Today I wanted to talk about something that’s been bothering me for a long time now, and that is the decline in cinema. Now, this is not a doom-and-gloom blog, nor is it a nostalgia fest. Just because I believe that modern film is declining does not mean I believe the same about television, for example, or the literary world (though both realms are beset with problems). However, it must be said that recently there seems to be a dearth of interesting films. Lots of people have observed the consistency of remakes, reboots and sequels plaguing our screens, but it goes beyond that. There is simply a lack of distinctive film-making.
One of the first thing I was taught on my degree course was that style is infinitely more important that substance. And while I partly disagree with this statement – I believe stories should have deeper meaning and that if they lack it, it shows – there is more than a nugget of truth about it. You see, what sets one story apart from another? Why do we remember one writer over another? Or one movie? It is the style and execution of the story that actually creates the meaning and makes it accessible.
Perhaps one of the best examples to illustrate this point is the original 1987 RoboCop versus the 2014 remake. SPOILER ALERT for anyone who’s not seen either.
On the surface, the 2014 remake was an adequate film. Michael Keaton played a convincing corporate villain. There were some well choreographed action sequences. It also featured neat allusions to the original film to satisfy fans (such as the villain actually getting to the helicopter on the roof, unlike his 1987 counterpart Mr Kinney). There were even one or two memorable scenes – such as ‘the reveal’ where we see all that remains of Murphy inside the machine suit (a head, a hand, and plastic bags for lungs).
But the ultimate failing of the film is it lacks the grit that made the original so memorable, and more importantly still, lacks the profound pathos which made RoboCop an iconic hero. In the original, we saw the bullets rip people apart, and at times we were uncertain how we felt about the machine-like coldness of Peter Weller’s RoboCop, the way he executes people, Judge Dredd style, calling crooks ‘Creeps’. We saw someone get disintegrated into a mewling, gelatinous creature by a VAT of toxic waste. This is what dystopia should look like, not a bunch of attractive teenagers running around and looking longingly into each others’ eyes. I have no objection to romantic stories, just please refrain from calling them dystopias, refrain from telling me that that is as bad as the world gets, because we all know the truth that it can get a lot worse. Mewling, melted-face worse.
The final confrontation at the end of the 2014 RoboCop is a big-music-take-on-all-the-odds CGI fest, and really, we’ve seen too many of them. I love the Marvel universe, but I start to get sick when I see yet another building collapse, yet another shot of Iron Man’s overly shining suit dashing through collapsing tunnels, pursued by other flying things.What about the human being inside the suit? What about the suffering of combat? In the original RoboCop, the scene where the Detroit police department shoot him to pieces is harrowing, hair-raising, and also, unexpected. We do not expect the near-invincible Robocop to actually take a hit. But he does. In fact, he collapses and is reduced to crawling along the floor as the shadowy policemen close in, the lighting making them into sinister, almost demonic, silhouettes. The emotional pathos we experience from this scene makes it linger in the mind, and in the collective cultural consciousness, even thirty years on. And this is entirely due to the execution: the way the policemen are lit, the strange absence of music followed by the slow return of the rousing title theme at the very moment he is reduced to crawling. There is a coldness about the way it is filmed which is beautifully ironic: it is the policemen who are machine-like, ruthlessly continuing to shoot him down even when he can barely move.
In the 2014 version we get some cool flips.
And this is my big concern and why I am such a big advocate of horror, not just as a genre, but as a tool for all writers, film-makers and artists. So much of what we are subject to now teases the edge of real darkness, and never goes there, which is why a lot of modern film-making is so forgettable. This is partly because of the average age rating has been reduced from 18 to 15 in an attempt to get more viewers.Most films now are 15s or 12as. In the 80s and 90s all the big film releases were 18s. This allowed them to explore more dark corners. Think of the original Terminator movie. How different, aesthetically and stylistically, is that from its subsequent films (although Judgement Day is a work of genius in a different way)? The original movie is scary. Not because of special effects. There hardly are any. Not because the director pretended it was real found footage. No, it’s because of Arnie’s horrifyingly cold aura (he should play more villains). It is because the Terminator will not stop. Cut off its legs. Burn it. Shoot it. Throw it off a building. It will not forget it is coming to kill you. Somehow the production team working on the sequels forgot this defining aspect. In Terminator Genisys, John Connor kills a Terminator in about 3 seconds near the beginning. What are we supposed to feel, then, when the plucky heroes are surrounded? Mr American Square-Jaw (Jai Courtney) and Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke). Are we supposed to feel like there is even a remote chance they will get hurt?
