‘Movies will never die’, writes James Wolcott in ‘Prime Time’s Graduation’, his influential 2012 essay for Vanity Fair, ‘but TV is where the action is, the addiction forged, the dream machine operating on all cylinders. Even in cine-mad Manhattan…the new movie that everybody’s talking about is being talked about by a shrinking number of everybodies. Movies divide and stratify; television, like sports, is the democratic includer’.
I’ve been thinking about Wolcott’s argument because I’ve been away for several weeks in Cuba with no access to TV or internet and found that I hadn’t missed TV at all and furthermore had no desire to ‘catch up’ on anything I missed. My Twitter feed however was full of dozens of articles, comments and lists on the new season of Game of Thrones. This same kind of gigantic publicity whirlwind is now also starting on the new season of Mad Men. I have seen all previous seasons of both shows and they are indeed marvelous. It would be naïve, however, to think that the reason why those shows seem to be central to ‘the conversation’ that happens socially on culture is because of their inherent quality or their superiority to anything else that is happening at the moment or indeed that they’re sufficient to the needs of every cultural conversation worth having.
I did return from Cuba with a desire to catch up on what I’d missed at the movies and was really startled and delighted not only by individual works but by the range of films on offer:
Jalil Lespert’s Yves St. Laurent is a biopic of the coutourier. It’s not really a good movie but the clothes are of course sumptuous, and we get to see practically all of his landmark collections (the Mondrian, the Le Smoking, the Ballets Russes). Pierre Niney give a great central performance, shy but self-centred, slightly repressed, as if when not coiled in he’d make his effeminacy public and dangerous. The film is mostly drugs, sex, haute couture and low-down loucheness but it’s also the only gay film I can think of that’s about what happens after a gay couple move in together, what they do to stay together. It is at times very moving.
Joe and Antony Russo’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a Marvel Comic Book adaptation and one of the best of the recent crop of super-hero films. It’s got superb set-pieces, a sexy and witty performance from Scarlett Johansson as The Black Widow and is part of a series of films (The Place Beyond the Pines is one of many that fit into this category) that mourn the idea of America, that compare the America of the film’s setting to the idea of America as found in the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights and finds it lacking. Neil Burger’s Divergent, also currently playing, is a sci-fi teen film, clearly inspired by The Hunger Games, that thematically plows the same furrow. American cinema has never been more critical of what America has become — of the gap between it should be, what Americans want it to be, and what it is — and, despite the films being of varying quality and some of them, like Divergent, frankly not even very good, they’re collectively fascinating to see and stimulating to talk about.
Also at my local cinema are two other types of adaptations: Darren Aronofsky’s Noah and Richard Ayoade’s The Double. Noah transforms the Bible story into a sci-fi movie of epic proportions, one with an environmental moral. It’s had mixed reviews but is conceptually imaginative, visually dazzling and with another of those great Russell Crowe performances that make one almost forget how crude and obnoxious he often appears in ‘real’ life, or at least in talk shows. The other adaptation is Ayoade’s noir-and-amber take on Dotoyevski’s The Double, a present imagined as a dark 19th-century world with 1930s appliances where everyone is lonely, the self is divided, alienation is the norm and suicide is the only way out. Jesse Eisengerg plays two versions of a character and impresses with each. These are films that dazzle the eye and stimulate the mind.
And these were not even the best of the films playing: Stefan Zweig, the Viennese author of Letter from an Unknown Woman, inspired Wes Anderson to a wit, charm and elegance in The Grand Budapest Hotel that Ernst Lubitsch himself would have been proud of. Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake is a beautiful and daring exploration of desire in the face of death that is as complex and haunting a depiction of sexual compulsion as I’ve ever seen. And then there’s Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin with Scarlett Johansson again, a mysterious, ambiguous and rather magical film on no less a subject than what it is to be human. These three are truly great films, films that deserve to be written about individually and at length, that deserve to be part of ‘The Conversation’.
I’m not sure what TV is at the moment. I’m not sure that series like Mad Men or Game of Thrones are TV or something else (Andy Medhurst has called them TV for people who don’t like TV). I do think that old divisions between high culture and low culture are reasserting themselves and, if the appearance of visual media in art galleries is something to go by, film is falling on the high side of that divide. It certainly seems to have lost the mass audience. As Edward Jay Epstein so ably demonstrates in The Hollywood Economist: The Hidden Financial Reality Behind the Movies, people don’t go to the movies, they go to a movie, the one they’ve been primed to see by publicity budgets that often exceed the cost of making a film.
But if you want to take a pulse reading of the state of an art, you can’t base it on one work, or indeed one medium, you need to see at least a representative range of what’s on offer, and put that in a larger social and cultural context. And from what’s on offer at the cinema now, film is as exciting, stimulating and beautiful as it’s ever been. It might not be ‘The’ conversation but might be another, or many, with probably fewer people but just as, if not more, interesting. It’s telling perhaps that Wolcott’s very latest column for Vanity Fair is a re-think of the arguments that began this column entitled ‘Everyone Back to the Cineplex!’ In this, I’m with Wolcott.
A version of this was published in https://theconversation.com/stop-watching-tv-get-off-your-couch-and-head-to-the-cinema-25624