Guest Essay by Zade Constantine
Film provides a vast canon to explore, retroactively, trends and ideologies. The distinct relationship between society and film is suited for scholars of history and those who understand the dense social, political and economic landscapes that surround a particularly creative time for film. So specific and noteworthy are chunks of American cinema that we can pinpoint beyond decades, specific years of importance. 1976, for instance, harbors films like Network, Rocky, Taxi Driver, and All The President’s Men. These films lend importance, not only to American culture as a whole, but to American cinema. Works are identifiable as seminal films and their influence apparent in narrative and aesthetic years following.
The question becomes how the hell to decipher what 2012 has offered. The process of understanding or simply trying to pick your favorite films of the past year begins with an act of relearning. Film on celluloid is dead; denounced by mostly all. No longer viable, practical, economically feasible for theaters. Begrudgingly or willingly, many have accepted this as a rule going forward for American cinema. That undefinable characteristic that distinguished a work either as a film or as a movie no longer exists. “Films no longer exist” was a realization that took years to process leading up to 2012. The journey of acceptance marked by key points along the way. Marvel at the digital splendor that is Avatar. Navigate the perilous waters of raising ticket prices and 3D to discover gems (Hugo) and traps (films converted to 3D after they are completed).
As a movie-watcher I felt adequate learning the ropes of American cinema post 2010s. That the struggle from here on out would be how to tap into, once again, the distinct language of cinema to preserve the medium. How would movies distinguish themselves from an episode of any HBO program in terms of artistic quality and merit. What was the allure of cinema, beyond 3D, to bring people to theaters, some of which are unable to provide a drastically better experience than a home television?
My hypothesis was: films would need to get more simple, sacrifice complex plot lines (the likes of which filled cable programs, webisodes, and other digital media) and focus in on visual imagery to tell stories. Movies would have to tell a story visually better than any other medium to survive and be relevant. And in a way I felt that hypothesis was correct when The Artist, a “silent film” about the old way of making movies, prevailed at an archaic but important institution; the Oscars. I struggled with what made movies, now no longer films, unique. How could the digital format be utilized to distinguish the experience of going to the movies from all else? That, I believed, would be the defining question of films post 2010s.
2012 has negated all my questions and predictions about movies going forward. I can’t make a prediction about the future of movies nor can I form a sweeping statement as to what will be valued regarding form or content. I have no clue as to what will succeed or what will move audiences in the next several years. At every turn, 2012 said, “Nope. Fuck that” to any notion of cinema I may have grown comfortable with. Acclimating with digital? Paul Thomas Anderson releases The Master on 70MM film. A movement, however small and seemingly trivial, conducted with online petitions and blogs, is a rather fascinating reversal of what we had so recently come to accept about the medium. While it is unlikely that one film will prompt the widespread adoption of a format that was used for films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and West Side Story, the fact that this occurred against the current conditions of the American movie theater is fascinating.
Inversely, we have titan filmmakers James Cameron and Peter Jackson championing 48 frames a second. 2012 marked the first major release of a film presented at this higher rate; The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. The implications and debates surrounding the decision to release a tentpole movie at 48FPS are too large to get into. The important thing here is the existence of conflicting viewpoints that leave even the rate of projection, something so fundamental to movie watching, uncertain.
It’s hard to attribute weight to these technical questions without assessing the content of American films in the year 2012. It is important to realize that the spectrum of thoughts regarding digital, IMAX, 3D, film, 2D, HFR, and so on are as diverse and askew as the characters and stories that filled American movies. My three favorite films of the year (which happen to be American) Zero Dark Thirty, The Master, and Django Unchained were told differently than what we were accustomed to as audiences. Whether it be the handling of material deemed controversial or too recent paired with claims like “exploitive”, Zero Dark Thirty challenged its audience. It dove into its story omitting, visually, the reason for the search for Bin Laden. 911 calls over black and a photograph of the trade center on a character’s desk would be the only indicators to a key component of the story and of America’s connection to the film. Beyond that, the movie is presented in vignettes with a shift in the movie’s point of view happening in the final stretch. These are things American movies, even the most procedural and polished of films that evoke comparisons (Zodiac for instance), do not do or do as well as this film does. Ironically, the material that fills Zero Dark Thirty is distinctly American even if the presentation is not something American moviegoers are totally accustomed to.
