Hollywood & Storytelling: What Happened?
Did we finally manage to escape a slew of CGI-drenched superhero franchises only to enter a year of CGI-drenched Disney remakes?
I just finished the late Penny Marshall’s 1990 masterpiece, Awakenings, and my automatic thought when the credits began to roll was, ‘Damn, when was the last time I saw a modern-day movie like that?’ I could only think back to 2016, when Martin Scorsese released Silence; a gargantuan, three-hour, cinematic epic depicting 17th century Portuguese Jesuits, and the trials and tribulations they endured in Japan. However, the film was a flop if you look at it in terms of box office ratings; $23 million worldwide, whereas films like Suicide Squad and Batman Vs. Superman made $700 million plus in the same year. Approaching 2019, I’ve been thrilled to see that the output of these superhero franchises has started to slow down after almost five years of non-stop, consecutive Spiderman and Avengers remakes, but was horrified when I realized the only trailers I’ve begun to see are for equally derivative and banal Disney remakes of Dumbo, Mary Poppins, The Lion King, Mulan, Aladdin; the list goes on. A Star is Born, a film that has been hailed as the film of the year, is one that has been remade thrice before. There’s nothing wrong with taking some inspiration from a book, a historical period, or the odd remake, but the number of films going completely pastiche on a budget makes for one question; what is happening to original storytelling in Hollywood?
To make a sober and contemplative movie like Silence at this point in the “pow-boom-crash” timeline of cinema was incredibly brave of Scorsese. However, his formidable name alone was probably one of the only reasons Silence was even produced. I don’t think the stories have disappeared; they’re just not being produced, pathetically underfunded, or just not getting any attention whatsoever. I can only help but wonder; what other potential masterpieces are we missing out on? With the rise of home media, such as Netflix and Apple TV, people’s attention spans don’t seem to possess the ability to easily handle a full-length movie; let alone a trip to the theatre to see a movie based on the lives of Jesuit missionaries. Quality has moved to TV shows and miniseries; things you don’t have to fully commit to, and that you can binge-watch from the comfort of your own couch.
Movies and movie humour today are made to appeal to the lowest common denominator. I can’t imagine what Scorsese said to De Niro after he saw Dirty Grandpa; that is, if he could bear to watch it at all. Scorsese said in a 2016 interview, “Cinema is gone; the cinema I grew up with and that I’m making, it’s gone.” A dramatic statement, his point is that, generally, cinema definitely isn’t what it used to be. He described modern movies as “theme-park movies,” and argued that the “proliferation of images” on the seemingly infinite number of screens that surround us on a daily basis has made the cinematic experience less special for audiences; especially young audiences. Nothing is exciting, and spectacle is necessary, leading to an over-reliance on superficial techniques such as CGI. “Anyone can make movie magic now on a budget,” said Ridley Scott, famed director of Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator, and The Martian. Although his films are full to the brim with spectacle, he added that he always makes sure to have a “fucking good story,” and slammed the “thin, gossamer tight-rope of the non-reality of the superhero situation.” Good writing and cinematic artistry are no longer the driving forces behind a film. In a world where instant gratification is the new normal, it’s no surprise that this is the entertainment coming out of Hollywood. The film industry has become overtly hostile to risk, and obsessed with franchise. Whatever mindless, non-offensive entertainment may appeal to mass audiences overrules because they need those box office numbers.
