A question came up during a conversation with a group of friends recently that lingered in my mind longer than expected:
“If you had to choose between keeping only the music created before this very moment in time and not having any new music ever again, or deleting all previous music and only living with any music created from this point on, what would you choose? Past or future?”
At the time I immediately answered with the former and quickly berated a friend for even thinking about hypothetically deleting the greatest bands in history in the absurd hope that an artist even better will show up in the future. My tiny brain couldn’t comprehend the idea of choosing against the soundtrack to your life, leaving me ranting incoherently about the state of the music industry and the importance of the music that defined our youth. The possibility of anything ever rivalling the brilliance of the greatest songs of the last 70 years just wasn’t something that I was able to register in any capacity, so I shot down the suggestion as quickly as humanly possible.
It wasn’t until the next day that I realized how entirely pessimistic that answer is. It’s such an easy trap to fall into these days. As Jerry Maguire once said in a bizarre detour from an otherwise heartwarmingly romantic speech – we live in a cynical world. A cynical world. As every horrific news update rings around us the easiest thing to do is surround yourself in a bubble of contemptuous fury, hating on what the world has become while listening to a buzz saw cocktail of the awesome political sloganeering of Dead Kennedys and your own self-righteousness. It’s the age of the cynic, but when the cynic is proved right so often is there any sense in disagreeing?
The thing that turned me around was flipping that initial question over to film, where strangely enough my answer was the exact opposite – I could comfortably choose the future of movies over the past, regardless of the countless classics and undeniable genius behind us. We’ve always been able to use cinema as an escape from whatever else is happening in the world, taking a step away from reality to settle into that theatre chair with a bucket full of popcorn the size of your head, counting down the previews until the familiar ring of the studio theme song immediately before the feature’s opening credits. The difference now is that as our reality has become increasingly depressing over the last few years, the quality of films has somehow risen in its wake, like a bizarrely horrifying seesaw of shambolic desperation and welcome comfort.
For cinema nerds it is a phenomenal time to be alive. The naysayers will point to the mindless blockbusters, the endless sequels, and the sudden need for every major motion picture to become part of some hastily assembled “cinematic universe”, but they’re all ignoring the finer details. I will happily live with the deluge of Michael Bay-esque incoherent messes of eardrum shattering noise and screen blurring CGI explosions if it means experiencing the sparks of imagination we’ve seen in film recently, from horror gems Get Out and It Follows to the mind-twisting work of leftfield auteurs like Yorgos Lanthimos and Nicolas Winding Refn to the thought-provoking blockbusters of Christopher Nolan. It’s easy to be miserable at the moment, but sift through the disasters and there is brilliance everywhere.
The best example that springs to mind is this year’s Oscars fiasco. Lost amongst the shambles of the Best Picture announcement was the fact that two incredible filmmakers had clearly announced themselves as the new status quo, pushing aside the legends we have always relied on to prop up the Best Director nominations. Regardless of what you think of La La Land and Moonlight, two films that had each suffered backlashes at various stages in all the award circuit hype leading up to the Oscars, they were both unique and innovative creations made by two visionary writer/directors. Instead of pitting them against each other and choosing sides we should’ve been wide-eyed in awe at not only two prodigious talents, but also our own crazy luck that we’re alive in a time when they were both in the running for the biggest award possible.
The complaints about the tsunami of superhero movies overtaking cinemas are entirely unwarranted too. We are living in the golden age of superhero films. Forget about all the misfires, concentrate on the genuine triumphs. This year alone has given us two: Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman could’ve drowned under the weight of expectations and ridiculous hype, but instead managed to save the entire DC movie universe from irrelevancy with an uplifting sprinkling of old-school heroics and a mid-film scene that will surely go down as one of the great moments in the genre’s history. Marvel meanwhile countered with Spider-Man: Homecoming, an addictively fun trip that had more in common with The Breakfast Club than any caped crusader adventure. We are now at the glorious point in movie history where superhero blockbusters are looking to John Hughes for inspiration, and where the hero’s future love interest is now the very antithesis of “the damsel in distress” in Zendaya’s perfectly anti-social performance as Michelle.
