Sunday, December 31, 2017

A Most Volatile Year

If you were a movie enthusiast at all during the last twelve months, the persisting narrative was less about finding good entertainment and more about searching for necessary distractions. A substantial ration of that search came down to two ongoing controversies: the ethical implosion of the Trump administration, and the alarming news of sexual assaults coming out of Hollywood, both of which dominated the headlines like dark clouds lingering over our mental periphery. On any normal year either scenario would have warranted responses of shock and disbelief (if not vocal action), but in a climate where sexism and race relations have dangled dangerously off the edge of social balance, potential alarm was replaced instead with an almost paralyzing despair. In the recent past it would have been almost absurd to assume those problems running so rampant in the age of information. But now, after hate culture has risen back into fashion, each new revelation simply played like another reason to withdraw from reality.

It was, much to the displeasure of the Dickens mantra, the absolute worst of times. As life moved in uneven ripples even I began to sense an internal apathy, with my time as a movie blogger seeming like a challenge rarely worth facing (I saw nearly 200 pictures but only wrote about 40 or so). The root of the matter came down to a fundamental uncertainty in reasoning: what could I say that would resonate that already hadn’t been said by a thousand other talented critics and film writers on the Internet? Was anyone even listening? I have rarely been driven by the expectation of how readers may react to my articles, but in a brief pass of time I feared a deafening silence permeating from the latest offerings. Was the world too preoccupied with concerns about war, racism, sexism or fear-mongering to bother with one man’s view of a movie? Was the transition of political power a microcosm for the general outlook of the populace, where the best way to be noticed was to become a motormouth shouting diatribes filled with insults and expletives? I developed an almost agonizing discomfort finding words persuasive enough to sell my work on a continued basis.

Nonetheless I still published on my blog – in shorter, briefer intervals than what most were used to, but just enough to keep the grim thoughts at bay. In a way I found my inspiration not from movies themselves, but from the more audacious voices beginning to carve a distinct niche in cinematic history. Among the more gifted of the new generation are Jordan Peele and Yorgos Lanthimos, both of whom made two of the most challenging social commentaries of the year: “Get Out” – arguably the first true film of the depressing Trump era – and “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” about a family that regards a moral conflict from a place of almost horrifying apathy. Some challenges were just mystifying enough to appeal to my stifled need to argue – the much-maligned “Mother!”, yet another divisive endeavor from Darren Aronofsky, became a lightning rod amongst passive observers – while my mixed reaction to more consistent audience favorites (“The Shape of Water”) further reflected a change of tastes that I have sensed since last summer, when I first sensed my enthusiasm for the mainstream slipping into distant obscurity.

I continued to attend the major releases, of course, but rarely for the purpose of writing about them; they were simply sources of gratification in times when a theater felt safer than the world outside. The best of those films was “Wonder Woman,” a movie that was not only was a solid entertainment but also a timely one – it reflected the vigor of the new feminist movement emerging out of Hollywood, where the likes of Harvey Weinstein were finally being taken to task for their predatory behaviors. Unfortunately, steady box office returns and favorable audience ratings were also hollow victories when contrasted to the reality still bubbling under the surface of the industry, where sexual deviants had apparently been operating in comfort for untold decades. News continues to pour out from the depths of Hollywood hell as allegations to continue to be made, but any sense of justice is bittersweet; in many cases these were victims who were on their way to long and prosperous careers, until they were flushed in a power game that undermined their chances of enduring beyond brief windows of fame. If there is to be any silver lining, it’s that a new atmosphere of courage has created an environment for others to come forward with their stories, without the fear of character assassination.

