Thoughts On: Auteurs in the Modern Mediascape

It’s nearing the end of my University year, things are going far too fast. I’d love to write about it later on, maybe after I officially graduate. . .

Anyways.

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The Story of the Flaming Years — directed by Yuliya Solntseva, 1961. Another addition to an ever-growing list of excellent looking films that I plan to watch.

Like all people, I’ve been distracting myself between work and life duties by enjoying the things I enjoy most: books, television, films and games. The thing is, when it comes to recent outputs of mainstream television and film, I found myself enjoying a lot less of it. Now that’s more to do with me having a sort of lazy preference for mainstream box-office releases and prime television shows. Don’t get me wrong, I love independent film-making, and I always try to balance out the things I enjoy in regards to art and entertainment, but pieces that venture into the realms of pure art are the kind of things that require a bit more attention than your usual schlock.

Schlock. That’s just the connotation I get with Hollywood releases now. Not that schlock has never existed before, there’s been plenty of eye-rolling releases put out over the long years that film has existed as entertainment. My problem now is that I just find a lack of involvement in newer productions, I sense a loss of personality in them. I’d say it first started when I went to watch Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. I watched it, I enjoyed it, I walked out and said to my Brother and my Dad that it was good. I went home thinking it wasn’t that bad. I went to sleep that night thinking it was decent. Then, I think a week or so later, as much as I didn’t want to admit, I thought it wasn’t really that good. In fact, it felt very mediocre. It didn’t even feel like Star Wars, I didn’t get a sense of the director or anyone making it actually feeling like they cared about Star WarsThe Force Awakens felt like something Disney produced, not something J.J. Abrams directed. Thing is, I’m not saying this sensation necessarily equates to a bad film or vice versa, there’s plenty of auteur driven pieces I’ve enjoyed that I guess you wouldn’t call good films: movies like Elysium where you can see the creator’s envisioned world and it begs you to jump in yet becomes bogged down in cliché driven plot points that carry over to mediocre choreographed action scenes, or glorious flops such as The Room where every inch of the director’s passion translates horribly to the screen thanks to professional and technical incompetency. These speak out more because, despite their mistakes, they’re still owed to a creator — an origin point from where all this visual mayhem spewed forth. I didn’t get that with The Force Awakens, or with any of the conglomerate production pieces like the Marvel or DC Cinematic Universe titles: Suicide Squad was probably the most soulless film I’d seen that year when it came out. Star Wars: Rogue One was an abysmal floundering of misdirection and toneless action — both of these films were interfered with heavily by their studios, and they suffered for it. In an odd turn of events, television is becoming more of an open platform for artistically driven pieces than ever before. Television, once the most regulated and restrictive medium, is becoming so much more open to imaginative ideas that even filmmakers are moving projects over to it.

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It’s been a good month or so since the season finale of Twin Peaks: The Return. Honestly, it was some of the best television I’ve ever seen in my life, it honestly astounds me that Showtime were able to green-light the show for broadcast on television screens across the world. I actually really wanted to do a blog piece on it not longer after it released, but I didn’t. That’s because after watching the finale of the show, it got me thinking. Is this the swan song of art in television and film? No, no, don’t be so melodramatic. I have no doubt we will still get to see the likes of television with the care of a leading creator behind it, like David Chase and The Sopranos or the more recent projects with Vince Gilligan behind Better Call Saul or Noah Hawley’s Legion. But film? The independent scenes thrive and will continue to thrive, and it would be a disservice to dismiss so much good pieces produced by so many underrated film directors. My concern is with the wider expanse of Hollywood production. These conglomerate behemoths like Disney and Warner Bros. who have their hand in more than you think are producing the largest outputs of films we see today. They just don’t feel like films though. I know this isn’t just me as well, Martin Scorsese wrote a great column opinion piece for the Hollywood Reporter relating to Darren Aronofsky’s film, Mother! and its negative press:

There is another change that, I believe, has no upside whatsoever. It began back in the ’80s when the “box office” started to mushroom into the obsession it is today. When I was young, box office reports were confined to industry journals like The Hollywood Reporter. Now, I’m afraid that they’ve become … everything. Box office is the undercurrent in almost all discussions of cinema, and frequently it’s more than just an undercurrent. The brutal judgmentalism that has made opening-weekend grosses into a bloodthirsty spectator sport seems to have encouraged an even more brutal approach to film reviewing. I’m talking about market research firms like Cinemascore, which started in the late ’70s, and online “aggregators” like Rotten Tomatoes, which have absolutely nothing to do with real film criticism. They rate a picture the way you’d rate a horse at the racetrack, a restaurant in a Zagat’s guide, or a household appliance in Consumer Reports. They have everything to do with the movie business and absolutely nothing to do with either the creation or the intelligent viewing of film. The filmmaker is reduced to a content manufacturer and the viewer to an unadventurous consumer.

I fear something similar may start happening, though I’m always unsure. Just when I thought there was barely any hope so far for auteur driven pieces to still come out of the Hollywood machine, I went to watch Blade Runner 2049. Now, as a huge fan of Phillip K. Dick and the original Blade Runner, I still stand by the opinion that this sequel shouldn’t really exist, so I went into the film steeling myself for the harrowing experience of seeing a film I feel very fondly of having its legacy tarnished by a soulless cashgrab shlockfest, even if Denis Villeneuve (who I have respect for — Prisoners, Sicario and Arrival are all good) was directing it. It was such a strong relief for me after the credits rolled on, that I can say how good of a film it was, it smashed my expectations out of the ballpark. It has given me hope again!

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Familiar quote from a fantastic scene in the film.

Blade Runner 2049 came as a shock to me because of how good it was. I know nothing about Villeneuve personally, or what he thinks of Blade Runner, but just from watching this film I can tell he adored it, and was very passionate about keeping 2049 as respectful a piece as one can make for a sequel to a film that never needed one. Blade Runner 2049 is an absolute love letter to the original film, and to Phillip K. Dick’s imagination: every part of the film was well-thought out, well-realized and beautifully shot. Everyone involved played their parts well. I dare even say Villeneuve captured a tone closer to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheepthat even Ridley Scott couldn’t achieve in his original masterpiece. This is the first time in years I’ve walked away from the cinema feeling so good for the future of a director’s career, I am happy and excited at the idea of Villeneuve filming Dune — perhaps one of the most difficult projects for a director to tackle in this day and age (one not even David Lynch himself could live up to).

Was Blade Runner 2049 or Twin Peaks: The Return a financial hit? Who cares? What’s the loss of millions of dollars against the long-lasting legacy of masterpieces? Will anyone give a shit about Suicide Squad or Star Wars: Rogue One in seventy or eighty years time? What’s more important to our hyper-realistic, techno-dependent society: appeasement, or art?

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