In an interview with Vodkaster last week, Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire director Danny Boyle lamented the "family-friendly Pixarification" of the mainstream cinema, foreseeing a future cinema that that features less violence, less sex and less brainpower -- films so very unlike the hardnosed British films of his punk rock youth.
In the interview, he specifically cites the films of Nicolas Roeg, a British director who lit the 70s up with four exceptionally strong films in Performance, Walkabout, Don't Look Now and The Man Who Fell to Earth, but one would also imagine he meant films like Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, Tony Richardson's The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Ken Loach's Kes and Lindsay Anderson's if...., amongst others.
It’s a provocative quote when taken out of context, especially as we wade into the summer blockbuster season by throwing money freely to Disney for Iron Man 3, but I wonder, too, if Boyle isn’t cherry picking the past a little bit? Like a lot of people, he pinpoints the divergence at Star Wars, even though he’s come to enjoy the films as he’s gotten older -- and actually watched them. Weren’t there bad films pre-Star Wars? There were tons, of course, even during the 70s. They just weren’t memorable, so the frame of reference shrinks thinking back on the time. It's a natural tendency, and I do it all the time with the late 80s/early 90s of my youth, and then I randomly remember Cool as Ice and think, "Oh. Right."
The 70s were certainly a special time for cinema the world over, not just the New Hollywood takeover but in Britain, Japan, China, Sweden, Spain and France as well. Something, a remnant from the worldwide riots of 1968 maybe, took hold over artists everywhere. And as Old Hollywood had become a shell of its former self by the 1960s, as the golden age producers like Meyer, Selznick, Zanuck and the like began to die off or get too old to stay on top of things, the lunatics were allowed to take over the asylum and do whatever the hell they wanted. Nothing else was making money anyway, so why not?
But, historically, the movies have almost always been a family-first endeavor. From the early physical magic of Melies and Chaplin which dazzled the eyes or kids and adults a like, to Mickey Mouse and The Wizard of Oz, all the way through to Pixar and Harry Potter today, family films were of special importance. For more than the cynical reason that you sell extra tickets to the parents, though that was certainly a huge part of it. The only real change from the 1960s to now is that (non-Spielberg) family friendly films are actually good again, Pixar especially. (Even Boyle admits that in the quote, which is why it's so dangerous to take it out of context). When art is good, it inspires and influences young artists, and spawns imitators, so we'll see a lot more of it until the quality suffers and someone comes along with a new style. All art has always existed in a concurrent state of creation and decay, the idea stale as soon as it is formed. Even if family films take over completely, there will eventually be a revolt to more violent films again as we get sick of them. The larger the hold over the industry family films have in fact, the larger the revolt will probably be.
It’s not a mindless violence Boyle craves for the cinema, of course, it’s a reflective violence. We live in a violent world (though sometimes a mindlessly violent world – North Korea, I’m looking at you), and that should be reflected in our films. He does rightly make a good point about the "costless violence" of current day -- or you could even broaden and say latter day -- big action movies, where very little is ever physically or emotionally at stake and where cuts, scrapes and bruises are just make-up applications instead of the damning limitation they are in real life. There is something to the point that Batman is someone to admire because a bone bruise doesn't stop him from fighting the bad guys when it would put most of us on bed rest with painkillers, but the relentless pace at which we get superhero movies now steals something from that idea. It’s no longer special, and in the tidal wave a non-special characters it is nice to see someone who bleeds and breaks and even dies, like we would. I can appreciate his nervousness about losing that character, but he's out there -- even in the multiplex right now, in The Place Beyond the Pines (Winter Park Village) and Mud (Waterford Lakes).
It’s the future Boyle worries about though, not the present, but I think it’s a needless worry. Even closing it off to just British film and ignoring the wealth of filmmaking talent in the rest of the world, the adult film spirit exists not only in Boyle’s own films -- which we’ll exclude for bias -- but equally so in the films of Shane Meadows, Andrea Arnold, Michael Winterbottom, Lynne Ramsay, Sam Taylor-Wood, Andrew Haigh, Terence Davies, David MacKenzie and Steve McQueen (to name a few), not to mention the burgeoning filmmakers of tomorrow who look up to them.
Cherry picking the films of these directors would give us a time in British film as exciting as any other time, because by whittling down our frame of reference we won’t have to remember Swept Away or Spice World. There will be more Swept Aways and Spice Worlds in the future no doubt, but the future also holds Sally El Hosaini’s My Brother the Devil and Lenny Abrahamson’s What Richard Did as exciting prospects, and I’ll take that trade.