I watched Django Unchained last night. It’s taken me a while to get around to it for some reason, but I finally sat down and put it on and I loved it. Possibly the best thing Tarantino has done since Pulp Fiction. As is usual in his films, there was a 10 – 15 minute section which lost my attention a bit, but with the exception of Reservoir Dogs (which I still think is his best), this always seems to happen. I’m still waiting for him to get a decent editor who tells him to cut a little bit of the bagginess out and then I think we’ll get an undisputed masterpiece from him.
Anyway, that’s all besides the point really. I don’t want to talk specifically about Tarantino, but about contemporary cinema in general.
I used to watch a lot of films, and I mean a lot. Ten movies in a week wasn’t unheard of. These days I watch about ten a year, which probably skews my perspective a little bit, but is also, I think, a symptom of a serious decline in decent movie making. For me, there were twelve years between 1990 and 2002 in which some of the best, groundbreaking and challenging modern films were made. And since then – well, what is there to really shout about? Let’s do a little acid test. All of these films were made in that twelve year period:
Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Seven, Fight Club, American Beauty, The Usual Suspects, Momento, L.A. Confidential, Goodfellas, Fargo, Bad Lieutenant, The Big Lebowski, Miller’s Crossing, American History X, The Man Who Wasn’t There, The Royal Tenenbaums, Smoke, Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, Lost in Translation. (Ok, the last one only just makes it in as it was released in 2003).
But this is even without considering some of the (arguably) more populist films like The Shawshank Redemption, The Matrix, Trainspotting etc. etc. (And I’m deliberately avoiding foreign language films as I could go on forever).
I’ve tried to do the same with films made between 2003 and 2013 which, admittedly, is a slightly shorter timeframe, but I’m struggling to get anywhere near as many dragged out of my memory. One or two at best. So unless there’s a glut in the next eighteen months, I suspect there’s going to be no comparison.
So what happened? Did the economic downturn force studios to restrict their risk to sequels and superhero movies only? Has television taken over with all the best screenwriters and filmmakers moving to HBO and FOX drama series instead? Or has the demographic just changed? There was an appetite in that period – I remember it well – for things that were quirky, and new, and stylish. That was the definition of cool. I’m not so sure that appetite still exists in quite the same way. Films that play around with genre, that self-reference themselves and all that has come before them – perhaps the audience just isn’t there for them as it was before. Or perhaps there is just a perception that it’s not there anymore and that popular interest just needs to be reawakened by something great. I hope so, and I hope something comes along soon to kick start a fresh look at the kind of thing studios make. Because I remember being enthused by Martin Scorsese’s claim that cinema was the main twentieth century art-form, and I just can’t be similarly enthused by Avengers Assemble or Thor.