Cinema’s golden age? No, it’s not, writes Donald Clarke
Why, you may wonder, has it taken Screenwriter so long to get around to examining the new golden era for American cinema?
As last year was drawing to a close, various cultural commissars began gathering in the Palace of Cinema, and, after careful deliberations, they declared that we had officially entered The Age of Glory. Sure enough, when the Oscar nominations were announced, there were at least three classics in the race for best picture. There Will Be Blood, No Country for Old Men and Juno will, surely, retain their place in the pantheon for decades to come.
Meanwhile, films as good – and as varied – as I’m Not There and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford squabbled over the lesser awards. Fashion celebratory banners. Take to the streets. Comrades Anderson, Coen and Coen have saved cinema for the masses. The Age of Glory will bring a car to every garage and a fridge to every kitchen.
Some articles lauding this current purple patch have even dared to mention that holy decade between 1967 and 1977, when vintage claret ran along Hollywood Boulevard, the clouds were made of spun sugar, and the Scorsese/Coppola/Polanski/ Ashby axis made some decent films. Perhaps we can expect another 10 years of this unexpected bounty.
As you may have discerned from this column’s facetious tone, Screenwriter cannot quite muster such optimism. Consider this quote from veteran critic Roger Ebert in the Guardian: “If you look at the movies themselves and not simply at the box office, American films are in an emerging golden age. It is possible to see inventive and even important new work every week of the year.”
What’s wrong with that? In recent months, The Ticket has featured an unprecedented run of five-star reviews. Roger is talking sense. Isn’t he? Well, maybe, but that Guardian article was not published in 2008. It didn’t appear in the 1970s, either. Ebert made his comments during the tragically brief cinematic renaissance that ran from the autumn of 1999 to the spring of 2001.
You remember it now. The upsurge in independent cinema during the early 1990s had, we were told, born fruit in the form of such fine films as Being John Malkovich, Traffic, Magnolia, The Matrix, Requiem for a Dream and Memento.
It is best not to dwell too long on what came after but, suffice to say, 2001 and 2002 are serious contenders for the crummiest years in American cinema history. It took years for another golden epoch to come along.
The sad fact is that most of those turn-of-the-decade classics did only modest business, with few Godfather- or Exorcist- level blockbusters among them. Only The Matrix was a smash and it spawned two artistically disappointing sequels. Sad to relate, most of this year’s gems (Juno is the obvious exception) have also failed to achieve success beyond specialist audiences.
To change the system you still have to draw in serious coin. So it’s not quite time to hoist the flags.