There is no easy thread to follow in Zero Dark Thirty. That is the success of the movie. The narrative is obscured by dense facts and lends to the verisimilitude of the emotions of paranoia and frustration felt beyond what the public was privy to. Our protagonist, Maya, is obscured by the confidentiality of the material and the shifting points of interest Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal touch on. It would be easy and exciting to draw comparisons to the political thrillers Europe was making decades ago like The Conformist and Z and conclude that Bigelow’s movie will be formative for political thrillers going forward. But was there a more definitively American political thriller than Ben Affleck’s successful Argo, the opening tracking shots of desks of which so strongly calls back 1976’s The President’s Men? It’s no lesser a film for having a clear emotional thread, defined by sustained and escalating tension with a complete resolution, and definitive good guys to root for. The divide of what we value in our movies and how are movies are told remains without consensus. These two films Argo (grossed over 100 million dollars) and Zero Dark Thirty (winner of critic awards and accolades) are proof of that.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is worth returning to beyond the mentioned format questions the film raised. A polarizing and bewildering a film as I’ve ever seen in my years of going to the movies. The Master proposes another aspect of movies to think about in 2012 and forward: the auteur theory. The idea that directors could be authors of their films and in their canon of work thematic and aesthetic choices would appear again and again from film to film. There are still auteurs kicking around and making great stuff: Woody Allen, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Steven Soderbergh, Spike Lee, Quentin Tarantino, and Wes Anderson to name a few (most of these released films in 2012). I don’t know how relevant the term is for widespread audiences, but there is something fascinating about a director touring the country and showing up to surprise audiences with his film, like Paul Thomas Anderson did with The Master (in one instance it was screened following a presentation of 1976‘s Taxi Driver at MOMI). It would be easy to conclude that auteur theory would have a small niche in cinema going forward. Going to see a movie for a director could be something a select few do. Only that’s not true at all because it was Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln as much as it was Daniel Day Lewis’ Lincoln this year. There’s this bizarre crossover of people (middle aged women and cinephiles) seeing Magic Mike for Channing Tatum’s ass or for Steven Soderbergh’s impending retirement from filmmaking. It makes no sense but it’s neat.
Described to me as “antique furniture” and “medicine”, nice to look at but devoid of emotional resonance, the claims against The Master are similar to those that were directed towards the films of Stanley Kubrick. I’m not here to articulate why I find it to be a great film (and it is a film because it was shot on film). My interest in this film, beyond my love of it, is in the hypocrisy leveled against it. The Master deals with themes that are morally and spiritually ambiguous, it is long and meandering, and unnerving to watch. What was the point? These negative descriptors were not unique to the film because it played in art house theaters (antiquated term). Let us not ignore the complex underpinnings and crazy shit that inhabited big films like The Dark Knight Rises and Prometheus. Prometheus is no less a maddening or taxing film to watch than The Master. No less sexually perverse (interchange giant people eating vaginas with Joaquin Phoenix) and no more narratively indecipherable than The Master. I still don’t know what the fuck happened in Prometheus or if what I saw at the end was “the” Xenomorph from Alien. But my point is this, the compartmentalization of palatable and digestible entertainment segregated away from movies that make us think and challenge us, is a false public perception
And what these films did, The Master and The Dark Knight Rises so seemingly diverse in every way, was to take and magnify American fears. That’s compelling cinema and it always has been; it’s potent. The Dark Knight Rises was crafted with the idea of putting a superhero in the iconography (lower manhattan and Wall St.) and social struggles (the 99% vs the 1% and terrorism) of present day America. These things were the foundations of that film; not Batman. The risks taken with characters and themes in these two films weren’t spontaneous choices by the auteurs at their helm. 2008’s The Dark Knight and 2005’s Batman Begins marked the shift to the grittiness and reality The Dark Knight Rises would explore. Beyond concluding the new Batman trilogy, this style and thematic presentation of the superhero in modern America far extended Christopher Nolan’s work. Gritty became the standard way to execute a comic book film. It molded the creation and rebranding of Spider-Man in 2012. Returning again to The Master, the comparison I’d like to draw here is that just as a big budget action movie had to evolve into its current form, so did the work of Paul Thomas Anderson. 2007‘s There Will Be Blood’s extended dialogue-less sequences and the lyrical and abstract quality of 2002’s Punch Drunk Love would resurface as key components of the The Master. The films of 2012 took time getting to their release. The ideas had to mature or shift, the aesthetics had to change, and the audience had to keep up, demands which are perfectly met in The Avengers (a 2012 release that took years and needed five movies before it could exist).
On Christmas day audiences sat down in theaters across the country to watch a freed slave kill plantation owners. Whether it be a dissection of film genre or discourse regarding social and ethical responsibility in modern America cinema, Tarantino’s Django Unchained sparks conversation.
This is where I want to conclude my thoughts on American Cinema 2012. People are talking about movies in ways that are exciting. Discussion is happening in theaters in America about things on screen that are difficult to process and articulate.
As I was walking out of Killing Them Softly an elderly man looked at me and said, “Well that was the worst thing I’ve ever seen”. It made me happy. Movies are making us experience feelings, good or bad, complex or simple, with a shared community in the dark.