Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Today's films are entertaining enough - but they don't exactly engage the mind or the heart

Given that 2012 was a record year for box office receipts, you'd think we were living through a cinematic Golden Age. And 2013 looks set to be a bumper year for great films. Why, there’s 31 sequels and 17 re-makes to look forward to, including Die Hard 5, Scary Movie 5, and, of course, Fast and Furious 6 (!) – in other words, all our favourites will be back. I simply can’t wait! 

Now, I’m not really snobbish about popular cinema: I thoroughly enjoyed The Adventures of Tintin (2011) on Sky Anytime a couple of nights back – top-notch entertainment. Ditto the sequel to Robert Downey Jr in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. And I’m saving The Bourne Legacy for a night when there’s really nothing on TV and that arts documentary we recorded on Sky Plus simply doesn’t foit the bill. Hooray for Hollywood!

I also know from my time as a BAFTA member that’s there’s more demanding fare being released all the time (almost invariably foreign) – the sort of films that form a permanent part of one's mental landscape, rather than simply providing a pleasant afterglow that lasts until you turn out the lights that night.

What slightly disturbs me is thaqt I don't see many films these days that will form part of the psychological landscape of my son’s generation (he's 19). Few – if any – of the movies they’re exposed to these days seem to have anything to say about anything of substance whatsoever, let alone stand a chance of making the viewer look at the world from a different perspective. Here’s the UK Box Office Top Ten for 2012:

The Dark Knight Rises
The Avengers 
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2
Ice Age: Continental Drift
The Amazing Spider-Man
Taken 2
The Hunger Games

Skyfall and the latest Ice Age – definitely want to see those. We’ve already caught Prometheus, which was mildly diverting. I was looking forward to Taken 2, but then I read the reviews. What all the films in the Top Ten have in common is that not one of them appears to be designed to engage one’s brain or (in any meaningful way) one’s emotions - and, unless I'm missing the point, they have nothing to say about contemporary life or history... or, well, anything.

I saw tons of movies between the age of 16 and 19. Many of them were total rubbish, but many of them provided something for young minds to chew on: Midnight Cowboy, The Graduate, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Ruling Class, A Clockwork Orange, Andrei Rublev, Patton: Lust for Glory, Charge of the Light Brigade, Five Easy Pieces, Kes, Death in Venice, The Battle of Britain, Women in Love, Easy Rider, The Wild Bunch, If…, Hour of the Wolf, Z, M*A*S*H, Woodstock, The Go-Between, Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, The Boys in the Band, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, The Last Picture Show, Walkabout, 10 Rillington Place, Fat City, Vanishing Point, The Godfather, The King of Marvin Gardens, Cabaret, Solaris, Deliverance, Last Tango in Paris, The Candidate… 

I could go on, but you probably have stuff to be getting on with. These were by no means all limited-release Art House movies – there are many Top Ten Box Office films on that list. I know I was a bit of a film nut and probably saw a lot more movies at the time than most of my contemporaries – but I’d guess that many of my friends saw a sizable chunk of that list (which doesn’t even include many popular classics such as The French Connection and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, or films I didn’t see at the time, such as The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie).

Some of those films weren’t particularly enjoyable, some of them were – to be honest - quite bad, and many of them endorsed left-wing, counter-cultural, anti-establishment values which annoyed me even back then. But what they all had in common was that they introduced me to either new modes of thinking and living, to other countries, to the past – or to possible futures (or all of the above). They made me question many of my moral assumptions (not, I'll admit, always a good thing): even those – perhaps especially those - whose outlook I utterly rejected helped forge my views and values. The other thing that links them is that I can remember - to this day - the impact they made on me at the time: I can recall the emotional taste of each of those films, as well as what puzzled me about them, what excited me, how they made me feel and think. In fact, I’d go further – I reckon it’s impossible to watch any of the films on my list without being wholeheartedly engaged – or repelled - by them.

Oh dear, I do sound terribly po-faced and precious and old farty, don’t I? But I just don’t see that there’s any sort of intellectual substance or emotional resonance in any of today’s top box office films – and there has to be room for that in popular culture, or we really will all end up watching the equivalent of Ow, My Balls!:


  1. I went to see the Hobbit over the Christmas break...God that movie is crowded and it gets right at an issue that I have with movies.

    I don't really care too much about the plot of a film...and dialogue? Who needs it? What I want is for film to do what only film can do...present me with profound visual experience.

