It would seem nowadays as though anyone over the age of 30 with a vested interest in the movies will proudly flaunt their membership in the "Cinema is Dead and/or Dying" club. The refrains are common: sequelitis has ruined Hollywood for original projects; even the biggest-name auteurs have to beg tooth and nail outside of every Starbucks in LA for funding; and if you're a minority group, good luck seeing yourself realistically represented on the big screen. Film may be an art form, but the movies are a business, and in the absence of studio executives who know how (or simply care) to reconcile these two halves of the same coin, the most exciting, visionary, and boundary-pushing works are pushed to the sidelines at best and kept out of existence at worst.
Naturally, one might think that the solution to the lack of creativity and representation in Hollywood would be to look to foreign markets and venues. Indeed, there's plenty of exciting cinema happening in the rest of the world, and this year alone has given us gems as accessible as Ida and as obtuse as Winter Sleep. In the same breath that they condemn the Hollywood studio system for the apparently irreparable damage it has left on their beloved medium, your friendly neighborhood film critics will find the room to praise one or two of these foreign imports in the hopes of expanding their readership's cinematic purview.
It's all well and good for the reviewers in, say, The Boston Globe or Grantland to praise films that fall outside the field of vision of your average moviegoer—after all, isn't a critic's job to help readers learn how to discern a good movie from a bad one? Yet if you look a little further down the horizon, past the familiar realm of Film Criticism to the faraway kingdom of Film-as-Art Criticism, you'll happen upon a puzzling sight. The inhabitants of this kingdom, a lawless people known sometimes as film critics, usually as cinephiles, are as exasperated as the likes of Mark Harris, who rather brilliantly summarized Hollywood's sequel problem in a great piece last month. But the nature of the complaining in this distant kingdom of cineastes takes on a quite different, even astonishing, character.
The very films people like Ann Hornaday or A.O. Scott praise as the best of the year (e.g. Force Majeure, Boyhood, Ida, Under the Skin)...aren't good enough for these cinephiles! Accusations of trying to predict what movies will win Oscars and of following herd mentality ("That one guy with lots of readers said it was good so I better pony up my support too") run rampant. Interrogate enough of these so-called cinema lovers and you'll wind up with a headache in the process of trying to parse what constitutes a good film or groundbreaking cinema. That 4-hour long movie from the Philippines that gave Wesley's Morris a religious experience at Cannes (Norte, the End of History)? Yeah, he's just crazy and nobody really agrees with him. Our probable Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film winner and critical darling, Ida? An overrated exercise in obvious screenwriting with pretty shots that lack actual thematic significance. Under the Skin? Just catering to the male gaze with nothing more to say. Winter Sleep? Bloated and boring. Boyhood? Oh, you mean Blandhood? It's become so easy for anyone to make a film nowadays, they seem to argue, that the talent pool has been diluted by pretenders and showoffs.
[An aside: the kinds of highbrow cinephiles I'm talking about are people like Guy Lodge and Darren Hughes—basically anyone who writes for Senses of Cinema—along with people like Ray Carney who generally decry filmmakers most people would consider to be pretty good at what they do. If you're scratching your head as to why I'm writing all this—after all, the vocal and general consensus on Boyhood is that it's a landmark masterpiece—I'll use last year's Inside Llewyn Davis as an example of what I'm getting at: it won the second-place prize at the Cannes film festival and racked up plenty of love from some critics and cinephiles, yet other critics dismiss it as too slight, mediocre, second-tier Coens. Personally, it's my favorite thing they've done next to A Serious Man, but what does my opinion count for? Well, no matter how you spin it, film criticism cannot be purely objective; if a film announces up front that it's trying to fit a certain genre or accomplish certain tasks, you could make a case for objectively assessing the film's success or failure to live up to its stated goals, but at the end of the day film criticism is largely colored by personal taste and whatever baggage a critic or cinephile bring along to the theater. Obviously Boyhood will likely cement its place in the canon of great cinema, but the vast majority of movies that are released in a given year are at the mercy of critics, cinephiles, and studios who decide long before the films reach anyone else what even warrants consideration for "classic" or "masterpiece" status.]
Listening to both popular and highbrow critics, one is left with a paradoxical assessment of the present state of cinema: Financing great movies is becoming increasingly more difficult at the same time that cinema is experiencing a dearth of new talent that brings anything more than an a jejune understanding of the medium's possibilities to the table. Frankly, as a young film enthusiast and former filmmaker (though soon to be behind the camera and back in the editing room again) who just wants to be able to enjoy movies without being told from within the cinephile/critic community that my taste is too conformist or that the movies I think are masterpieces are actually deeply flawed, I can't help but be annoyed by all this grousing. No one who claims to love film in the 21st century seems capable of agreeing upon what constitutes a great one.
