The Future of Film in a Post-Genre World
It should be taken for granted that in any artistic medium, the longer the form has been around, the more innovations must occur to keep it fresh and relevant. If impressionism had never been (for lack of a better word) invented, painters today would still be copying Rembrandt. If post-modernism, or even modernism for that matter, hadn’t occurred, we might have thought we’d ran out of stories to tell. In fact, the very idea that painting and writing books are still relevant art forms is a testament to the fact that in art, innovation is everything.But whereas visual art and literature are media whose progress relies mainly on changes in style and creative approach, film–which in a way is the culmination of every artistic movement that came before it–is a bit more complicated.
Film is not only a form of artistic expression, but a technological industry as well. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that in today’s world of ever-improving and expanding empires of technology, most of the progress being made in the film industry is through technological innovation rather than formal or stylistic experimentation. In other words, what we’re seeing is better equipment, more immersive moviegoing experiences, the capability to watch a feature film on a six inch screen. Another thing we’re seeing is creative stagnation: sequels, prequels, and re-imaginings of tired stories the world over. We’re seeing movies in 3D that have no business being in 3D. We’re seeing films billed by genre instead of content. This is the era of the summer blockbuster, the Oscar-bait drama, the goofball comedy with the same actors you saw in last years goofball comedies. Films need to attract audiences who are used to these ideas; they want to go see a zombie movie, they go see a zombie movie. It’s that simple. It’s too simple.
Despite this, there are still filmmakers who are working today to bring us truly innovative content, stories we haven’t seen before, even genres we haven’t seen before. In fact, most of today’s most innovative writers and directors work outside of genre, making movies they want to make regardless of what mold they may or may not fit into. And these artists are the future of film. These are the creative minds who will influence the next generation of mavericks, today’s most influential filmmakers working outside the restrictions of tradition and conformity:
The Coen Brothers
The Coens have been around for some time, having gotten their start in the business working for Sam Raimi on The Evil Dead and getting their first film, Blood Simple, released in 1984. Appropriately enough, their first feature is also their most straightforward in terms of genre; it’s a neo-noir thriller that, while setting the odd, semi-surrealist tone of their later work, doesn’t veer too far from the boilerplate film noir formula (i.e. morally ambiguous characters committing crimes and facing the consequences). Their second film, however, would prove to be something else entirely. Raising Arizona is a surreal dark slapstick comedy, with some thriller elements, telling the story of an impoverished criminal couple who decide to steal a baby and all of the hijinks that ensue.
Blood Simple and Raising Arizona both set the groundwork for the Coens’ later work: most of their work seems to fall into either the neo-noir thriller (with a twist) category, or the surreal dark comedy category. Or somewhere in between. The Big Lebowski, for example, takes a couple of wacky comedy characters–The Dude, an almost stereotypical hippie-stoner; and Walter Sobchak, an unstable, bowling-obsessed Vietnam veteran–and places them in a neo-noir world whose classic archetypes seem even more ludicrous in the context of 90s Los Angeles. The result is considered by many to be one of the greatest comedies of the modern era. On the other hand, Fargo takes a similar concept–a crime drama populated by outwardly friendly and polite Minnesotans–and plays it (more or less) for drama.
In recent years, after the immense success of their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men (another bleak neo-noir thriller), The Coens have taken to deviating more and more from their traditional formula. Burn After Reading (2008) is arguably their most slapsticky comedy since Raising Arizona, while presenting itself as a sort of modern take on the classic espionage thriller; A Serious Man (2009), while a dark comedy like much of their earlier work, is new territory in that it tells the rather domestic story of the dissolution of a Jewish family in 1960s Minnesota, with some heavy religious overtones; True Grit (2010) is a remake of a classic Western, done in typically strange Coen Brothers style; and their latest, Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), appears to be a story about the 60s folk music scene in Greenwich Village. All of this points to the promising fact that the Coens, after nearly thirty years of making movies, have not stopped innovating and adding to the types of stories that can be told through the medium of film.
Categorizing Paul Thomas Anderson as an auteur is not easy, given that his films are all wildly different and at the same time seem to be connected by a single elusive thread. It seems to me that, more than anything, his work represents an attempt to capture the rawness of human existence by whatever means possible. Anderson does not work in genre, does not play off of it or even acknowledge it really. His films take on whatever form best suits the content. And this is both to his benefit and his detriment. If you were to ask me, I would tell you that I find all of his films beautiful. They capture all the anger and desperation and hopelessness and raw passion of being a human being that most other modern films seem to be lacking and portray them in ways equal parts heartbreaking and hilarious. But…and let me preface this “but” by saying everyone is obviously entitled to their own opinion and there is no way of knowing what the correct interpretation of any work of art is…it seems to me that the true value of most of Anderson’s films is lost on most critics. Let us take, for example, 2012’s The Master. It tells the story of an alcoholic, sex-addicted drifter in the 1950s who happens upon a new age religious movement (read: cult) and strikes up an incredibly co-dependent friendship with its charismatic leader; seems interesting enough, right? When the film came out, it was almost immediately lauded by critics for its cinematography and the performances of the actors…and not much else. I suppose, ultimately, the story of Freddie Quell and Lancaster Dodd and The Cause is not one which most people can ever really be made to care about. It’s just not that relatable. And that’s where the problem lies.
