presented as a package of five short films (trailer), and thusly seeing all five in immediate succession unavoidably highlights what themes, if any, they share in common. Let’s synopsize the five shorts, which of course are by unassociated filmmakers from around the world, and see if there’s any connective tissue in what gets selected and celebrated as great today.
Black Panther is sounding pretty good right about now.
7. The Last Gasp
Merriam-Webster defines sadism as “delight in cruelty.” The Collins dictionary calls it “a type of behavior in which a person obtains pleasure from hurting other people and making them suffer physically or mentally.” I’m not being unfair in calling the above filmmakers sadists. I’m stating the obvious. The intent is self-evident: to subject the viewer to pain, and not mere physical pain at that but the more insidious psychological pain of an idea:
That everything good is dead.
The systematic attempt to break a viewer’s worldview by misleading them into thinking hope and right action is futile constitutes emotional abuse. These films are Trojan horses. They're tragedy without catharsis masquerading as substance. Writes Bilge Ebiri for The New York Times, in his clear-eyed review of the live-action shorts:
“Emotional manipulation is nothing new to cinema, but it can be particularly repellent if a film’s story feels pointless. And sadly, some of this year’s live-action nominees … may seem cheap in that regard, with ghastly images and scenarios that appear designed to make us feel like we’ve seen something important and meaningful, without delivering on either import or meaning.”
How did we get here? Where works are praised for simply being “bizarre” (The Telegraph’s word for Buster Scruggs) and “startlingly original” (WSJ’s praise for Zama), without considering the impact of what the content might be?
8. The Rest is Noise
We just can't be amazed
Even if you pull the pin from your hand grenade
It is only because of the speed of contemporary society that we fail to notice what would be obvious in any other circumstance:
Extremes get boring quickly.
The Oscars only look like an event celebrating Art. We know that they, like the Grammys, are a vehicle for doing so in a limited fashion due to a more pressing agenda: media relevance. How is something relevant in media today? How is something heard in media today? By being the loudest and most didactic. Mr. Ebiri is keen to note the cheapness of cruelty for cruelty’s sake. In the 24-hour circus onslaught of nonstop media saturation, extremes are all that rise above the noise, and often those excesses get mistaken as actually having value.
Just because the President yells doesn’t mean there’s anything worth listening to. Just because these films shock us doesn’t mean there’s any substance in there. There might even be something false, damaging, instead: we might forget every positive thing that’s ever happened and fall prey to the suggestive and potent power of cinema, and start to think the world really is as bad as these anomalous, cherry-picked stories imply.
Lost in a sea of noise, we have fallen for the lie that goodness is boring.
Writes Ursula K. Le Guin:
“The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil is interesting. This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain.”
On occasion, we confuse pessimism with realism, even though we know better. It's hard sometimes. But we should absolutely know better than to confuse nihilism with realism. We've gotten so well-trained at ignoring when things go well, or neutrally, in favor of searching out the worst. Highlighting it. Assigning to it meaning and attention, and losing eyes for all the rest.
I’m guessing Telegraph writer Robbie Collin doesn’t read Le Guin. In his widely derided positive review of Detainment, he justifies that film’s celebration of child murder by quoting German-Jewish film theorist and philosopher Siegfried Kracauer: “Films mirror our reality.” Collin reveals his misunderstanding of Kracauer by following up the quote with an aphorism of his own, writing, “if we don’t like what we see, it takes some nerve to blame the mirror.”
I say: it takes some nerve to misrepresent Kracauer. In his 1927 essay Kracauer is actually referring to the subjective reality of our minds, or to use his own words, “what we think about ourselves.” We create that with our perspectives. If resorting to despair as a solution and turning a blind eye to the goodness all around us are the perspectives Collin finds most worthwhile, he and others like him are more juvenile than I ever imagined. Maybe he’s dwelling on how hate is the big social problem right now.
But the antidote to hate is not depression, silly.
