2014 has been a strong year for cinema and a strange year for politics. If art and popular culture reflect the times, then 2015 will be the year that we continually push reset. Now, after watching Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Birdman, I’ve come to the conclusion that postmodernism, homage, pastiche, even nostalgia, are all dead. As the post-truth political moment peaks, cinema asks us to forget and rewrite our cultural narratives.
And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.
(from Raymond Carver’s A New Path to the Waterfall)
Birdman opens with this text and continues to suggest that everyone is ordinary, that we don’t matter and that our perspectives are out of alignment with the universe that surrounds us. We are the ‘if it wasn’t posted on YouTube, Facebook or Twitter, then it doesn’t exist’ generation. And if we did post it, then it becomes truth. This is the moment we inhabit.
Inarritu gives us cause to pause on that but, like so much great cinema that refuses to be absorbed in a single viewing, he doesn’t allow us the time in which to do it (perhaps an impossible ask, in the duration of one film).
It’s true, we tap away on various devices: lives mediated, experiences screened. We chase the technology we use. Though it moves far too quickly for us to sufficiently critique, it is the portal through which we understand the world. Yet, our understanding is always misunderstanding: truth can only take the form of representation and, as such, it is unstable, always in a state of flux.
As atrocities play out in war-torn countries around the world and asylum seekers are detained in horrific and illegal conditions, daily lives continue. Collectively, we feel the weight of this injustice but our only solution is the vulgar, reductive hashtag: #firstworldproblems. Our acknowledgements are most often online, and less frequently in the streets.
Perhaps we are, like the almost terrifyingly bland future of Spike Jonze’s Her, disembodied. Jonze originally cast Samantha Morton in the lead voice role, but later re-recorded the film with Scarlett Johansson. It’s a safe choice: the audience cannot not associate the voice of the diegetic operating system (her) with the body of the non-diegetic actress (her).
While film studies has concerned itself with the ‘turn to affect’, Jonze has erased and realigned the role of phenomenology in film. There is, for instance, a moment when film opens itself up to nothing – a black screen. The lack of a recognisable image (that is, the image of absence) is the death knell of phenomenology, the erasure of its truth and the creation of a space for a new one. We are no longer in the moment of the affect; rather, we are in its image. Nowhere is this better theorised than in Eugenie Brinkema’s brilliant and challenging new contribution to the field, The Forms of the Affects. Though Brinkema’s ideas are far too complex for me to distil here, it can be said that her monograph allows the conversation about film to return to form and close reading – a necessary move in the wake of the futility and inadequacy of ideological and cognitive approaches, both of which have broken down in what we might call an extra-cinematic time.
By ‘extra-cinematic’, I mean the image cloud that surrounds the images we see contained within the screen. Outside of the spatial and temporal parameters of the film, there is another visual version of the film. The essay film is on the rise and in true dialectic with what we call ‘Cinema’. It is a form of review and scholarship; it is a version of the truth, shifted. When a film opens up it no longer allows what we might once have thought of as viewer entry into an onscreen world, rather it moves towards the viewer. Take, for example, this year’s biggest blockbuster essay film: Kevin B. Lee’s desktop documentary, Transformers: the Premake. Despite Lee’s recent attempt to attack the screen at Bauhaus University (where he lunged at the screen, as posted on his Instagram), one cannot get inside the image. But the image can, and does, move toward the viewer.
So we are no longer embodied and our responses – in this instance Lee’s (p)response – must play out as another version of the film’s truth, funnelled through technology. Transformers: The Premake won the award for Best Documentary Short at the San Diego Asian Film Festival. Though it is inextricably linked to Michael Bay’s film, it is also a film in and of itself. Moreover, it is a version of the truth of Michael Bay’s film.
Politicians say things that may or may not represent real life events and the media either report it or they don’t. Injustices continue and many aspirations shift to the online space. The aim now is to be beloved; embodying the being that makes us human is no longer as important.
Superhero movies, mythical Gods, celebrity culture and reality stars aren’t new trends – in fact, they appear in increased volume at times of social and political unrest. Threat of nuclear and biological warfare are great instigators for fantasy and sci-fi narratives. Films like Godzilla and Captain America: The Winter Soldier help us separate the good guys from the bad guys and they ask us to employ hope and faith in fictional others instead of mobilising and acting. They are, in other words, great political suppressants.
