Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Do Movies Make us Culturally Lazy?

Last week I went to the cinema twice; first to see "A Taste of Honey", a film that is over 50 years old, and then to see the freshly pressed "The Great Gatsby." Suitably the first was in the grand surroundings of Stockport Plaza, and the second in the Dolby-enhanced experience zone of our local multiplex. I saw the latter in 2D, as 3D hurts my eyes, but the cinema was nonetheless full.

I mention this because I rarely go to the cinema these days. Not purposely, but amongst everything else its gone down my list of priorities. Besides, big TVs means that missing a film on the "big screen" is no longer the disaster it used to be. There may well be something about the falling off in quality of cinema - but I kind of don't necessarily buy that. The latter experience left something to desire. The multiplex had a small bar area with seats that had seen better days and lukewarm white wine; the first fifteen minutes of the film had large groups of people arriving late to find their seat; and, like most contemporary movies, Gatsby passes the 2 hour mark.

Yet cinema has proven remarkably resilient - albeit if the experience seems primarily aimed at a teenage/early 20s audience - with popcorn, and an adjacent Nandos. The films match this of course. There can be times when I've wanted to go and see a film but there's nothing on other than kids movies. (Its a bank holiday on Monday, I should probably have saved Gatsby for then.) Our art house cinemas are as likely to show a Tarantino as the "new" Tarantino, though festivals offer some hopes, though "catch it or miss it."

I love film. I used to sneak out of sixth form when I had a free afternoon and pop to an afternoon showing at the Cannock Classic, a three mile walk from school. The film club at university was the best and cheapest education I received in my first year at that institution. The video shop provided access to a smorgasbord of movies: from trash to classics (and sometimes they were both.) Yet at some point I kind of stopped going to films. The "must see" movies I haven't seen - whether its "Prometheus" of "Avatar." I catch things occasionally years afterwards on TV. I feel I've seen Harry Potter though I don't think I've caught more than a whole film.

It is, I think, easily to get culturally lazy through cinema. Partly as a shorthand for what other people are watching/seeing. The meme about "I've never seen Star Wars" shows our shock when people have opted out of this mainstream culture (and when did "cult" science fiction become necessarily ubiquitous?) - but also, and here's the rub, out "star" culture, our "celeb" culture, is primarily focussed on the beautiful people in the movies. Twas ever thus, I guess. Warhol understood: with his screen tests and his Factory "stars" - but he made unwatchable movies. The great artform of the twentieth century reduced to material...

...and I'm at one with thinking it is a great art form. Its certainly influenced by writing as much, if not more than novels have. I've written poems about cinema; and I still feel about the medium in a way that - even in the age of the HBO boxset, in itself a new "artform" - I've never felt for TV. Partly its the sort of films I've liked: noir is a genre that exists more on film than in books. You don't get noir on stage, that's for sure.

But "liking" a film is the easiest thing in the world it seems. The money spent is astronomical. Even now Goldman's warning that "nobody knows anything" is shown in the failure of something like "John Carter" (SF adaption - start of a new franchise - surely a winner?) or the unexpected success of the  "The Artist".  Yet a few days after seeing Gatsby, its Fitzgerald's prose that still shimmers, rather than Luhrmann's surfaces. I thought the film was thoroughly entertaining, surprisingly close to the book; but all of that effort and that's it a memory to be replaced - for most of the audience - by the new Star Trek movie or whatever big film is next. De Caprio, a good actor, is trapped in modern cinema as other good actors like Christian Bale or Ryan Gosling often are.

The Review Show was pretty dismissive of Gatsby the film, because it failed to get under the book. Would it ever be able? Great books rarely become great movies - though people try. This version of Gatsby was neither revolutionary or reverential. It worked best when it was more the former, and its a good modern movie, yet some well known in the source material that it was never in danger of celluloid overwhelming it.

Part of the reason I rarely go to the cinema is a social one of course. Two hours spent not talking to the person you went with! Catching up with particular friends too rarely these days, we tend to want to spend the time. But there's something I else I think. A list of the 100 best films of all time and I'll have only seen half - there's still time of course, but I've a pile of DVDs of classics and non-classics. I guess I've seen enough - just as I speak to people who feel they've read enough novels. As a creative practitioner do I want art that entertains or enriches? I can learn quite a lot from the structure and style of a great movie that might translate somehow into fiction - but many mulitplex films aren't that complex. The more complex narratives of the Sopranos or Fringe or The Wire seem to repay us more for the investment of time: movies are all about bang for the buck.

