With the cinematic debut of 2021 gracing both movie theaters and living room TVs, it may take a few years to see which films hold up well over time. But, I guess this year’s mainstream cinema will most likely fade from recognition in the near future.
The discourse surrounding the degradation of Hollywood movies is not a new topic. Until recently, IndieWire published an article on how streaming platforms have overtaken major production studios in the cinema sector, while Microphone proposed strategies to revive complex and artistic cinema. NPR reported that Barry Diller, the former head of two major Hollywood studios, said the once mighty structure of blockbusters is in decline and the quality of films is suffering.
But the last years of lamentations from critics have not been met by changing Hollywood practices.
The year 2021 featured highly anticipated films, such as Dunes, Licorice Pizza, free guy, and Don’t look up, as well as several successful superhero multiverse releases. But, for many moviegoers, it was also the 10th and 20th anniversary of films that represent the high points of the last two decades in the history of artistic cinema. After watching and re-watching cult classics, including Mulholland Drive (2001), Donnie Darko (2001), Taken away as if by magic (2001), The skin in which I live (2011), and Melancholy (2011) — I found it easy to adopt the same pessimistic stance as film critics in their fiery denunciation of recent film releases.
The central conflict that pervades modern Hollywood cinema is ultimately the tendency of filmmakers to underestimate their audiences’ ability to analytically engage with their work. Part of what defined notable films of previous decades was their ability to probe new sociological ideas and challenge dogma through artistic storytelling. There was a level of complexity in the acting that I think is sorely lacking with recent screenwriting. In the genres of drama, science fiction and thrillers in particular, there is no longer a call in the industry for open interpretation. Complexity can galvanize greater discussion around movies and inspire people to revisit great films.
In the past, films invited audiences to engage in analysis, and film criticism was abundant in the interdisciplinary studies of psychoanalysis, gender studies, and philosophy. Exhibits of intellectually invigorating cinematic achievement appear in the films I mentioned earlier to celebrate the anniversaries of their release.
At Lars von Trier’s Melancholy, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) is a newlywed who slowly succumbs to her depression at the same time, unknown to the majority of the human race, a new planet is about to collide with earth. The film is about the powers of the natural world and the dynamic relationships between solipsism and change.
The introduction of Melancholy displays a still image of Pieter Bruegel the Elder hunters in the snow– a 16th century painting of weary hunters looking down from a cliff to see silhouettes of townspeople playing on an icy pond. I believe that the use of Bruegel’s painting foreshadows the difficult situation in which Justine finds herself. She knows full well the plight of humanity, but she lacks the courage to disillusion her family, who treat the passing planet as a wonder rather than certain death. So do the hunters, who stand defeated from afar, while the rest of their village rejoices in the dead of winter.
As a director, von Trier demonstrates his skill in using subtle visual details to transfer writing from page to screen. Not only hunters in the snow foreshadow the themes of Melancholy, von Trier also sets the tone and mood of the film with this dreary initial image. These open scenes force the audience to come to their own conclusions. The film embraces the viewer’s individual perspective, becoming more personal and powerful.
The cinematic qualities showcased in the 2021 releases ultimately fail by comparison, despite the increased demand for movie streaming that the pandemic has offered the entertainment industry. This often results in films that rely solely on the star power of their actors and visual graphics.
At David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, Rita (Laura Harring) suffers from dissociative amnesia following a car accident. As a result, she loses all memory of her identity and employs the help of a naive aspiring actress, Betty, to help her rediscover her name and identity. With its neo-noir vibe, the film examines the psychological concept of external self-presentation, referencing psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s character theory. In an effort to show Rita’s fractured identity, the film shows her inability to grasp who she is, as the lines between Rita and Betty’s characters become blurred.
In a pivotal moment, Rita discovers the corpse of a woman who could have given her vital information about her own identity. The discovery triggers Rita’s mental collapse, and Betty offers to bear some of her emotional burden by saying one of my favorite lines.
“I know what you’re doing,” she said. “I know what you have to do, but let me do it.”
Rita then wears a wig that matches Betty’s hair identically and the two have sex that night. In my opinion, this signifies the turning point of the film, as Rita and Betty merge into one character. With this thought-provoking twist, Lynch explores the psychological idea of the fluidity of a human’s self-concept and the instability between perceived reality and fantasy. He uses sexuality in Mulholland Drive as a proxy to achieve this goal.
As filmmakers like von Trier and Lynch created metaphorical puzzles and psychological conundrums, films became love letters from screenwriter to moviegoer. They were a transfer of the filmmaker’s personal perceptions of reality onto the big screen for their viewers to witness. In the works of von Trier and Lynch there is an indulgence for the absurd that allows the audience to travel on endless imaginative roads.
But, in recent years, industry expectations for mainstream movies don’t allow directors the same creative freedoms. The close interpersonal relationship between the film and its director has disappeared, as the economics of cinema become increasingly dependent on box office and pop culture trends that denote the path of storytelling even before the film’s first shot. The blame for this drop does not fall on the waiting audience, but on studio complacency.
Criticism of current films should not be interpreted as a disdain for the hard work and creativity that goes into these productions. It is extremely difficult to make a film. Instead, it should be seen as an incentive to embrace the vast artistic possibilities of cinema. Each line can bring a beauty to cinema that should be useful, illustrating cinema as an art form.
As advances in video technology continue to improve the visual beauty of movies, the writing and content of movies should also be held to a higher level of imagination. In a reformed Hollywood, complexity and artistic merit would not deter audiences from seeing films. Instead, it would give value to the tickets they pay for. This would require changing the way the cinema works.
Graphic presented by Annie Corrigan / Editor-in-Chief