Though films that argue for resistance are always being made, there are few that break out and enjoy mainstream success, meaning that they are, for the most part, preaching to the converted. Biopics on important writers such as Hannah Arendt and Regarding Susan Sontag may spark an interest in further reading for a select few, but they rarely break ground or delve into the complex philosophy that constitutes their subjects’ body of work. Documentaries like John Pilger’s Utopia or Dan Krauss’s The Kill Team barely see cinemas before they are condemned to home entertainment formats, all but forgotten. Pilger’s polemic is so potent that it opens itself up to unhelpful criticism and The Kill Team feels like a patronising back step after the similarly themed but far more confronting and revealing footage of 2006’s War Tapes. That series screened online and was filmed by the soldiers, offering an allegedly ‘truthful’ view that the media would never show.
If the talking heads of The Kill Team are supposed to surprise us, one can only conclude that 2006 no longer exists and that War Tapes are no longer true: we have forgotten and erased that which we have already seen. Technology allows us to be immediate and that immediacy is an integral part of what we understand as truth – but perhaps the past is no longer thought of as ‘truthful’.
Maybe this answers my question as to why even stars like Jeremy Renner failed to get bums on seats when it came to social conscience cinema this year: whistleblowing events of even recent history just don’t appeal to our constantly forward-moving desires.
Kill the Messenger was, in my opinion, one of the more solid dramas in this year’s local release schedule, but it came and went without fanfare. As did the documentary The Green Prince, passing by without so much as a flutter. Is this because changes in technology and consumption mean we don’t allow ourselves time to dissect the facts?
Many of the best – and by that I mean most likely to affect change – documentaries and social commentary films don’t even make their way onto the smallest of Australian screens. Luckily, I had my eyes opened at One World in Prague, the world’s biggest International Human Rights Documentary Film Festival. Yet, few of the films that blew me away have found distributors or even appeared on the festival circuit.
For me, the single most distressing and memorable film of the year was Aleppo: Notes From the Dark. While it may not sound like something many people would want to see – it’s a far cry from ‘entertainment’ – it is very much a film that people should see. The moment I began to comprehend the extent of the damage and atrocity from the war in Syria was through the images in that film; the reason I so strongly advocate its distribution and exhibition is because our media simply don’t report these events adequately.
2014 was also the year a Facebook post mysteriously disappeared from my timeline. John Snow’s Channel 4 English news broadcast, following his return from Gaza, somehow removed itself from my page, and the pages of my friends. The truth quite literally disappeared. In its place, an endless stream of pointless quizzing that tells me nothing about myself or the world I live in and everything about why algorithms shouldn’t replace human interaction: what colour are you? What country should you live in? What director are you most like? Which Hollywood actress would you drink with?
Movies have long told us who we are and 2014 was a year that set up an equal number of false truths and honest authenticities, paving the way for the disavowal of all that went before. We have finally seen a mainstream film with a transgender character in less than a minor, body-in-ditch role. And though I agree Jared Leto’s performance in Dallas Buyers Club was fantastic, I can’t help but baulk at the decision to cast a famous heterosexual male star in the year’s only major role for a transgender woman in a feature film. Is misrepresentation good enough?
Australia also finally saw last year’s Palm d’Or winning Blue is the Warmest Color. There have been countless articles written on the falsity of the film’s male-imagined sex scenes, but I do wonder why one of the highest-profile films about a lesbian relationship starred two straight actresses and was directed by a man.
Indeed, representations of women and gender roles also continued to top the conversation this year. First, Lars von Trier unleashed his two-parter female masturbation epic, Nymphomaniac. We also saw Johnathan Glazer adapt Michel Faber’s novel Under the Skin, and Charlotte Roche’s intimate gross-out examination of female hygiene and bodily secretions found its way to the big screen, too. Obvious Child marked the first American indie abortion comedy and Gillian Flynn adapted her best-selling novel (now known as David Fincher’s Gone Girl), the spark for the year’s greatest mainstream controversy in cinema. Meanwhile, the work of Xavier Dolan continued to impress and two of his films turned up at local festivals. Both Tom at the Farm and Mommy are remarkable and significant entries into the queer canon. On our home shores, 52 Tuesdays brought honesty to the screen.