    2001 is a great example of what can be done with very little dialogue. Terantino, despite some of the tedious chatter in Pulp Fiction...that movie can be watched with the sound off and Kill Bill doesn't need a word. Tension doesn't need a peep...the ear at the beginning of Blue Velvet. How about the kid, the pedo, that takes on the physical form of the monster he is in Sin City. Stop with all the talking...but, also please stop crowding films with all this stuff...just because you can. How many flippin orcs dose it take to make the point...it's a grey mess after the first 200,000.

    On different note...I've been watching Charge of the Light Brigade with The Boy. There are so many profound quips in that movie...and I've never been quite sure if they are to be taken as seriously as they are or if they're meant to reinforce the idea that the Victorian Officer class were donkeys. I know the book was pretty rough on them.

    When Raglan says of professionalism in soldiering..."it smacks of murder"...that is a heavy thought to ponder...a ton. I'm not entirely dismissive of dialogue but, for me it's always secondary. Unless, like Glenn Gary Glenn Ross, it's not really a film but a play that's been filmed.

    1. I’ve never been able to make up my mind about dialogue. Depends whether it’s entertaining or witty or poignant, really. It’s fine in early Tarantino films, I think, because it’s often funny and diverting and strange. The sequence in Pulp Fiction where Christopher Walken hands over the watch to the young Bruce Willis pretty much breaks every rule of good film-making (i.e. don’t have long blocks of dialogue, don’t introduce characters for one scene who never reappear, don’t hold up the plot, show - don’t tell etc. I also think keeping dialogue to an absolute minimum is great if the director/editor/screen-writer know what they’re doing – but when they don’t, I find too little dialogue even worse than too much (mainly because I’m always the dumb one having to ask what the hell’s going on). Also, as I get older, I find super-rapid editing more and more distracting and confusing – confined to one or two key high-tension scenes, fine, but it gets boring when used for every scene where there’s any action whatsoever.

      Agree 100% on CGI overkill.

      The dialogue I hate is the plot summary stuff (which just means the director has failed to tell the story properly) and those awful bits where, after lots of action, the film-maker decides to flesh out the central character(s) by having them talk in a sensitive manner for several minutes.

      I think Charge of the Light Brigade is a pretty snarky, leftist film, designed to show the British ruling class in the worst possible light – I still enjoy it though!

  2. This post is worthy of a very long comment which space does not allow. "...intellectual substance or emotional resonance in any of today’s top box office films"? Just read a review of "The Hobbit" in Time Magazine [24th December]which concerns itself exclusively with technique - motion-capture technology, facial markers, helmet cam, tight suit, infrared leds. Yes, but is the film any good? No word.

    e.f.bartlam. Are you - like me - one of the few who enjoyed Terence Malick's "Tree of Life"? The Victorian Officer class was corrupted by privilege and the buying of commissions. In the Crimea, they managed to send three of the most incompetent generals to war at the same time - Raglan [very confused], Lucan [stupid - when his descendant in recent times went to murder his wife he killed the nanny by mistake] and Cardigan [off his rocker]. All extremely brave men, but deeply flawed.

    1. I'll admit to enjoying the Lord of the Rings trilogy - but The Hobbit sounds like a bit of a crasher. Also, the technology apparently makes everything look so crisp that the actors' make-up is obvious and distracting - false noses are particularly unconvincing, they say. We've just got an HD television, which is great for nature programmes and sport, but, again, bad for highlighting actors' pimples and old scars inexpertly concealed by make-up that worked fine on older sets. As TS Eliot (and various other people) remarked - human beings can't take too much reality.

    2. SDG, If I can ever get around to seeing it...I'm sure I will be if everything I've read is correct.


      I don't think there's any doubt that the movie is hell bent on showing Raglan and the rest as fools but...either the producers thougt so little of what was actually said and left it there to bolster their argument or, though they disagreed, they were trying to give a complex reading of the issue. Prolly the latter.

      Yet, I can't hear Raglan warning about the dangers of professionalism and not think of Grant/Sheridan/Sherman...the consumate, calculating, murderous professionals. The idealogically motivated...the people wanted war. We will wage war on the people as the most efficient way of bringing this to a close.

      Yes...Raglan, Lucan and all the rest were asses...they were not Lee and Jackson but, they were brave, as you point out...see the hill, take the hill (or guns as the case may be), death or glory, and be done with it.

      As an aside...The Mrs is a descendant of George Cathcart. Famously "demoted" because he questioned Raglan's unwillingness to persue the Russians after Alma. That's the official story...personally I believe that Cathcart was constantly bombarding Raglan with to-do lists.

  3. Should be the former not the latter