KIRSTEN DUNST has got me thinking out loud about how the history of the world holds a mirror to the history of a human being. both are births borne of explosion—the world with a big bang, a man with a mother in labor—that set in motion a simultaneous expansion of horizons, of the world and of the mind. both strive towards a return to wholeness, the cosmos towards a state of interstellar and intergalactic connectivity, and a man’s longing for mastery of self and a return to the womb. if you look at this parallel course of history you’d be hard pressed to deny the central role of technological progress in both human and cosmic terms. each technological innovation from the dawn of mankind — ox-drawn plow, algebra, paper, telescope, telegram, telephone, plain, train, automobile, photograph, motion picture, computer, internet, facebook, twitter and onward — advances the causes of both human connection and cosmic recuperation. it’s a history of, to put it crudely, information flow. does this oversimplify? maybe. does it presume that history is rational? maybe. but let me at least for a moment entertain the possibility—and self satisfying pleasure—of a coherent model that explains, well, everything.
how does the history of movies fit into this schema? not sure. still thinking out loud. there’s a recently released video essay by matthias stork criticizing modern hollywood blockbusters and action films. the video tries to address an apparent decline of aesthetic values in hollywood movies: degraded visual storytelling, shots and cuts devoid not only of meaning and emotional purpose but of spatial and geographic consideration, built on shoddy principles of disorientation designed to beat an audience into submission through sensory onslaught powered by chaos and confusion. in other words who’s cinema values will outlast? steven spielberg or michael bay? sam peckinpah or christopher nolan? john woo or paul greengrass?
but how do you make a convincing argument about such a potentially lame subjective taste based claim as a decline in quality, without avoiding the trappings of sounding like an elitist prick snob son of a bitch, and what’s it all got to do with the history of the universe?
every era has a god. for the better part of the first two millennia god belonged to the church. during the enlightenment reason replaced the church. the promise was that reason would solve all of man’s problems. two world wars and a laundry list of unconscionable genocides later turned that claim on its ass. in america in the 60s god was social change. but vietnam, the assassinations of kennedy and king, and a guy named deepthroat transformed idealists into cynics and by the 80s god was greed, john lennon was dead, hip hop was the new rock and roll, and gordon gekko was jesus christ. within a decade consumption was king, kurt cobain he blew his own head off with a shotgun, the gods of hip hop tupac and biggie moved from sub cult to pop cult and then took turns murdering each other. so finally we said fuck it and settled on simpler pop confections like brittney spears and the backstreet boys so that if the day came when they killed themselves no would care. in 2001 god turned on america and a great depression and mountains of crushing debt exposed the false prophet of consumption. in 2008 the seas parted and god was hope incarnate, a half black half white shaman who would reconcile the races, wash away the stains of our forefathers and reverse the tide of history. but dude turned out to be a one trick pony and another false prophet. now were living in post hope 2012 and god has finally had it with all things emotional and has taken up residence in a church somewhere in silicon valley. tech at long last is a god we can trust. it’s an arab spring powered by anonymous facebook groups and tweets heard around the world. we’re reliving enlightenment naivete about the idea that man can overcome the passions this time by way of an ipad.
stork talks about the toxic influence of video games and the like, but he misses the greater point by not addressing a far more relevant reality which has to do with how we process information. remember in the 90s when we lived in front of our television sets and lamented how desensitized and overstimulated we were? well now we live on the web where the availability of stimuli - information - is infinite.
it would hardly understate the fact to state that someone like mark zuckerberg has a had a profound influence on the way we live. here is a young man who managed to convert his social anxieties into a net worth of 50 billion and counting, who transformed the social experience into a social network, a global virtual city of social interaction.
our information flows are so sophisticated that the channels of communication are only beginning to radically alter the way and the amount of information we can process at any given moment. every movie whether commercial or indie has to reckon with an audience whose ability to process information is unfathomably sophisticated and rapidly evolving at every moment.
you can make the case that the fractured shape and feel of contemporary action films attempt to reflect the fracture and speed of the times. but you can say that about any era. it doesn’t really tell us anything about the quality of the films, whether they’re stacking up to the needs of a society. besides just because the times suck doesn’t mean the movies have to suck. but now that we’re on the subject, and maybe this is the question I’ve been driving at, what do movies look like in a society that spends so much time living by proxy on the world wide web?
the reality is that yes, “contemporary blockbusters, particularly action films, trade visual intelligibility for sensory overload,” but can you blame them for trying? they are addressing a bare, white knuckled fact: most people crave far more direct engagement and sensual excitement than their lives could possibly provide. admittedly, I’m a member of this group. brooklyn is okay, but it ain’t no planet of the apes. on the flip side the indie defines itself proudly in opposition to this hollywood attitude which is its own kind of distortion that deprives most of the films that aspire to be serious of dare i say pleasure.
remember in high school you’d be writing an essay for history class, you’d come up with a thesis statement because you knew that was important, you had to have a thesis statement, otherwise you’re cooked, so you wrack your brain, and after some hard soul searching you stumble upon that light bulb moment, wham, your thesis statement is revealed to you, and it’s a damn good one, then you try to prove it in your paper, you’re so hell bent on proving it that guess what you prove it, it’s beautiful, so beautiful you can burst into a million pieces just thinking about it, you’re brilliant, it’s all right there in your paper, clear as day… except you didn’t really prove anything did you, just your uncanny ability to include all the facts that support your thesis, and exclude all the facts that don’t. that’s pretty much how i feel about the vision of reality in most new movies: all pleasure no truth, or all truth no pleasure.
what do i know? i’m just a bozo with a tumblr account. but for my money our directorswhether indie or hollywood make movies the same way partisan talking heads distort reality to make a point. the probelm isn’t that hollywood films are too “sensory.” scorcese is sensory. ohpuls is sensory. welles is sensory. bergman is sensory. kurosawa is sensory. de palma is sensory. for christs sake even cassavetes and altman are sensory. the best of them all address SENSORY NEEDS, yes go figure - man was born with SENSES. but what elevates the great ones is that they also address the most profound need of all, the need to feel something.
the irony of the uncanny technological achievements made since the dawn of man is that for all the progress we have made in the information age, for all the appartuses of communication and integration right there at our fingertips, we have never been more alone. it strikes me as a raw deal… man with the big M, mankind, is riding high into the future, while man with the little m, individual man, is ever the loneliest man. is there a way to calculate the distance between two souls in virtual space?
maybe i’m confusing the limits of my own vision with the limits of the world. people smarter than i am have wrestled with big existential questions more articulately than I could ever possibly muster. perhaps i’m underestimating man’s powers of emotional survival. considering human beings have outwitted the jungles of the natural world and the concrete jungles of soul sucking cities, the jungles of as of yet unpaved digital highways and byways are likely surmountable. fact is the wild wild web is a virtual playground where the mind can bypass space and time and in the final analysis overcome the primitive limitations of the body. the soul, whatever the terrain, will always be a restless traveler.
that’s why stork’s classicist criticism of modern hollywood while in a lot of ways valid is basically reactionary and ahistorical. it doesn’t address the reality of the epic social changes we’re living through, some answers can be found in the past but not all of them. an old friend once told me movies are about one thing—how to live. therein lies the rub: how to live (and make movies) in a world not just dominated by media, but how to do it in a world where it becomes increasingly hard to differentiate between one’s actual life and the media version, when everyone is the media, all of us our own information flows, a kind of hall of mirrors.