Updated: Mar 20, 2020
There has been much criticism already this year of the way that mainstream, Western film festivals are choosing work to celebrate. Much that has already been said is true and thoughtful and I am not going to repeat it. I have another issue with the awards-genre of film-making; it is the theme of saving the world.
Film is not reflecting life, nor is it forging life, especially where it is most exalted as “art”. It is a soulless thing to separate a people from its art, to sneer at what has resonance transcending niche sub-divisions of metropolitan taste and to forget that art, like religion, matters most because of the impact it has on people’s lives. In terms of impact, popular films count and popular films cannot be dismissed. The films given certain types of critical acclaim and the critical derision about so-called “popular” films, is now akin to the days in which the mass was read in Latin despite and even because the congregation mostly couldn’t understand it. The words were for the learned priests and not for them. Must we simply stand-by and be grateful that our culture, like once our souls, is in the hands of elitist, self-appointed connoisseurs who are looking after it on our behalf, supposedly to our good for they know best? I am a great supporter of experts and delegation and responsibilities being given to the best qualified, but are the experts of film delivering and rewarding the stories that we need to be told?
At the end of Endgame, a popular film that would never have reached awards-season status because of its genre and regardless of its execution, Spider Man reports to Iron Man, that “Dr Strange said it’s five years later and they need us.” They need us. No further justification, no further purpose is given or required as explanation. They need us. So far as this stands, aid workers who cross the world to where they are needed, whether volunteers, medics, firefighters or rescue teams, are the Avengers. They are not the soldiers in 1917, they are not The Irishman, they are certainly not the Joker. This is only a selection from this year’s award season, there are a lot of other critically-hyped films and film-festival favourites in this and in recent years that seem even further from modern, ordinary person courage and challenges. At best, they tell historical tales of deeds done long ago by groups of people whose legacy had already been well-canvased and explored in works that are now considered classics.
In an age when it seems that nothing can be done if governments won’t listen, do we need to see onscreen tales of mobsters and misogyny, or do we need to see it said of the Resistance, on the verge of victory against the Final Order, that they’re not a navy, they’re “just people.” In what is one of the finest moments of The Rise of Skywalker, we see an acknowledgement of the collective power of ordinary people and a reminder that no cause is beyond us, so long as we can reach out to others who feel the same.
How many the great artists of history, remembered long after their death, as immortal as we know how to make anyone; had a wish to be heard or seen for some reason other than pure art? If not all, then so many. It may have been a personal reason, or simply that they wished to rebel against autocracy within the world of art. It need not always have been a social or political cause to count, for there have always been tyrannies over what art ought to be. We look to Van Gogh and wonder at the critics and gallerists of his own time who failed to recognise him, but we do not look to see how many Van Gogh’s we are driving into poverty in our own lifetime.
Film awards are the status quo, they are the Enlightenment school that the Romantic poets cast off, for they have forgotten nature and awe and the spectacular, or never understood them in the first place. They suggest that humanity has mastered nature, for what is interesting and important now is complex introspection and camera-angle gymnastics. They suggest that humanity has mastered its own nature in such a way that it needs innovation and emotional challenge in order to be sophisticated in a sleigh-of-hand that wants us to accept that the more battered, twisted or broken we believe the universal character is, the more sophisticated we are. Whoever said that sophistication for its own sake was so special a thing?
Why cannot we reward a performance in a role that includes saving the world, alongside one in a role that does not? Put another way, it is a problem that saving the world only appears in genres that are excluded from certain forms of recognition because of their genre, rather than whether or not they were good. This is especially noticeable in a era when we actually must save the world. What conspiracy are these film experts party to, that fees us the idea that saving the world is unsophisticated, repetitive and a theme for the blockbuster in the most denigrated sense, for no blockbuster pleases the discerning eye? The discerning eye must prefer stories of, say, the inner world of alcoholism, abuse, self-destruction, toxic self-loathing and obsession, or the break-down of love. There is a place for intimate life stories, but the human condition includes the big questions, like who one must be in order to save the world, as well as the big questions like how to love someone on the difficult days as well as on the easy ones.
Where must we go if we wish to understand self-sacrifice for a greater cause, teamwork, true friendship, hope, optimism and courage in the face of adversity, leadership by example, the loneliness of heroism, the enduring truth that a love of home and family can carry you to the end and further? We must go to Marvel and to Star Wars it seems. To films that are apparently not cinema and may struggle even under the overwhelming expectations of their own fan-base and supporters, bearing an unfair burden as they do because these stories are in demand and actually rarer than certain voices of film culture would have us believe.
We approach the age of the Apocalypse at our own hands. This is something that sci-fi, fantasy and franchises understand and speak to. If this theme is not worthy of cinema, then we must ask if cinema has worth at all. For while the theme of the age could be addressed in many ways and in many genres, critically esteemed and awards-decorated cinema is hardly touching them. How can we trust to advocates for climate conservation who spend the resources of their working lives serving up paltry Christmas heart-warmers, work-place satire, inaccurate biographical histories and irredeemable, disturbed villain-heroes? There are too many who say one thing, but then fail to either embrace the stories in genre film that are dealing with the spirit of our real-world challenges, or finding meaningful ways to incorporate these themes into the awards genre. Awards genre is a genre, no matter how much they tell you is the “mainstream” or the “classic”. Remember, muted, greyscale film concertos on the human condition (of a few people, sometimes in really specific social corners of the world) can still be vanity projects and blockbuster anthems on archetypes can still speak to the heritage that every culture shares, of simple soul-fables and heroes.
If you want to keep on serving close-up inspections of neurotic first-world problems in two-hour instalments, you need a world to do it in. You need an ecological habitat. If you keep serving up this lost-cause appropriation of the meaning of art, which seems to suggest that the best art must be devoid of certain kinds of meaning, needing to be highly specific, then you will help to distract and divert attention and fail to inform people on how we must, emotionally and psychologically face our crisis. Is this a whole new take on Climate Change Denial? Not all franchise films deal directly with Climate Change. However, have a think and consider how many deal with these sorts of themes: the individual or the small group taking on the toxic system, shouldering a responsibility because you are able to help rather than because you caused the problem personally, prioritising good over evil, prioritising the welfare of ordinary people, prioritising the long-term future of the world over solving short-term discomfort or hardship, turning up, not abandoning a friend in need, scientists over-reaching and creating monsters and catastrophes, freedom, justice, the evil of dictatorship as a power structure regardless of specific political orientation. Many also deal with the beauty of nature and the true spirit of home and inclusion, over the tragedy of wasteful destruction, prejudice and inhospitable or unmeritocratic hierarchy.
If these themes continue to be rejected and spurned by the gatekeepers of cinematic art, because they turn up in films that are also considered “just for fun”, we must ask the question of whether cinematic art deserves a place in the future. Assuming, that is, that the future happens, which in turn requires someone else, someone these critics and artists have not helped or spoke to or made room for, understood or served, manages to spite them all and save the world as a real-life rebel Avenger.