Not that this is a bad thing per se. It's great to be able to disagree and have passionate debates about the relative merits of a movie, and the multiplicity of approaches to cinema—from points of view of art, storytelling, character-building, world-building, and so on—lends itself to an equally great multiplicity of voices in film criticism. At the same time, the inability of film critics and cinephiles to rally behind a canon of great films, or at least to agree upon what films are worth holding on to and giving a look, in combination with the internet's penchant for provoking vitriol (not only can someone think Force Majeure was overrated, they can write a 10,000-word polemic against it on their blog for all the world to see just how very much they hate bourgeois Swedish satire) works against everyone's best interests. If film critics and film lovers alike can't rally around directors and voices to support, is it not possible that the corrupt studio system could prevail over the artistic potentialities of the medium, preventing the most audacious projects from ever seeing the light of day by funneling all the world's money into sequels, franchises, and bland Oscarbait?
The heart of this post concerns a worry that great films and great art with the potential to touch people who are usually unmoved by what comes out of Hollywood may become decreasingly visible or, worse yet, cease to continue being made at all. Everyone wants to point out the problems in the system but no can propose any solutions. I certainly don't propose to have answers myself, but I'll end this rumination with a closing thought on a recent experience. Yesterday I closed out a year of some 70 or so movies with one I had been meaning to get to for a while: Xavier Dolan's 2012 film Laurence Anyways. Unless you frequent the same corners of the internet I do, you've likely never even heard of Dolan's movie. Possibly for good reason: it's a 3-hour long epic spanning 10 years in the relationship between Laurence (Melvil Poupaud), a transitioning transgender woman and her longtime lover Fred[érique] (Suzanne Clément, who needs to be a star, uh, right now). In French. With frequent musical interludes and youthfully exuberant touches such as a literal waterfall of tears in a living room and a cascading snowfall of clothes along a suburban street. Oh, and the director was 23 when he made it. Niche doesn't even begin to describe it.
Laurence Anyways had its world premiere at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival in the Un Certain Regard category (reserved for films deemed "second tier" by the festival programmer), where Clément picked up the Best Actress prize and critics generally shrugged, patting Dolan on the back for his unbridled ambition while nonchalantly nitpicking the film to shreds: it's too long, it's too music video-y, the narcissistic little twat tries mixing too many other directors' styles and needs to buckle down and hone his own. Literally no one I know who exists offline had heard of this movie before I mentioned it to them, and for good reason: it had no theatrical release in major US cities that I'm aware of and little fanfare around it otherwise (it's only now that Mommy, Dolan's most recent foray, has started to pick up steam that people are starting to look back on the wunderkind's earlier work to see what, if anything, they may have missed).
I happen to be of the opinion that, while it's definitely too long and not without some flaws, Laurence Anyways is a film that needs to be seen. Not just by people who like watching obscure movies. Not just by the LGBT community (although especially them). I'm talking more mainstream audiences—at the very least the kinds of people who would put down money to go see, say, Birdman and Boyhood. Laurence Anyways is a messy, magnificent, beautiful film free of sex and violence—those two red flags for the MPAA and overly-concerned parents alike (although, who am I kidding, those aren't mutually exclusive groups)—steered by a talented director with a knack for imagining his characters as real people rather than as chess pieces in a screenplay and a whole lot of empathy to pour out upon the marginalized. Laurence Anyways is as much about the judgmental gaze that follows people like Laurence throughout society as it is about gender. The film's only agenda is to make its audience realize all the complexities of the experience of a particular minority group and the experiences of everyone who comes in contact with it so as to cultivate compassion and love. Dolan doesn't get political, because is film isn't propagandistic in the slightest (like I said, he writes people like people: Laurence and Fred are both flawed and frustratingly human creations). Second to Under the Skin back in April, Laurence Anyways provoked the most visceral reaction I've had while watching a film this year with its stunning final scene. I'm not too proud to admit that I sat in awe staring at my computer screen and weeping uncontrollably through the duration of the credits and then some.
Because the most visible film critics/cinephiles decided that Laurence Anyways was too much the flawed work of an adolescent (and a narcissist at that—who wants to support an egomaniac?) to constitute must-see cinema, nobody saw it and it's now almost impossible to see—though thankfully you can rent it on iTunes and, the internet being the internet, it's probably out there to download somewhere. Were it not for the stellar recommendations from ordinary cinema lovers, the people who don't get paid to enthuse about movies no one else watches, in my most frequented film forum, I never would have deigned to see it either. Frankly, I find Dolan's voice to be refreshing, imaginative, and necessary. He doesn't play by all the rules the vast majority of film critics would like him to abide by, sure, but his direction is unquestionably assured and his empathy for people of all strokes—minorities and majorities alike—is a quality much lacking in mainstream movies. And at 25, he's only just getting started. If film lovers and film critics can't lend their collective support (social, financial, or otherwise) to a talent like that, they can rightfully give up hope for cinema to ever produce the kinds of art and artistry they keep waiting for.