9. Why I Don't Swallow Wallowing
Don't you think that it's boring how people talk
Making smart with their words again; well I'm bored
It's not enough anymore to deconstruct the hero archetype. We've done that. We've deconstructed the Joseph Campbell journey to death. We've figured out that morality is ambiguous, a spectrum. Popular culture has more than caught up to philosophy and literature in that regard; we understand now, at a basic level, what we didn't sixty years ago, that good and bad are relative, that things aren't black and white. People know what antiheroes are.
I am no longer surprised into appreciation by a narrative that upends expectations for no other reason than to prove that it can. Yes, I know things end badly in life sometimes. Believe me. But shock factor isn't enough of a justification to do anything in art, and it's definitely not enough when we already understand all of the above. It's not refreshing.
Moreover, we've discovered something in the aftermath: yes, we've deconstructed heroes and self-reflexively broken down the units that comprise filmic narratives. Godard and others blazed that trail five decades ago. Wonderful. And you know what? People still need to tell each other stories. Catharsis, understanding, resolution– we search for these in our blood, our hearts, long after our minds think we know the answers.
Maybe these artists are disheartened by the global political climate and are expressing their dismay through art. Of course they are, you're thinking. That's exactly what some of them are doing, and several have even said so. Even for those who aren't, the resulting frustration of these narratives resonates mightily with the critical community, who unabashedly loves each of these pictures.
Controversial films are always extremely well made. If they weren’t, no one would give their objectionable content the time of day. It's instructive to remember that film critics historically know very little about filmmaking. They distinguish themselves from critics of all other fields, from literature to food to sports, in being the least experienced in the medium they’re critiquing. Accordingly, they usually fail to discuss aesthetic prowess in cinema; but now they seem to be falling for the bait of impressive technique, blind to the content they're often so good at dissecting.
That may work for them. But artfully throwing a fit isn't enough for me. In film school we all get bored of the rejected boy who keeps making movies about his girlfriend who dumped him, where the girl in the story keeps getting run over by a truck. We rightly describe that as infantile and wait patiently for him to realize he could be using the medium to do some actual processing. Tantrums and dirges don't become something else when they're dressed up in high pedigree. These talented, embittered artists pulled one over on the critical community, who, perhaps because of their inexperience or maybe just because of the sadness we all share, fell for it completely.
10. Break on Through (to the Other Side)
I understand the impulse toward escapism, but I don't find it constructive. I also understand the impulse toward abject despair, but I find it debilitating. I know there's more than what the films above purport: that life can be hard, unfair, despairing, that it can appear horrible and pointless. To all this I find myself shrugging my shoulders, as in:
There's more, is the thing. You've got to push further as an artist, as a person. You've got to be able to figure that despair isn't the end of the road. It's part of the journey. You push through it, around it, putting it in its place or trying to, and you eventually find your own way toward either marvelling at the world or laughing at it, or both, because we're alive all right, and while we are we need to get on with the business of living.
Total Escapism, or Everything Sucks. I don't know which is worse, except to say I'm disappointed by the options. What lies between such extremes?
In film, the thing that lies between Total Escapism and Everything Sucks has a name. It's a lot more useful than either end of the spectrum.
It's called hope.
And it's distressingly absent from cinema this year. I don't need films to be happy. But I appreciate when films do something besides broadcast the message that we should give up on life completely. I find that line of inquiry tiresome and unproductive. Call me crazy. And giving up– on life, on challenges, on possibility- is what Total Escapism and Everything Sucks have in common.
In Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth, Paul Dano’s character, an actor, says:
And I have finally come to a conclusion...I have to choose. I have to choose what is really worth telling. Horror or Desire? And I chose Desire. You, each one of you... You opened my eyes. You made me see that I should not be wasting my time on the senselessness of Horror.
It doesn't matter if the world is a good place or not. What's undeniable is the constructiveness of aiming toward the betterment of ourselves, of society, of understanding. Of pointing toward the light.
