One always hopes that while watching a film, one experiences a sort of revelation as a result of some cinematic innovation, at least from a critical perspective. But in the last forty-eight hours, while attempting to “catch-up” with some recent films, I have watched three films from three different genres that offered so little that it shook my faith in a progressive cinema. Of course, as I am so fond of pointing out, the only real progression I have seen in American film recently has been in the “underground”, and in a few studio produced exceptions. But it was these three films, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012), Hitchcock (2012), and Skyfall (2012) that any sort of cinematic expression was so void that it begged the question “why bother with the cinema at all?”
Lets begin with Skyfall, the latest outing for Daniel Craig as James Bond, directed by Sam Mendes. Mendes is a highly theatrical director whose concerns with character development often manifest themselves in two-dimensional archetypes, at least in his films American Beauty (1999) and Road To Perdition (2002). Though the cinematography in Skyfall by Roger Deakins is unmistakably beautiful (as the cinematography often is in Mendes’ films) the plot and action captured in these visuals offers nothing that isn’t already available in the Connery, Moore, Dalton or Brosnan Bond films. What is most troubling is that Skyfall attempts to present the Ian Fleming created character as realistic and true to the novels. Yet, with Javier Bardem’s turn as the villain Silver and the referential scenes that are concerned with the campy Bond films that only just concluded under Pierce Brosnan’s tenure in the lead, the film seems overly concerned with its own franchise, as if Skyfall would have preferred to have been a Bond film starring Roger Moore. Though Skyfall presents its self-awareness as a form of homage, the device only works to draw attention to the fact that Skyfall is only a step removed from Thunderball (1965) or Moonraker (1979). That is to say that despite what its marketing would have you believe, Skyfall is a Bond film just like all 22 others that preceded it.
Similarly Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is another blockbuster whose self-obsession prevents any meaningful exchange or insight to its audience. Jackson’s language of quick cuts, slow motion, and long tracking shots of New Zealand has become too recognizable and exhausting after three Lord Of The Rings films. What’s worse is that Jackson has even sought to recreate his original trilogy by breaking his adaptation of Tolkien’s The Hobbit down into three films, often adding incidents from other Tolkien texts. This makes Jackson’s latest film nothing more than a reiteration of his particular cinematic language that takes no chances and leaves nothing for the audience except the most meager form of escapism.
Sacha Gervasi’s Hitchcock isn’t as bad, and is almost redeemed by Helen Mirren’s remarkable performance as Alma Hitchcock. But Hopkins, Scarlett Johansson and Jessica Biel tend to sleep walk through this little biopic just as it seems the film’s writer, John J. McLaughlin has. As Hitchcock dramatizes the making of Psycho it falls into the trap of similar biopics such as Attenborough’s Chaplin (1992) where name-dropping and casting celebrities as celebrities becomes a means of demonstrating a knowledge of film history. But Hitchcock as a film has little to do, technically speaking, with Hitchcock’s own cinematic technique and becomes nothing more than a fluff piece based around a loose narrative concerning marital monogamy. The issue of artistry and creativity are downplayed to such an extreme that they are almost inarticulate subtexts.
So why write about these three films? Because all films deserve critical appraisal so that the direction of the medium can be better understood and put into a useful context. What these three films are indicative of is a lack of anything to be said, of any ideas that the filmmakers feel is vital to communicate, a sort of laziness that is contagious and has obviously infected the audience as well. That these films managed to be blockbusters is testimony to the fact that most audiences are not demanding anything from the cinema except what is handed to them. This not only lowers the standards of the medium, but also bankrupts the intellectual integrity of the nation.