Television was written into the fabric of this world’s time. People say words have revolutionary power. They are the world’s greatest cataclysm. Like a biological imperative they must be not damned and so the greatest scholars and poets and authors have retained the written and spoken word in their pages’ helix. Television changed this. The artists of the renaissance, romantics, and the impressionists weren’t wordsmiths. The world’s first television, art, occupied a separate, drunken, hallucinatory world from the writers. Photograph and film are the descendants of this picture glory. Television doesn’t owe the viewer wordplay. It’s there to serve the imagination, and though words are needed, images create the fantasy we see in our mind’s eye. This has always been the allure of television.
The television I see today isn’t the skilled craftsmanship of The Titanic or Star Wars. These timeless classics have both remained on the box office top ten since they debuted two decades ago. James Cameron and George Lucas ripped the veil from the way the world previously saw movies but without the angry, radical disrespect artists today insist on shoving to the world-along with the middle finger. They took vision and made poetry. Nurtured romantic dreams and etched places in the minds of boys and middle aged adolescents. I’ve seen grown men shed tears at Titantic, unabashedly, and hold their breaths as the ship, like nothing that has ever been done before, literally it had never been done before, broke apart. As the camera panned out so the world could see one half of the Titantic sink to the floor of the ocean, slowly, heartbreakingly, 5 billion people hang suspended and hurt. Thirty minutes later when it’s all over, they cry.
Where’s that quality in tv now? In the mad hunt for irony in kitsch deconstructions of today’s cinema, where’s the demand for heroism and bravery that made audiences forego intelligent disbelief for the patriotism, largeness and camaraderie of Armageddon? There’s a moment as the movie’s ending when the surviving colonel on board walks up to Harry Stamper’s daughter. She looks at him enquiringly and he says, “Permission to shake the hand of the daughter of the bravest man I know.” The entire movie could have been silent but for that one line and nothing would have been taken away from the impact of Armageddon. What a fitting tribute to a hero, a 20th century Jesus Christ strapped to a rogue asteroid hell bent to destroy the Earth. Critics scratched their heads and wondered why such a scientifically inaccurate movie was the highest grossing of 1998. Because people want to transported by a film. They want to see in a movie the humanity of the species, and not just the humanity which modern film obsesses tediously over, but our grandness too. They want to be blown away, okay?
Today, I cringe at some of the movies out there. Every political commentary and ever-clever word baggage. Hurt Locker was no great movie. Why did it win the Oscar for Best Picture? It was an intelligent movie but I agree with James Cameron that the Oscar was given to Kathryn Bigelow because she is a woman. I would add that the elite film establishment was hankering for an appropriate movie in this war-torn time of ours. It was the smart choice. But did it have to be so boring and bleak looking? This is the problem with so many movies today: solipsism. Or else known as the intense dramatization of everything that’s ever happened to a person. Every movie becomes a personal diary and the watcher worships a film of a person worshipping himself. Hurt Locker was an ode to the sky cult of one man, his neuroses and how he exerted his puny influence on everything around him. Whatever man can imagine, he can surely achieve through his sheer presence in time. Those moments when we’re sure that we’re but one speck in this universe, when we’re reminded of our infinite smallness, never materialize. It’s as though time itself is convinced of our narcissism so modern cinema is all about control. Every moment in Hurt Locker that didn’t directly reinforce the addiction of war, the movie’s basic premise, its wall poster blurb, was meticulously and cruelly snipped from the film. And this is what really irks me: you have to search high and low for a good suspense or action flick but after inevitably being disappointed by what’s out there, you have to go right back to the Oscar nominees to be bored out of your mind.
Avatar, Hurt Locker’s main contender at the Oscars, is a magnificent movie. Who will doubt that James Cameron is one of cinema’s greatest conceptualisers? At the time of Titantic’s production, the movie was sneered at for being hackneyed and derivative, a mishmash of old classic romance movies. The movie itself was the most expensive film to date and was doomed to be a colossal disappointment. What a cultural shock it must have been to the post-grunge, dingy cinematic landscape. Most of the movie was shot in breathtakingly crisp colour and the beautiful costumes were distinctly out of place in the distressed jeans and power suits of the nineties.
I worry about the state of television because I have a much younger sister who gorges herself on Disney’s psychedelic Lab Rats and the gang of Kicking It. Unless she’s force fed great cinema she’ll be stuck on a constant twitchy loop of fast-talking punchlines and petulant American brattiness. So I wonder, what will save television. Great animations are far and in between. The princess tales from Disney have faced intense criticism but I think they are superbly spun fantasies. My favourites though are the Jungle Book (it had an amazing soundtrack which was important for future viewings) and Tarzan. What the political pundits have missed completely in assigning gender dogma to Cinderella is that young children never notice the stereotypes. They’re too busy curating the best parts of these movies, endlessly substituting themselves for Snow White or Mowgli in the great adventures of our youngest heroes. Only adults will see sinister in this innocence. And their attempts to fashion something more palatable for young girls will continue to give us train wrecks like Frozen. If one recognizes a dearth of difference between Tarzan and that oozing miasma Frozen, his subconscious won’t be far behind to identify the complete absence of creativity in the latter. But this was hailed as the first feminist animation? Oh, great deity, help our children.
Do I think there’s anything good left on the big screen? Yes. As Disney continues to submerge itself in its own acid, I hope that the few independent studios like Pixar and Dreamworks will keep producing movies the quality of Toy Story, Shrek, Brave and How To Train Your Dragon. But it’s the Japanese who I think are the new heroes of cinema. If they carry on quietly saving animation as Naruto, Cowboy Bebop and Hayao Miyazaki’s brilliant movies have done for the past two decades, my sister’s generation which knows nothing of James and the Giant Peach and the Jungle Book, might have something worth learning from to look forward to.