In an upcoming post is a list of my favorite films of the year. I didn't do a list for 2017, but feel compelled now. In the way this blog functions as a repository of positive truths exemplified in daily life, I feel a need to share the great films of 2018 which did the same. Some of them are happy, some of them heavy, and some are tragic. Catharsis can exist in tragedy too. But none of them take joy in cruelty.
None of them celebrate giving up.
SPIN Magazine. It’s Okay–The Grammys Are Useless and Everyone Knows It
An excerpt: Jordan Sargent on the Oscars vs the Grammys:
The Village Voice. Why the Grammys Don’t Matter.
Vulture. Drake Says Grammys Don’t Matter While Accepting a Grammy at the Grammys
Wikipedia. Cannes Film Festival: Palme d’Or winners, 1939-2018.
IMDB. Cannes winners in all categories, 1939-2018.
Esquire. The 20 Best Movies to Win Cannes' Top Prize.
Wikipedia. Berlin Fest Winners, 1951-2018.
Wikipedia. Venice Fest Winners, 1946-2018.
The Ones Who Walk Away From the Omelas, by Ursula K. Le Guin. This five-page short story from 1973 has more wisdom than most novels. Full text PDF here.
Imaginations: Journal of Cross-Cultural Image Studies. “Mirroring terror”: The impact of 9/11 on Hollywood cinema. By Thomas Riegler.
German Essays on Film by Richard McCormick and Alison Guenther-Pal. Continuum, 2004.
Live Action Shorts
The New York Times. ‘The 2019 Oscar Nominated Short Films’ Review: Heartbreak, Abbreviated by Bilge Ebiri.
The Boston Globe. This year’s Oscar live-action shorts nominees paint a pretty grim picture by Ty Burr.
Film Criticism vs. Film Theory
RogerEbert.com. Please, Critics, Write About the Filmmaking by Matt Zoller Seitz.
2/24/2019 01:10:22 am
Nathan, what a great piece man! Got into my head with things to think about!
2/27/2019 10:02:41 am
3/13/2019 12:03:43 pm
Stephanie pointed me to your thought-provoking article, which I greatly appreciate. It got me thinking about several things, especially the concept of the negativity bias which I think goes a long way to explaining why humans are drawn to dark themes, the Trump saga (that's saga not maga) AND to reality TV. Anyway, I have expanded my focus on promoting "kindness" to include positivity, from which I think hope naturally springs. I post super simple verses on Monday with an accompany illustration drawn by an artist inspired by each verse. If you're interested, you can find them archived here. https://kindliving.net/category/inspirations-2019/
3/18/2019 11:56:16 pm
Okay, so it makes my month that you read this beast– and commented on it!! Andy Smallman!!
3/28/2019 11:32:20 am
I dip into your blog when my heart grows heavy and man, this post. I've been increasingly disappointed and frustrated by how our storytellers (at least the ones who get contracts and checks to tell those stories) rely upon shock and excessive goriness and violence to build a story that feels important but ultimately, is it? I want stories of human heroes... not perfect but so very very good. I want stories that make us think deeply about being the human species on a planet full of species like and unlike us. I want stories told from a different perspective (like the metro driver in Seattle... :-) ) And I want my daughters to grow up on these stories. But Hollywood has always struggled with the power it holds over story telling - and ultimately two things drive what comes out of Hollywood: money making and keeping white male dominance in place. The struggle happens because we are always knocking on the door - the bus driver (you must be working on script with your ability with dialogue), the African American man telling horror stories that make my teenage daughter actually discuss the duality of self and the ambiguous nature of power for not one day, but two, the woman who brought us A Wrinkle in Time but not your grandmother's A Wrinkle in Time, and many more. So I will default to a position of optimism and will await your next story.
5/25/2022 01:15:06 pm
Incredibly, I'm only seeing this reply of yours now. I'm immensely grateful for it. I can hardly add anything but agreement to your comments on storytelling generally, and gratitude at your including me among the other perspectives you name. Thank you. And thank you for taking a moment to share such kind and thoughtful words!
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