And the future looks even better for Marvel. The upcoming Thor: Ragnarok is directed by New Zealand indie filmmaker/comedian Taika Waititi with a cast including living legends Cate Blanchett and Jeff Goldblum and an unreal 80s inspired neon soaked trailer soundtracked by Led Zeppelin’s thumping Immigrant Song, an inspired combination in anyone’s language. Best of all, we have another Oscar winner in Brie Larson taking on the role of Captain Marvel, in the first film with a female lead in Marvel Cinematic Universe. Larson is the reigning MVP of “actors who make their co-stars better”, an immediate chemistry enhancing marvel (awkward pun intended), whose presence in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a god send given its mind-boggingly massive cast of characters.
All that is to say nothing of the sheer brilliance of so many other great films released over the last few years – irreverent oddities like the bizarrely sweet farting corpse of Swiss Army Man or the offbeat satire of The Lobster. Surprisingly in-depth animations like the heartwarming inclusivity of Zootopia or the ingeniously inventive Inside Out. Brain scrambling sci-fi hits like the dark commentary of Ex Machina or the heart wrenching alien invasion of Arrival. The beautiful Cate Blanchett/Rooney Mara romance Carol, terrifyingly dark The Witch: A New-England Folk Tale, casually likeable The End Of The Tour, and heartwrenching Manchester By The Sea. The cherry on top is a movie like Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, a film so fun it’s basically the perfect encapsulation of everything we enjoy going to the cinema for.
There are just so many reasons to be optimistic about film at the moment though. We are living in a world where the Oscar winning acting goddess Charlize Theron has torn the mantle of greatest action star on the planet from the hands of all the posers and unworthy, feasting on her competition like a lion on her prey. Seeing her bludgeoning enemies to death in Atomic Blonde is an immediate tonic to the soul destroying realities of the current political climate, an adrenaline rush of pure cinema thrills. Theron is a star single-handedly re-energizing the genre, an iconic centrepiece we haven’t seen in action films for years. And it was all kickstarted by her searing turn as Imperator Furiosa in George Miller’s masterpiece Mad Max: Fury Road, an immediate classic that completely redefined the genre.
My wife despises people idolizing celebrities or movie stars and I generally drive her insane with my reckless enthusiasm over meaningless pieces of information like casting decisions, directing choices and what-not. Yet somehow when everything else seems to be falling apart, it feels completely worthwhile obsessing over this kind of trivia and absolutely as legitimate as putting our trust in a religion or sports team. Putting our faith in our leaders is akin to putting our faith in monsters at this point, so I’m putting my faith in cinema instead – in Theron, Jenkins, Larson, Blanchett, Zendaya, Wright, Lanthimos, Refn…the endless list of filmmakers who inhabit that massive screen I put myself in front of whenever I can. Feet up, popcorn ready, occasional jar of olives beside me, sickeningly large bottle of Coke in my hand.
We don’t necessarily need optimistic movies. We just need reasons to be optimistic ABOUT movies, and in that regard it’s the best I’ve felt in years. The Kristen Stewart starring Personal Shopper was a film that divided audiences everywhere, particularly with a last scene that managed to split crowd reactions between terrified, bored and just plain confused. The final shot lingers on Stewart as she finishes the film with one last despairing question to an empty room, a moment hinging on her increasingly captivating performance over the full measure of the movie’s running time. It was an ending that ingrained itself into my brain immediately, leaving me walking out of the cinema buzzing with thoughts, ideas, emotion and inspiration – weirdly depressed yet ready to take over the world.
And it’s moments like these that give me hope for the future. To quote Rob Gordon in High Fidelity – books, records, films…these things matter. Inspiration is important regardless of where it comes from, and the current state of movies is giving us all a thick, pulsating vein of hope to suck from, one that we just don’t get from many other places these days. People are so quick to dismiss films and focus on any possible negatives involved, as though we don’t have the patience to go into a screening with an open mind anymore – which is so frustratingly insane it destroys my mind in every way. I’m finished with all this negativity. It’s time to celebrate the good things.