Film-makers remain innovative but something has gone wrong in the engine room

Donald Clarke: Audiences have got out of the habit of seeing grown-up films in auditoriums

Joaquin Phoenix in Joker. Photograph: Niko Tavernise/ Warner Bros

Joaquin Phoenix in Joker. Photograph: Niko Tavernise/ Warner Bros

 

Never trust an old geezer who thinks culture has gone to hell. I don’t believe that. Pop music is as vibrant as it has been in decades. Television has just reached the 12th iteration (or so) of its post-millennial golden age. If you begin to feel that young creators are a bunch of useless charlatans then take an immediate visit to the Cop-on Clinic. Every generation feels this. Time has proven every generation wrong.

I certainly don’t believe cinema has run into the ditch either. Far from it. In a few weeks we will be publishing our list of the year’s best films. There will be as many potential classics in the 2021 edition as there have been in any previous annual hit parade. Nobody enjoys a spoiler, but it is safe to assume that features such as The Power of the Dog, Spencer, First Cow, The Card Counter and Annette will be invited to the party. Film-makers remain as innovative as ever. Just look at what Janicza Bravo did with an epic Twitter thread in the fizzy Zola. 

Something has, however, gone wrong in the engine room. These thoughts are prompted by an excellent essay from the critic and film historian Farran Nehme. Available as a post on substack.com, Nehme’s piece begins as a weary evisceration of the fatuous argument that “superhero movies are just like westerns” and ends with a largely rhetorical question and the only sane answer. “Were the hit movies really any better in the last century?” Nehme ponders. “Of course they f**king well were.”

Yes, this all subjective, blah, blah, blah. Other takes are available, blah, blah, blah. Aren’t you just being the old geezer referenced in the opening paragraph, blah, blah, blah? “That’s just, like, your opinion man,” Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski might add.

Well, maybe. But Nehme’s pondering of the annual US box-office top 10s for the past 100 years does produce something like hard evidence. Certainly, nobody can sincerely argue that there is as much variety in the current era’s money-makers as there was among those of the 20th century. The advocate has not yet been born who could convince a disinterested jury that as many tickets are now sold for adult dramas. The list Nehme quotes for 1973 is eye-opening. The Exorcist was at number one. Other films in the top 10 include The Sting, Papillon, Magnum Force, Paper Moon and – you what now? – Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris. That film’s reputation has declined. Obviously, the promise of explicit sex drew in many punters. Still, the notion of a searingly miserable, Franco-Italian art film about grief and sodomy making it into the top 10 now seems (appropriately enough, given what we do get) the stuff of science fiction.

Now look to 2019. That was the year that Avengers: Endgame became the highest grossing film of all time. Also in the top 10, we find Frozen II, Captain Marvel, Jumanji: The Next Level and the remake of The Lion King. The closest thing to an adult movie in the list is Joker and even that concerns the travails of a comic book character. What happened between the fall of president Nixon and today?

This is not among the thousands of disappointments we can hang on Covid-19. Nor (before you say as much) can we finger Netflix. We can’t even single out the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As long ago as 2001 – the year of Shrek, The Mummy Returns and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – kidult fever had set in. “After 2001, scarcely anything in the box office top 10 is all that good,” Nehme ventures.

Maria Schneider and Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris 1972. Photograph: MGM
Maria Schneider and Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris 1972. Photograph: MGM

We are required to point out that the franchise machines do produce some fine, ahem, “content”. That upcoming Spider-Man film looks all right. The Mission: Impossible films are fun. The problem is that a certain scale of cinema now nudges all other films to the financial margins. Multiplexes survive on a diet of five or six enormous meals that, all going well, keep them breathing throughout the year. Audiences have got out of the habit of seeing grown-up films in an auditorium. The breaking news that King Richard, supposed Will Smith crowd-pleaser concerning the father of Venus and Serena, has underperformed at the US box office reinforces the argument. Back in 1973 – maybe even in 1993 – the equivalent of Spencer or The Power of the Dog could well have scored in the top 10. You think I’m exaggerating? Did you not hear what I was saying about Last Tango in bleeding Paris?

So, yes, something has got worse. Like the proverbial stopped clock, old geezers tell the right time twice a day (if we’re lucky). One thing has, however, not changed. The ninth most lucrative release of 1973 was Live and Let Die. It looks as if the highest-grossing English-language film worldwide this year will be something called No Time to Die. Like the poor, James Bond will always be with us. 

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