The Death of Film

Michael Prescott
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Just a few weeks ago, I wrote an article featuring my 7 favourite films of the year so far, though in all I mentioned around twenty very worthy ones to watch. That was in mid-August, encompassing releases up until the end of July. In the period since, it’s become and remained one of the most-read posts on this site. Clearly audiences – whatever their preferences – want to know what and where the good films are. After all, they’re a dying breed. Right?

Well, even if you don’t agree with (or like) all of the films on the list,  a moderate two-thirds success rate gives you roughly 14 films, which means that there were two extremely credible films released every month up – equating to one a fortnight – until that point. That’s also without Mud, Much Ado About Nothing, Upstream Color and the rest that I haven’t seen, as well as those which I neglected to mention for numerous reasons. Every year we hear groans that it hasn’t been a good one, and I’d be pre-empting those cries here if  they hadn’t already started.

The summer blockbusters may have been particularly poor in quality (though the likes of Cloud Atlas proved valuable exceptions to the rule), but they’re rarely anything special. They are suffering because of comparisons to the recent Nolan hits and the raised expectations stemming from these films, but the real reason for such venom is because of the eventual disappointment in potentially interesting projects (e.g. Man of Steel and Elysium, following on from Prometheus last year). That, and the sheer number of these bland, formulaic films.

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But what’s also true is that from roughly this point in the year onwards – after Toronto, Venice and London – we move into awards season. The Emmys have come and gone, with the Golden Globes and BAFTAs soon following in the New Year. And during that time, it means that we’ll see just one thing: Oscar-bait. Or at least it does for the cynical amongst us. The term is most often used to describe films that are designated as schmaltzy, social-issue-dangling crowd-pleasers that feature a particular breed of actor, purposefully-manipulative scores and a triumph-over-adversity [often ‘real-life’] narrative. Admittedly these films do exist, with the likes of Lee Daniels’ annoyingly-titled Lee Daniels’ The Butler and Saving Mr. Banks a couple of the supposed frontrunners for such dreaded anti-acclaim this year, but it needs to be realised that they come in all shapes and sizes. After all, there was nothing more calculating in its nature than the lauded indie Beasts of the Southern Wild last year, no matter what the critics might say.

The thing is that most (if not all) films involve controlling the audience in some way; that’s kinda the point. Horror films scare you and comedies make you laugh, or at least they’re meant to. More filmmakers and Hollywood producers could do with remembering such basics. The more salient issue is that detractors can and will find weakness wherever they choose to find it, be it in blockbusters or awards contenders, in film or in any other art. Why aren’t we instead being fed an overall picture that paints film in a positive yet truthful light? Woody Allen’s just released his best film in years, Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity looks (and sounds, judging by the reviews) incredible, and we also have new films from the likes of Alexander Payne, Steve McQueen, Spike Jonze and Alex Gibney to look forward to over the coming months.

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What Oscar season actually generates is an increasing number of well-made, creatively-juiced films vying for the attention of the public and press in the most contested few months in the moviemaking calendar. This year in particular looks particularly mouthwatering, so much so that it’s even been suggested (even if only half-serious) that the Oscar Best Pic shortlist be extended to 20 films. Obviously this shouldn’t (and won’t) happen, defeating the point of a shortlist as it does, but it frames the debate more accurately. Only recently the limitation of five nominees in the Best Picture category was altered to become a maximum-of-ten in order to recognise what was seen as an increasing number of deserving films. Maybe, actually, there’s a rise in quality rather than the opposite?

But I doubt it. We’re very lucky that we live in an age where films are so accessible to us now. This means that more people have the opportunity to fund, make and exhibit these films, we as an audience have easier access to discover them, and god knows that every man and his dog (including myself and Toto here) can then critique, blog and tweet reviews. If you really want to generalise, then blockbusters might well be creatively-bankrupt moneymaking fare in the main, but it’s foolish and narrow-minded to write them off altogether. Conversely, whilst not every indie film out there will be a roaring undiscovered triumph (there’s a reason why some are left in the proverbial gutter), there’s an abundance of foreign films, independents and documentaries out there just waiting to be viewed. Not to mention the classics and others from years gone by that you haven’t watched yet.

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The quality hasn’t increased overall; neither has it flatlined into a depression. The top five (or ten) best films of each year – whether decided by the Academy, by an individual or however – are subjective, and represent only a very small sample of 12 months’ worth of output. Largely, things even out: there’s the good, the bad and the ugly in every year, from Cannes to LA. It doesn’t mean that every year or every film is the same, of course. The true greats still very much hold their own: only a handful of romantic films since the 40s can truly compare to the magic of Casablanca‘s complex love-triangle. And God knows that only The Producers can come close to matching The Sound of Music in my favourite Nazi-musical-epics, a sadly dying genre.

As George Carlin once said as he joked about praying to Joe Pesci instead of God, the hit rate is just the same: 50-50. And films, like Gods, have no divine power to change their supposed greatness, whether it’s for better or worse. So the next time someone even hints at the notion of film’s decline, my unofficial advice is to pummel a hammer into their skull, or perhaps curb-stomp them to kingdom come, whilst pithily reminding them that it was only such a successful, enduring art-form that could provide such ideas in how to sufficiently deal with such moronic people and their simple-minded thoughts.

About Michael Prescott

24-year-old Welsh writer on all things film. Background in Philosophy. Accidentally in Sheffield for 6 years and counting. Addicted to Kevin Spacey. Tweetable: @M_S_Prescott