Panic, Despair and Revolution 

Yet from industry turmoil, great films arose

Wednesday, Dec 30 2009
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

Related Stories

  • Surprise! Americans Drink More Wine Than the French

    Congratulations America! We're officially bigger winos than the French. According to the Organization of Vine and Wine, the U.S. became the biggest internal market in the world, volume-wise, as of 2013. We won this coveted title by consuming 29.1 million hectoliters (mhl) of wine - not including vermouth or special wines,...
  • David Lebovitz's Latest

    David Lebovitz has the kind of life any foodist would aspire to. Ten years ago, after a long career in the kitchen at San Francisco's Chez Panisse, he up and moved to Paris. And now, with one of the top food blogs on the web and a pile of books under his belt,...
  • Milkfarm

    If your idea of the four food groups is cheese, charcuterie, bread and wine, Milkfarm in Eagle Rock is set to become your new grocery shopping central.  Leah Park Fierro, formerly head cheesemonger/manager of the Cheese Store in Silver Lake, opened the cheese-and-charcuterie haven April 7, inspired by the little specialty shops...
  • Natasha Leggero: London! Paris! Costco!

    @ Upright Citizens Brigade Theater
  • Soccer Streaming

    In perhaps a sign of the growing popularity of soccer in the United States, the L.A. Department of Water and Power recorded a modest spike in water usage at halftime of Thursday's World Cup game between the U.S. and Germany. Water usage then dropped sharply during the second half. It...

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.

Related Content

Now Showing

  1. Wed 9
  2. Thu 10
  3. Fri 11
  4. Sat 12
  5. Sun 13
  6. Mon 14
  7. Tue 15

    Find capsule reviews, showtimes & tickets for all films in town.

    Sponsored by Fandor

Box Office

Scores provided by Rotten Tomatoes

Join My Voice Nation for free stuff, concert and dining info & more!

Around The Web


  • 10 Movies You Should See This Summer
    The phrase "summer movies" will never not mean broad, action-driven crowd-pleasers to me: I counted the days until Batman (June 23, 1989), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (July 3, 1991), and Jurassic Park (June 11, 1993) were released. For every Dark Knight there are 10 Prometheuses — and that's just among the films that are actually trying to be good — but the hype and anticipation of summer movies remains a fun spectator sport. (More fun than sports, anyway.) Here, 10 from Memorial Day weekend and after for which I have, as the song says, high hopes. By Chris Klimek
  • Doc Docs: 8 Powerful Medical Documentaries
    Code Black is the latest in a string of powerful documentaries examining the domestic health care system's flaws and profiling its physicians, caretakers and patients. In this film -- which will be released in select theaters on June 20 -- the cameras are pointed at the nation's busiest emergency room, that of L.A. County Hospital. Here are seven moving medical docs. Click on the film name to read the full review.

    See also:
    35 Music Documentaries Worth Seeing

    15 Documentaries That Help You Understand the World Right Now
  • Wes Anderson's Grand Budapest Hotel in Lego
    A Lego replica of The Grand Budapest Hotel was unveiled this past Saturday, June 14, by builder Ryan Ziegelbauer and star of the film Tony Revolori at The Grove in L.A. Ziegelbaur and his team built the 7-foot, 150-pound structure from over 50,000 Lego bricks. The celebration was held in honor of the Blu-Ray and DVD release of Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel on June 17th by Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment. All photos by Mary Bove.

Movie Trailers

View all movie trailers >>

Now Trending