Obviously, these aren’t the films that are considered brilliant, or “Oscar-worthy.” It just happens that an unprecedented number of these crappy movies are being released year after year. Some of Scorsese’s remarks, however, even apply to a great many of the highly acclaimed films being made today. One has to consider what these films are and why they are so highly acclaimed in the first place. In 2011, the nominees for Best Motion Picture-Drama were The Social Network, Black Swan, The King’s Speech, Inception, and The Fighter. It was announced that this year, BlackKkKlansman, Black Panther (which, actually is an acclaimed superhero franchise), If Beale Street Could Talk, Bohemian Rhapsody, and A Star is Born are nominated in the same category. That’s three films concerning injustices against the African-American community, one that sheds light on the historic struggles of the LGBTQ community, and one to put drug addiction and alcoholism as the cherry on top. Crazy Rich Asians is also a contender for the Best Motion Picture-Musical or Comedy category. The quality between the films nominated in 2011 vs. those in 2019 has obviously declined within a span of eight years. I absolutely loved some of these films, and of course it’s important to include films that give a voice to minority communities, but many of them simply feature the minority’s struggle, with the sub-text saying very little about the gravity of the injustice itself. Movies such as Call Me By Your Name, or Moonlight, for example, are hailed as genius; not necessarily because they’re great stories, but more so because they merely feature minorities who are demanding a voice in Hollywood by slamming The Academy, and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. One of my friends in the LGBTQ community even said; “Is it just me, or was Call Me By Your Name just a movie about nothing that happened to have some gay dudes in it?” These films are Academy and HFPA bait. Of course the awards cycle will pick them up; devoid of the risk of political outcry, and bound to attract the attention of minority viewers. This in turn will lead to the buzz that sends people to the box office.
Awards shows have become a political stage. Their growing irrelevance in a culturally aware world is due to the fact that viewers don’t want to see rich white people using the stage as a political platform, and then failing to do anything effective about the injustices that they’re discussing. Nobody can go on twitter on a Monday morning after the Oscars without seeing thousands of tweets about something that went wrong, or offended an entire community. Silence got no awards buzz whatsoever. I can only assume it was because it would have galvanized an entire movement defending those triggered victims of colonial rule, completely ignoring the fact that those stories still have value despite the atrocities involved. It’s no wonder The Academy is terrified; their ratings have dropped dramatically, and platforms like twitter allow them to see the second-by-second commentary of how they’re doing (plus commentary on the commentary itself). Of course, the recent Kevin Hart scandal is a perfect example. He’s a wildly popular comedian, and the fact that they pinpointed tweets from almost a decade ago sheds light on how averse they are to creating any controversy whatsoever; how the show in this day and age is basically a three hour event in which most famous people in the world walk on egg shells in an effort not to offend anybody. People cringe every time a white person wins; which is pretty much the entire show, because the film industry, as a whole, is still a predominantly white community. It’s a huge systemic issue; the fact is there just aren’t as many movies being made by minorities in Hollywood. However, I still don’t believe this justifies looking past the production of good stories for the sake of inclusivity and the deflection of outrage.
The #MeToo movement saved Awards season in 2018. It was for a great cause, that I, as a feminist, completely supported, but it has also encouraged people to boycott some of the most brilliant films in cinema. As I said, I’m a feminist, but Harvey Weinstein has produced pretty much all of my favourite movies; just absolutely brilliant stories. I separate art from artist as I do church from state, and I’m not going to stop watching his films, or Kevin Spacey, despite some of those people who shame me for doing so. This storytelling in Hollywood issue really hit home for me when I was forced to do a study in my film class that asked me to talk about Woody Allen’s 2011 film, Midnight in Paris. I was excited; I love Woody Allen (controversial statement nowadays), and the film. It’s a truly original story, with a poignant message. The catch was I had to discuss how the film excluded those people who weren’t necessarily familiar with European culture, or educated enough to get the early 20th century references throughout the film (and it is jam-packed with references). My visceral reaction to the prompt was to laugh out loud at how ridiculously PC my university had become. How was this any different than me not understanding the cultural references of a Kurosawa film? His films are spoken in Japanese, are about Japanese culture, and I can still recognize that they are incredible stories! What happened to the good old story? The artistic relevance of film? As pretentious as it sounds, the idea of the auteur?
This may just be what the world has become and will continue to become. The age of storytelling has drastically changed within the past few years as a result of technology, social media platforms, cultural awareness, political strife; it’s a multivariate equation. Slowly, the human race has become a connected macro-organism, where group identity and groupthink are a large of part of who we are. This makes individual desires trivial, and limits the extent to which storytelling may be the best way of spreading information. The importance of the story appears to be more undervalued than ever, but is ever more needed every day.