In an interview for The Independent, actor Stephen Dorff let off some steam about the current state of the film industry. Commenting on this year’s Oscars, Dorff said, “My business is becoming a big game show. You have actors that don’t have a clue what they’re doing. You have filmmakers that don’t have a clue what they’re doing.” This may seem like a meaningless complaint but Dorff’s next criticism reveals the real problem of the Hollywood factory.
Current film repertoire consists mainly of Marvel franchise-style productions that mostly repeat the same formula. Dorff heavily criticized the newest Marvel release, “Black Widow,” featuring Scarlett Johansson.
I still hunt for good shit because I don’t want to be in Black Widow. It looks like garbage to me. It looks like a bad video game. I’m embarrassed for those people. I’m embarrassed for Scarlett! I’m sure she got paid five, seven million bucks, but I’m embarrassed for her. I don’t want to be in those movies. I really don’t. I’ll find that kid director that’s gonna be the next Kubrick and I’ll act for him instead.
Dorff is in a minority with this criticism (or perhaps the majority of actors are afraid to speak up) but he is in good company. Film director Martin Scorsese also criticized Marvel productions, comparing them to “theme parks.” They lack soul and emotion, and primarily rely on special effects to carry a bad plot.
You may say that both Dorff and Scorsese are just griping—Dorff because he’s restless and irritable for reasons known only to him; Scorsese because he’s of a different generation and is having an existential crisis about the passage of time. After all, there is nothing wrong with an action or adventure flick. But there is more to this criticism than mourning a bygone era or failing to reach a variety of tastes.
Great films have been on a steady decline. As Camille Paglia observes,
It’s probably the disastrous decline in cinematography, lighting, and editing that most repels me about current movies. In this age of jittery, cartoonish videogames, few filmmakers seem to know how to use the camera to create physical terrestrial space as well as density of character. Mise-en-scène—the background details that provide social context—is a lost art. Movies are being carelessly shot like garish TV sit-coms, with a huge visual loss. Cinematographers are failing to study their own art, including the history of painting, with its Renaissance rediscovery of composition and perspective. Today’s filmmakers seem to think the world began with Richard Lester’s manic adaptation of Godard’s fluid hand-held camera.
Paglia is correct to point out the loss of artistic layers. Many films made today are devoid of personhood. Characters are barely two-dimensional, their voices take on the tinny character of a digitized speaker. Just like the vocoder-induced digitized music, film today lacks soul, depth, and interiority. But even the external world in such films is somehow cleansed. There is no embodied reality, grittiness, and truth. Instead, there are two things that drive it—ideology and/or over-the-top special effects.
Films that fit into the Marvel category have a depersonalizing effect. There is no clear difference between good and evil, and the fight between those two opposing forces (which has been the subject matter for many films) is oftentimes separated from ethics, and most certainly from God. We cannot even call them gnostic because they are stripped down to a decadent minimalism. They revel in meaninglessness and clichés, and as such, they are unable to convey a truly humanistic message. Novelist and essayist Martin Amis wrote, “all writing is a campaign against cliché. Not just clichés of the pen but clichés of the mind and clichés of the heart.”
Applying Amis’ sentiment to film, it seems that too much of what passes for film today is just part of an increasingly depersonalized culture. We are living in a post-humanist age, or at least that is what the ideologues would like you to think. Post-humanism is impossible because life is not static. Definitions and clarifications are necessary, so what we actually are living in is an anti-humanist age.
At this point, every art form and every mode of being has been infiltrated and poisoned by this ideology that seeks to destroy the singularity of human beings. From the COVID crisis to social media to politics to education to arts—everything moves toward destroying meaningful encounters between people. People are taken to be nothing more than ciphers to be used for ideological purposes, not allowed to think for themselves.
Good filmmaking comes at a cost. Even before the woke ideology exploded onto the scene, authentic and independent directors with uncompromising visions struggled to create and complete their projects. Orson Welles (1915-1985) and John Cassavetes (1929-1989) are perfect examples of such struggles, yet they stubbornly persisted in their art.
Welles faced one challenge after another, especially financially. So did Cassavetes, who (much like Welles) used his acting pay to fund his films. They went deep under the skin of existence. Many of their films were rejected both by audiences and critics, mainly because they dealt with some uncomfortable truths. Welles was willfully misunderstood and rejected because he created new forms for film, and Cassavetes forced people to look in the mirror and find the threads of their existence. He awakened his audience, whether they liked it or not.
Both men were outsiders and unwilling to change the purpose and form of their unique and beautiful visions. They suffered, financially and physically, in order to create art, and they did so without one small shred of doubt about their purposes. They were fully committed to cinema’s expression of humanity. Welles and Cassavetes are the great humanists of cinema, and that is why their films stand the test of time.
Is that what is lacking today—courage? Welles and Cassavetes had plenty of that virtue, and that is what makes them great. Any artist (including a filmmaker) must be willing to bleed for Art, and unfortunately, he must accept the possibility that he may never be recognized or admired by the audience or the establishment during his lifetime or, indeed, ever. This is the real test of an artist—is his commitment strong enough to withstand the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune?”
Cinema is often a reflection of the culture at the time it is made. It is both a psychological event and an artifact. Should the moving image change first or should we change the culture so that we can make an impact on cinema?
Whatever may be the answer to that question, cinema cannot exist to make endless copies of vapid Marvel heroes and villains for mass consumption. Cinema must be a means to the awakening of real Beauty. It is the exact opposite of ideology and pushes against time.
As the great Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky (1932-1986) observed, “Some sort of pressure must exist; the artist exists because the world is not perfect. Art would be useless if the world were perfect, as man wouldn’t look for harmony but would simply live in it. Art is born out of an ill-designed world.” A filmmaker must learn to transcend the absurdity of our times and create without regard for rejection and acceptance.