All of P.T. Anderson’s films are essentially about odd or dysfunctional relationships. Boogie Nights tells the story of a mostly talentless man with an exceptionally large penis who finds his family in a community of pornographers, most of whom are just as childlike and emotionally stunted as he is. Magnolia contains various interweaving tales including, but not limited to: the story of a dying game show host who may or may not have molested his daughter, the story of an also dying television producer whose fate lies in the hands of his emotionally unstable trophy wife and an estranged son who makes a living as a deeply misogynistic motivational speaker, and the story of a genius boy being exploited by his unemployed actor father. Punch-Drunk Love is about a shy, repressed man with rage issues finally finding love, while There Will Be Blood is about a sociopathic turn-of-the-century oil man falling in hate with an overzealous self-titled prophet. And The Master, as evidenced by its title, is about relationships of servitude and dependence. All of the above are about groups of people and circumstances and relationships most people rarely have to (and probably prefer not to) acknowledge. And that, more than anything, is what sets P.T. Anderson apart.
If kitsch were a film genre, Wes Anderson would undoubtedly be at its forefront. His films, like the other Anderson’s, tend to focus on dysfunctional relationships. However, unlike Paul Thomas, Wes seems to revel more in the surreal than the real. And what connects one film to another is not substance, but style. Whether he’s telling the story of an ambitious high school outcast, a wealthy New York family, a delusional oceanographer, or even a stop-motion fox, all of Anderson’s movies feel like incredibly elaborate puppet shows. The sets are immaculately put together–unique to the last detail–and the performers act with the precision of wind-up dolls. One can only assume that watching a Wes Anderson picture is like stepping directly into the man’s imagination. Perhaps no other director is as adept at putting the image in his mind onto the screen.
The interesting thing is that Anderson’s films, while not concerned with labelling themselves in terms of genre, have almost become a genre in and of themselves. In other words, giving a film the Wes Anderson label has the same affect as identifying a film by genre. Telling someone a film is by Wes Anderson immediately brings to mind certain expectations. Yes, this is true for most directors, but few have as specific a brand as Anderson and few live up to those expectations as consistently. Although his work has evolved over the years, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic, The Darjeeling Limited, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Moonrise Kingdom all feel distinctly like they are part of the same odd, enchanting stylistic universe.
After a decade or so of directing music videos, short films, and skate videos, Spike Jonze got his start as a feature director in 1999 with the Charlie Kaufman-penned Being John Malkovich, which tells the story of an unemployed puppeteer who happens upon a portal into the mind of actor John Malkovich. As one might expect, some metaphysical hijinks ensue. It was met mainly with warmth from critics and indifference from audiences. His next feature, also written by Kaufman, was only slightly less surreal. Adaptation is essentially a chronicle of what happens when one attempt to adapt the unadaptable–in this case the non-fiction book The Orchid Thief–and how the lines between the story and the storyteller’s story can so easily become blurred. This film was also missing what one might call “mainstream appeal.” Jonez’s next work, on the other hand, had the advantage of being based on a classic children’s book: Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are. However, even this handicap was not enough to keep Jonez’s vision–which told the story strictly from a child’s perspective–from alienating certain audiences. His latest film, simple entitled Her, has yet to be released–we’ll see how that goes.
The interesting thing about Jonze in the context of this list is that he did not get his start as an auteur, simple as a director…and yet he still managed to create a reputation for himself amongst film buffs. His unique style managed to stand out despite the fact that he wasn’t always telling his own stories. And it continues to stand out now that he’s doing just that. And if we–audiences and filmmakers alike–want to move past this idea of genre as default, creativity is all we need. It’s that simple. We need artists who can make a mark in the culture.
Of course, Jonze and the Andersons and the Coens aren’t the only filmmakers out there with unique, genre-defying visions. We have David O. Russell, Alexander Payne, Michel Gondry, Lars Von Trier, Harmony Korine, and more. Some of those names are more recognizable than others, but they all have at least one thing in common: the name is the key. When it comes to advertising films, there seem to be three main types of targets: specific demographics, genre fans, or fans of particular filmmakers. Now, there’s no denying that films that defy categorization tend to find limited success because they’re difficult to market. But then why do people go to see Wes Anderson films or Coen Brothers films? It’s all in the name. When you’ve built a reputation, you can make whatever you want. And as long as filmmakers are building reputations they have to make films that are easy to market, and as long as films are being made that are easy to market those directors’ visions are being compromised. And that means we’re left with far more mediocre films than good ones, especially since most of those directors don’t make it past the reputation building stage.
I believe that today’s filmmakers have a lot more potential than we give them credit for. And if we want them to exercise that potential, we need to abandon the idea of genre altogether. It served a purpose in the past, and arguably it made the film industry into what it is today (for better or for worse). But we don’t need it anymore. People will keep watching movies and advertisers will find new, better ways to market them. We don’t need genre anymore. It’s outdated and far too limiting. Let’s stop making action movies and rom-coms and superhero films. Let’s just make movies.
What do you think? Leave a comment.