A Corpse in the Cinema

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“Papas kino ist tot”, wrote the signatories of the Oberhausen Manifesto, and with the stroke of a pen assassinated classic German cinema in February 1962: or so it would appear when the nascent Neuer Deutscher Film (or New German Cinema) overtook and revitalized the film industry of West Germany up until 1989. By announcing the death of cinema, like in every revolution, the ‘Oberhausen rebels’ opened a new chapter of history with a murder. But all of this is only partly true: the sentence “Dad’s cinema is dead” did not actually appear in the manifesto, and the death of German cinema had been a case of suicide rather than murder.

Simply saying “Dad’s cinema is dead” will not, of course, kill the cinema itself. There was no true assassin of ‘classic’ German cinema throughout the 60s and 70s, other than German cinema itself, with the number of theatres in West Germany halved between 1959 and 1969 and the industry’s growth nosediving throughout the decade. Very apparent connections can be made between German cinema in the 1960s and Hollywood today. Few are happier to do so than directors Ridley Scott and Martin Scorsese who, recently, announced that cinema is once again dead. It’d be endless to list all those who have said it, but I particularly like Scott’s and Scorsese’s case for the irony underlining it. They are not dishonest or deluded when they say that, indeed, the cinema they grew up with and are making is dead: but perhaps, in a twist worthy of a film of its own, I believe they are a bit unaware of who murdered it.

The cinema that Scott and Scorsese lament, illustrated by works such as Andrzej Wajda’s 1958 Popiół i diament (Ashes and Diamonds), is well and truly dead only because the styles and vogues started by them have overtaken cinema itself. This I suppose must haunt every revolutionary: though they may not have had the artistic convictions of the German New Cinema pioneers, the ‘Fathers of the Blockbuster’ as they may well be called (entailing here Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Ridley Scott, Francis Ford Coppola and other heroes of the American New Wave) did more than revolutionize Hollywood from a stylistic and industrial point of view. What none seemed to have realized was that perhaps the price to pay would be the demolishing of the old to pave the way for the new.

With time, too, as with every revolution the snake has come to bite its tail and the new has turned old. The stylistic conventions popularized by Spielberg or Scott in Jaws (1975) or Blade Runner (1982) have become the mainstay of the Hollywood blockbuster: their influence can be felt both at the bottom of the barrel where the almost satirical B-movies like Sharknado (2013) lurk and at the top layers of the cake where for example high-budget, high-value science-fiction cannot seem to leave the boundaries left by George Lucas, Ridley Scott or James Cameron (honourable mention here, though, to Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival). After a long reign of nearly fifty years, style has turned stale.

Nothing is better proof of this, in my opinion, than the lacklustre performance and execution of Spielberg’s The BFG (2016) and Ridley Scott’s retreat into his own canon with Alien: Covenant, recently released. The problem is not one of quality: from the technical and stylistic aspects, these two films are strong entries into the filmographies of their respective directors. What makes these films fail at conception is the fact that, nowadays, most films released would be strong entries into the filmographies of these two directors. JJ Abrams may well be called the ‘little Spielberg’ for more than his track record: like most directors today, he and his work are unavoidably indebted to the Hollywood of the 1970s and 1980s.

Much like classic German cinema in the 1960s, the modern Hollywood formula is currently seized by a crisis of content and competition. It is tempting to draw false parallels between the German situation and say that, just like in West Germany in 1959 to 1970, simply too many films of poor quality are produced. This, I’d say, is more a symptom than a cause for the current troubles of Hollywood. It is much more appropriate to compare the economic situations of both industries: both German cinema in 1959 and Hollywood in 2017 are under siege, as it were, by the competition. Television, an enemy of the silver screen since the 60s, turns nearly four times the profit that the global box office does yearly; it is no wonder the ‘shift’ from cinema to television is and has always been taboo for directors, actors and writers alike – a chronic ‘creative debasement’ of oneself, as many see it, frightfully close to prostitution in an industry revolving around the sale of the self.

No clearer sign of this ‘attack’ upon cinema by television can be found than the recent dispute between the Cannes Festival and Netflix, with the rule imposed by the Festival that no Netflix-distributed work will be considered for nomination without it having been shown in French theatres. This is no artistic quality-check but a more cynical counter by the French film industry towards the growing influence of video-streaming: theatres may be defended, but this robs Cannes of masterpieces like Joji Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation (2015). In the last decade, however, a new contender has appeared hand-in-hand with the advent of the ubiquitous cellphone: the video game industry which, propelled in large part by its mobile sector, produces already three times as much revenue as the global box office, with forecasts pointing only upwards.

It has been pointed out that the economic decline of cinema seems to have been accompanied by a ‘decadence’ of the art. Inarguably, since its relatively artistic childhood the blockbuster seems to have grown and bloated out of all proportion, both economic and in scale of production. It is very telling that the typical ‘blockbuster season’ between May and August is now deserted or, in other words, has disappeared: the most noteworthy ‘fugitive’ is none other than Star Wars whose now-yearly releases, having always been a May regular, has been exiled indefinitely to the December block.

Many are quick to diagnose an overdose of superhero movies as the cause for Hollywood’s creative stagnation: and while it is true that the new superhero ‘canon’ has stylistically bled into all sorts of genres, it is the current abundance of safe and formulaic genre-films (read: David Ayer’s Suicide Squad, Daniel Espinosa’s Life and Damien Chazelle’s La La Land) that is both symptomatic and predictive of an imminent shift in the formulas of an industry. One case I find fascinating is the recent The Magnificent Seven remake, a Western unabashedly following the Avengers formula to assemble its protagonists; or the Avengers’ own small-screen cousins, The Defenders, converging four different TV shows into one. Nevertheless, superhero movies simply are to modern Hollywood what Westerns were to the German cinema of the 1960s or clerical dramas to the French cinema of the 1950s: corpses in the cinema nonetheless, but victims of a slow death rather than murder.

So, what is to be done with them?

[This commentary continues in the next issue of SCAN.]