But if there is something "culturally lazy" about watching films I think its more to do with the Hollywood blockbuster as its evolved than something in the medium. These movies are such big events: the sequels create a narrative that feeds through from children's toys to pop culture parody (e.g. Spaced) to creating our own personal cultural signature. It becomes easy to fit in when everyone knows who Spiderman is. (Far easier than knowing who Fellini is.)

What place do movies play in the culture now? Where rock stars have faded in their excess, movie stars remain paramount in our celebrity culture - but the films themselves are more than that - they are so often cultural battering rams. Whereas a song or poem or a novel can still come from nowhere, a film - with its multi-million budget, its A-list stars, its billboards and trailers - can sometimes seem to scorch the cultural earth beneath it. Of course, the bigger the film the bigger the success, the less cultural impact it might really have - yes, you can see it three, four, many more times, but box office is primarily about reach: how many millions of people have been drawn into the cinema.

I was surprised as an adult rewatching "Jaws" and seeing "Saturday Night Fever" for the first time, how gritty those movies were. Like a book that surprises, they are still nuanced, despite the big set pieces that everyone remembers. 

Some of my best artistic memories are seeing movies. "Breaking the Waves" at Brixton Ritzy on my own in 1996 after I'd just moved to London - what an overwhelming movie that was; "Reservoir Dogs" at the Cornerhouse; years before (not a great film - but a great day, I was in Manchester for the anti-Clause 28 march) "Sammy and Rosie Got Laid"; "Vertigo" at the Lumiere St. Martin's Lane, in 70mm; "Blue Velvet" for the first time at Lancaster university cinema club.... though sometimes I've seen favourite films on TV, even in the black and white portable in my old teenage bedroom. I'm sure there are lots of great movies out there even today; from all over the world; but wonder as well if they're a little drowned out by the loud culture of the blockbuster; of the sequel. Will I ever see the lovely Spanish film "Solitary Fragments" again? A split-screen movie about the Madrid bombings I accidentally caught at the Viva! Spanish film festival. Or what about "Target" that brilliant b-movie, "Targets" featuring Boris Karloff and directed by Peter Bogdanovich? Will Hollywood ever make a film as perfect again as "Once Upon a Time in the West?"

I began this blog post with a provocation - wondering if film culture - the multiplex showing the next Star Trek sequel or whatever - was the worst kind of culture; its sheer excessive professionalism drowning out everything else - yet there's something to be said for the craft and intelligence that goes into even the dumbest movie. Luhrmann overplays the symbolism in "Gatsby" but I can't help but be impressed by the zoom in and out of the New York apartments. One wonders at the utter pointless spectacle of the party scenes - everything over the top, but little different at heart than last Saturday's "Eurovision" song contest in Sweden, or the set-pieces of the Olympic opening ceremony. Was it really a surprise that we got one of our most imaginative film directors to direct that live event?

My real concern is that there will be more column inches for big blockbuster movies this year than for every book, poem, play that is out there - and something "little" - like "A Taste of Honey" was "little" (though how large were its concerns, wonderfully, achingly large....) cannot hope to compete in this world. The "shock of the new" that came briefly with the Dogme directors; or with Tarantino; is now subsumed into the whole mad machinery it takes to make a major movie. In a world of "franchises" the first casualty often seems story - with plots turning on the needs of the special effects makers rather than the other way round. An endless stream of Star Wars movies, or a reboot of Star Trek look like having none of the inventiveness that's there in J.J. Abram's small screen "Fringe." For British movie makers, films only seem to get a green light when they are picking up on a tabloid worthy subject - such as Winterbottom's life of Paul Raymond. Film has always been a magpie looking for the best source material - but sometimes it feels like books are being written as film treatments first.

I've lost my thread: I guess I'm trying to say that the most thrilling things I've seen lately have been live events one way or another - and its been a long time since I felt compelled to go see a new movie. Probably my loss, of course, and I'm sure there are some great films out there. Just not sure when I'll get around to them...

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