Mostly Links – 19 August 2011

By Niall Anderson

Evolution or the first flatscreen TV?

Mostly Film noticed a few years ago that a lot of what was coming into the cinema and onto TV was strongly retrospective in tone. There were lots of beards and frock coats. There were a surprising number of films (well, two) about fin de siècle magicians. There were violently bollocky reworkings of ancient history (300, Apocalypto). Period dramas – from Far From Heaven up to Mad Men – became lavishly bourgeois and finicky: the pleasure was in the detail or nowhere at all. We had just begun a new century and here we were, as a culture, looking back all the time.

2011 has been a kind of apotheosis of this trend. You can hardly move for birth-of-a-civilisation type films: whether in the fantastical mode of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, or the metaphysical mode of The Tree of Life. And you can hardly breathe for idle, bean-flicking examinations of the recent bourgeois past – like the Spielberg pastiche of Super 8 or one of this week’s big hitters, One Day. Remember when life was, like, innocent?

It would be nice to report that this trend looks like it’s going to end. It would be even nicer to suggest that Cowboys & Aliens is a deft deconstruction of both the Western and the frontierist SF sagas that superseded it, but it’s not:

We’ve had a decade of this shit now. Aren’t you a bit sick of it? If you’re not, Conan The Barbarian – also out this week – may be the broadsword to the skull that finally finishes you off. Here we have a perfect storm of null retrospectivism. It’s a remake; it has a readymade comic-book history; it has some sort of clash of civilisations guff in it; and it makes the left side of your brain have a little stroke just thinking about it:

Conan is the kind of film that makes you doubt the utility of the phrase “what’s next?” In a world where Conan can exist, there is no next: there is only more.

All of which is by way of introducing next week’s Mostly Film, which is entirely devoted to the past, present and – yes! – future of cinema. We’re so modern and future-minded, one of the articles may even be in 3D!

5 thoughts on “Mostly Links – 19 August 2011

  1. Retromania comes to Mostly Film! What do you think of the Reynolds thesis that this is a function of having total access to the media of the past – since about 2000 it’s been possible to access, rather than remember or recreate, more or less anything produced since at least 1940?

  2. I think Reynolds’s thesis works for music, where you can just digitally call up a sound from the past and re-represent it as if it were new.

    In film (and in books, come to think of it), it’s the prevailing subject matter – rather than the style – that’s become retrospective. People are falling over themselves not to say anything about the modern world.

    Back in the days of, say, the Hays Code, someone like Cecil B. DeMille would make his Biblical epics in part because they were an easy way for him to push the envelope – technically and morally. Certain subject matter would have been off-limits to a big studio picture without the Bible as a foil. These days, only the technical argument holds (and not even all the time): it’s striking how the ancient past is being used as an excuse for wall-to-wall CGI.

  3. But isn’t there a similar argument – people are building these insane fetishistic recreations of the past (whether real or imagined) because they can? Maybe every hack has really wanted to be Cecil B DeMille but it’s only now that you can do it on a Corman budget? I mean, surely the core reason to be a director is to be able to shout “Cue the sun!”

    Though I also agree with your point about not wanting to engage with the present. There’s a generalised dislike and distrust of anyone who attempts to create big art (in any genre) about the world today. It’s partly to do with flinching from complexity, partly a dislike of grand narratives (that’s why we all hate Bono, isn’t it?)

  4. Oh, I’m not holding up De Mille as some kind of great principled artist, but he was an example of a type of filmmaker we seem to have lost: the no-brow director.

    You know the kind I mean: Howard Hawks, or Sidney Lumet, or – before the late, strange dreamscapes – Hitchcock. People who could get a picture in on time, who could do it for lots of money or none, who could handle a complex plot or a silly chase with equal aplomb. And who knew the right amount of provocation to get the attention of Main Street without alienating it. Subject matter and spectacle going hand in grubby hand.

    Instead of a properly no-brow approach, what you have now is a bunch of skilled technicians who know far too well what genre they’re supposed to be working in, and who they’re supposed to be aiming it at. It’s not just that grand narratives are distrusted: it’s that anything that looks like it might be interesting on its own terms – that isn’t a version of something that’s come before – is seen as courting risk.

    This is an old problem, of course, but it seems particularly prevalent now. Even special effects aren’t about the spectacle anymore: they’re the vehicle, the whole show.

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