So, too, did a number of social conscience films that while brilliant, feel decades overdue. David Gulpilil stole my heart with his performance in Charlie’s Country, an Australian film that represents Indigenous culture in a way that is not told solely from a white perspective. And although Steve McQueen is British, 12 Years a Slave also means that there is finally a film about slavery in America that is not told only through white people’s eyes.
Europe, perhaps the last bastion for the stability of history, brought us Calvary, Jimmy’s Hall, Ida and Winter’s Sleep. Interestingly, the characters in these films cannot escape the persistent past; social and political moments continue to permeate their lives and bear down upon them. While these films were released to critical acclaim internationally, they will never smash local box office records.
In Australia, our examination of the past is much more complicated – and scary. Take The Babadook, which is a brilliant manifestation of grief. In the film, the dark figure looms large (a strange blend of early film studies and its Freudian ramifications). It’s a simultaneous warning against letting the pain of the past flood in, and of denial, the one thing that makes the figure/the horror stronger. What are Australian audiences to do? If we acknowledge this horrifying past, dwell on it and let it in, we will be consumed by it. But if we ignore our past and try to move on, it will only chase us with greater determination, growing more resilient.
One way of avoiding the past is to regress to the stylistic excess of the 1980s. Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, the screen adaptation of Lawrence Block’s A Walk Among the Tombstones, the upcoming continuation of Liam Neeson’s gravelly voiced hysteria in Taken 3 and my truly guilty pleasure of the year, John Wick, all allowed viewers to indulge in the abundance and saturation of excess. Like Michael Bay’s well-established ‘vulgar auteurism’, the more there is to what we consume the less compelled we feel to deconstruct it. Simplicity is no longer desirable. Obfuscation is the new model for high-octane entertainment.
If we look at Bong Joon-ho’s English language blockbuster, Snowpiercer, we can see the cogs at work. Harvey Weinstein, who is known as Hollywood’s most scissor-happy producer, wanted to cut it and record voice-over narration to explain what would have been cut. Thankfully Joon-ho fought it and won. What we’ve seen, though, is that even a straightforward allegory such as Snowpiercer casts doubt in the minds of the controlling executives. Convolution is preferable in an age where repetition and over-expository presentation is king.
Another option is to give up on adults altogether, and appeal to the youth instead. Franchises are the way forward (it’s always been about the merchandise!) and book-to-film adaptations about revolution are where it’s at. The Maze Runner, Divergent and The Hunger Games all hoped to recruit a new generation in 2014. This makes me somewhat optimistic – but if revolution is deconstructed, if we see what makes it work and how many casualties it claims, how many are going to be willing to participate outside of the auditorium? Sure, we’ll see the Mockingjay pin on many a school backpack, along with the hashtags, but will we see today’s youth challenge the government?
As with any year there were films that called out the bogus structures: Nightcrawler attacked the mainstream media and the global financial crisis and the social inequities that create an undereducated class of internet-only consumers. Maps to the Stars and The Congress tore apart the very system of screen culture that we continue to be fascinated and disgusted by at once. Interstellar ignited our interest in sustainability and humanity for at least a moment before it burnt out. Meanwhile, Kelly Reichardt gave environmentalism a fighting chance in Night Moves and Nick Cave predicted the end of the world in 20,000 Days on Earth. This was the year Mike Leigh abandoned social commentary for bland biopic with his Australian Boxing Day release of Mr Turner. In contrast, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood spanned everything and nothing in 2014’s most joyous examination of the passage of time.
Perhaps the most intelligent and prophetic film of 2014 was the one that only partially exists: Jodorowsky’s Dune. The film opened up a new artistic space as it offered viewers the artefact of the non-existent object. What does it matter if the thing was never realised as long as we can document what it was supposed to be? The object, real or imagined, can still be loved. This is the truth now, 2014’s cinema tells us.