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Panic, Despair and Revolution 

Yet from industry turmoil, great films arose

Wednesday, Dec 30 2009
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And so another year comes to an end, and with it a decade (Gregorian contrarians notwithstanding) in which the answer to the question “What is cinema?” underwent more radical transmutations than in any comparable period since the dawn of moving images.

There was panic on all fronts: production, distribution, exhibition, criticism. One minute, movies were being pronounced dead; the next, inexpensive digital technology was heralded as their savior and great democratizer.

“I think that the best writers really are the ones we came to know as the best writers over the past hundred years, but the best filmmakers are not necessarily the ones that we’ve come to know as the best ones of the century,” Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami told me in a 2001 interview — the year that he himself gave up working on film in favor of video. “Because of the requirements of the 35mm camera and the mode of production that comes with it, there were a lot of people who just couldn’t afford to use it,” he continued. “Now this digital camera makes it possible for everybody to pick it up, like a pen.”

True to Kiarostami’s words, the ’00s witnessed an explosion of microbudget filmmaking and new distribution platforms that gave voices to the heretofore voiceless — even if, as in the concurrent self-publishing revolution, it was highly debatable how many of them deserved to be heard.

click to flip through (3) The Dark Knight
  • The Dark Knight
   
 

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The numbers indicated that more movies than ever — more than 600 annually — were making their way into U.S. cinemas, while Hollywood’s enthusiastic reports of record-setting box-office take, thanks to steep ticket prices, belied a flatline in attendance, and a steep decline in movies’ cultural currency. Although films of the past 10 years account for nearly three-quarters of the highest-grossing titles ever released domestically, when those numbers are adjusted for inflation only The Dark Knight, The Passion of the Christ and the Lord of the Rings trilogy seem like bona fide zeitgeist-altering phenomena.

At least you could still get a movie like The Dark Knight, with its comic book pedigree, made in a risk-averse, brand-conscious Hollywood, where serious dramas for adult audiences continued to go the way of the Western. Perhaps it is an inevitable side effect of the larger cultural tolerance of arrested adolescence, as also seen in the increasing numbers of ostensible grown-ups wearing pajamas in public, living at home past 30 and abetting the popularity of subliterate teen fiction.

Even a venerable institution like Clint Eastwood met with resistance from his longtime patron Warner Bros., which sent the septuagenarian director hat in hand to beg for international co-financing for his Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby, both of which went on to rank among his biggest earners. Indeed, Eastwood and his unapologetically low-tech portraits of American life then and now were the exception that proved the rule in a decade when elaborate fantasy (the stolen election, the foreign-born president, death panels, Avatar) regularly trumped reality at the box office and the newsstand.

That tension between the real and the reel beat at the heart of Peter Watkins’ La Commune (Paris, 1871), an enormous work of the socially conscious imagination that reconstituted France’s century-old working-class uprising as a live television broadcast, hosted by two reporters who become accomplices to the events they are covering, and practitioners of the art of disinformation.

The relativism of image-making was also the subtext of Eastwood’s Iwo Jima diptych, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima, which dismantled the heroic myth of World War II while casting a pitiless gaze on the cult of celebrity and warfare as theater.

In interviews, Eastwood referred to the false Iwo Jima flag-raisers as the “first reality-TV stars,” just as a new generation of Warholian fame whores (Jon & Kate, Balloon Boy’s dad) were readying for their close-ups. So too were the characters of zombie maestro George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead, a YouTube-era Medium Cool in which the videographer protagonists define reality not by what they see with their eyes, but by what passes before the camera’s lens.

The decade began with a literal bang in the form of the 9/11 attacks, an extracinematic event whose surreal, movielike proportions were commented upon by just about everyone, in no small part due to television’s incessant looping of the day’s horrifying images at all speeds and from more angles than even Michael Bay could envision. At first, Hollywood played the role of solemn mourner, digitally excising the World Trade Center from some upcoming movies and postponing the release of others.

It wasn’t long, though, before 9/11 allegory became the new disaster-movie lingua franca (War of the Worlds, Cloverfield), terrorism porn a subgenre unto itself (Body of Lies; Day Night, Day Night; Rendition).

Another set of filmmakers seized the moment to piously heal the wounds in our fractious global village, resulting in a strain of polyglot, pan-global social melodramas (Babel, Crash, Crossing Over, Mammoth, The Visitor) far more hazardous to your health than H1N1. Eminently preferable visions of village life were offered up by Lars von Trier (Dogville) and Michael Haneke (The White Ribbon), whose novelistic small-town fables — complete with punishing gods, avenging angels and petty, malevolent people more likely to stab thy neighbor in the back than embrace him — seemed far closer to the world as we actually knew it at the dawn of the 21st century.

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