Many have asked my thoughts on the matter, and generally I have stayed silent – a decision, in hindsight, that was not wise. To be quiet is to be complacent in these matters, especially when they concern those we have respect for; no opinion at all suggests having blinders up where they are the most dangerous. One is almost used to such scandals in the political world, but this is an industry I treasure for all that it has given me. It should know better. So when Weinstein, Spacey, Hoffman, von Trier and any number of other respected figures in the motion picture world stood to scrutiny for their inappropriate behaviors, my anger was interlaced with an overreaching grief that drove me further into the shadows. Had everything I treasured about the movies been an illusion, created at the expense of livelihoods and sanity? In a rare state of confusion many of us had to ask whether we were still able to separate artists from their art – and if so, whether knowing the sordid stories of key figures could alter our objectivity for their work onscreen. One of the key examples of that quagmire remains Bernardo Bertolucci’s “Last Tango in Paris,” an amazing film that has now been plunged into moral doubt after revelations have been made suggesting that he and Brando intentionally led their young actress to believe she was being raped on set.

Some of that despair drove me into the comforts of the past, where the movies remained a constant source of education (for better or worse). One of the recurring themes that continued to drive my vigor were the bad films of the 21st century, which I found to be a good exercise for my analytical muscles (at least the ones I had not written about until recently, that is). Then, after half a dozen essays had been penned in relation to that topic, it suddenly dawned on me that a project specifically about bad films was an apropos endeavor for the climate we are in, where mediocrity is too easily absorbed in the cinema culture as passable entertainment. That thesis drove what became “Admit No One,” my seventh physical publication, which collected 150 of my reviews about recent movies that were insults to the very nature of going to the theater (as of this writing, the Kindle edition on Amazon continues to sell steadily, and a follow-up may yet be in the cards).

Other viewing trends simply emphasized moods of the moment. Over the course of several weekends during the summer I crawled through nearly all of Brian de Palma’s filmography, perhaps to study how the Hitchcock doctrine so clearly informed his successors. I found films I had never seen that were deviously entertaining (“Body Double”) and others that were masterful (“Blow Out”). Others, like Werner Herzog, continued to evolve my outlook on the cerebral ramifications of the unconventional (how brilliant, indeed, is the audacious “Strozsek” after all this time?), and there were times I even discovered a new affinity for the early works of Woody Allen: a man I had rarely admired, but now seemed to emerge as a clever intellectual when he actually found the right subjects to hone in on (“Hannah and Her Sisters” and “Vicki Cristina Barcelona” being two prime examples).

In dealing with the past – even moreso than the present, I am pained to say – a light flickers within as to what direction I hope to go with the future of my internet presence. After returning to the blogging world in 2013 nearly all my written endeavors have been a mixture of new and old releases, with little consistent theme connecting them (although horror films do dominate my articles during October). But now I endeavor to move the focus away from the scattered nature of the Cinemaphile blog and onto projects that are near and dear to my filmgoing sensibilities. I desire to revisit the films of the silent era again. I have renewed desire in analyzing the benchmarks in the Criterion collection, which continue to inspire a popular series of essays. Films about Nazi Germany and the Holocaust reflect my unending fascination with World War II and the atrocities associated with it, and perhaps others can learn just as much from them as I continue to. And somewhere amid all this is the long-term desire to deal with every one of Alfred Hitchcock’s pictures, which have proven to be the most informed roadmap for the creative process, even now.

What is to become of the year ahead is anyone’s guess, but my hope springs eternal. Hollywood will emerge from the shadow of its horrible demons, and perhaps it will even give rise to voices of those who has something fresh to say. Maybe the movies will record this in positive strides, allowing the measuring stick of passable entertainment to move beyond the bottom trenches. There is justice, above all else, even in the face of hate and violence. Rallies of white supremacists – and foolish presidents who defend them – do not have to become the norm if we refuse to let them. For the better part of us, we continue to push along, holding onto positive outlooks, hopefully coming closer to the truth with each passing day. May that truth, however long it takes to find, be just as enlightening as the human condition needs it to be. And may we be ready to fight for it when the time becomes necessary.

Written by DAVID KEYES

1 comment:

Cherie Renae Atiyeh said...

Well said, David. Thank you!