But it’s not even just about that. It’s about us caring enough to feel a thrill. Explosions don’t create excitement of themselves, it’s knowing that your favourite characters are on the line, that they could die. TV does so much better than film in this (and almost all) respects. Think of the crazy shoot-out in Episode 4 of True Detective Season 1. By this point we’ve had 3 episodes of Rust and Marty. We care about them even though we suspect they are both ‘bad men’ just as Cohle prophetically states. We have gotten intrigued by their stories, their banter, their faults, and their strengths. Now we have to watch ten minutes of edge of the seat action as Rust navigates a gang-shootout that is closer to a war. Similarly, Game of Thrones is doing this to us all the time. Characters we care about are suddenly up against the odds, and they don’t always come out on top. Game of Thrones is a story that frequently uses elements of horror in its narrative and it works beautifully in making the world feel real. Why can’t film-directors attempt the same thing?
Arguably the most moving cinematic scene of the last 4 or 5 years is the scene in Game of Thrones’ Season 6 episode The Door. I’m not going to spoil it for anyone who has not seen it, but suffice to say it reduced me to real, sobbing tears. I could not sleep afterwards. I could not do anything. I have been emotionally compromised, as Spock might have said. This showcased a director (Jack Bender) who completely understands how to elicit emotion, that it is as much about how it is done than what is happening. Think, for a moment, that you are a director. Imagine if you’d seen a brief one-paragraph synopsis of that scene from The Door on paper. Then imagine you are asked to make it happen. Even after a few seconds, you can see just how many aspects of that scene could have been out of place, could have ruined the emotional impact. But Jack Bender evaded all of them and delivered what must be one of the greatest moments of television ever aired. Hats off.
But let’s return to film and why it’s not working. There are many reasons, too numerous to list. The usual suspects of corruption and Hollywood control and producer lobbying are on there, but perhaps the cleanest and easiest distinction I am now going to borrow from my friend Matthew Blackwell, winner of the Absolute Blackness competition, who’s excellent story you can read HERE. He said to me:
‘In TV, the writers have control.’
Quite simply, that is the crux. Not to say that writers are golden infallible people, far from it, but they are creatives wanting to tell a story with a unique voice, rather than people looking to optimize market distribution. They are people with passion and soul, who have devoted their lives to doing what they want to do, as opposed to corporates obsessing over 6% or 7% growth. About an extra 20 million here or there. I don’t know what the financial performance of those 80s movies was like. Probably a lot worse than the performance of their 21st century remakes. But I am willing to bet heavy on which one is going to stand the test of time.
Homogeneous – a word that is bandied around a lot today along with the term ‘white-washing’. And it’s true, not even in just a racial sense (white actors continually cast in roles more appropriate for POC) but also in terms of the personalities being cast. I mentioned My American Square Jaw – and this is an issue that concerns me. Why is virtually every protagonist now a well-muscled facially attractive hulk of a man? The original Kyle Reese from the Terminator movie was skinny, rough-looking, and seasoned. He looked like he came from a hellish future of endless warfare. He looked like he’d seen some things. He did not have a perfect body, but he was resourceful and clever and cunning. This is not to say he was unattractive, but he wasn’t a ken-doll. Of course, there were plenty of muscle-bound 80s heroes too, I’m not denying it, but we are currently inundated. And to make matters worse, they lack the curious charm of one-liner toting macho-men like Arnie and Stallone. The personality. The individuality.
I promised this would not be a doom and gloom blog, and perhaps it has become that a little, so let’s end on a hopeful note. More than ever the internet is enabling independent creators in all mediums to create cool stuff that is not ‘approved’, that is not ‘homogeneous’, that is truly creative and new. And there are even films with larger budgets that still push creative boundaries. Christopher Nolan seems to be one of Hollywood’s few directors who is allowed to write original scripts, and he does. Interstellar was a masterpiece that, once again, delivers amazing moments of pathos and emotion. Bone Tomahawk, is another genius, recent film that focuses on characterization, and that forgoes telling viewers what to feel through music and allows them to make up their own mind. The video-game industry is full of independent development. Games like Presentable Liberty and Undertale tell insightful, sophisticated narratives that have practically reinvented story. Both have inspired me to write books.
And books, well, they are always up against the wall, but self publishing and the efforts of heroic magazines such as Gamut and independent presses such as Zoetic Press, Dark Hall, Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing, Dark House, Kraken are keeping alternative fiction alive. Although it must be said that even mainstream publishing is still far from the homogeny of films. Only recently I started reading NOS4R2 by Joe Hill (2013), a masterful exploration of the imagination and its consequences, and one packed with genuine horror and feeling. It might be one of the best books I’ve read in years and shows that ‘epic’ storytelling is far from dead.
So, what should you take away from this? Focus on style. Focus on creating something that is uniquely you. If you try to write (or create) something which is a best-seller you’ll fail, which is not to say you should feel guilty about wanting something to sell well and make you some money. We’ve all been there. We all dream of making an easy living off something we are passionate about.
But better than making money is making something which lasts. That’s legacy, that’s art, and that is what all creative people should, in my humble opinion, strive for.