In movies, television, theatre and books, the end of the year is the time for critics to contemplate what could be called the Narrativity Scene – a survey of current trends in imaginative storytelling.
What do mainstream movies mean any more? Big studios have cut back on output and refined business models to appeal to the taste for the spectacular, the special event, the blowout. In the process, they have largely left the task of creating serious drama to cable television. As ridiculous as Breaking Bad or Homeland might get, they are still open-ended character- and relationship-driven stories, on a human level. This year, with two storied Hollywood studios, Universal and Paramount, celebrating their century birthdays, the business is overwhelmingly focused on two profitable but narrow kinds of film: the animated children's story (Ice Age, Madagascar, The Brave) or the special-effects driven and top-grossing hero fantasies (The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, The Amazing Spider-Man, The Hunger Games and so on).
These are multisequel franchises, deliberately stripped-down tales that rely on special effects for impact. They translate across language barriers for an ever-growing international movie audience. More importantly, they are logo-building exercises. As Disney's chief financial officer Jay Rasulo told a conference in February, his company is focused on movies that can be spun into television shows, games, consumer products and theme-park rides.
Of the top-10 grossing movies last year, the closest to a human character was super-spy James Bond in Skyfall, but even his character has been rebooted and rebranded. The 50-year-old franchise got updated with an orphan-in-a-basement history that makes the formerly sociopathically carefree Bond barely distinguishable from brooding Batman or neurotic Spider-Man. The template for heroism has become an odd blend of megalomania and self-pity. Like Jane Lynch's video-game soldier in the hero-parodying kids' film Wreck It Ralph, they've all been programmed with "the most tragic backstory ever."
There's another example of inside-screenwriter jargon inserted near the end of The Amazing Spider-Man, when Peter Parker's teacher at Midtown High declares: "It's said there are only 10 plots in all of fiction, but I believe there's only one: 'Who am I?'"
To ask another obvious question, who on Earth thinks that way? I blame George Lucas, who, in another of this year's big business stories, sold his 36-year-old Star Wars franchise to Disney. In creating Star Wars, Lucas applied the ideas of literature professor Joseph Campbell (The Hero with a Thousand Faces) and the notion of the "monomyth" (a James Joyce word), which describes a supposedly universal heroic journey. The anthropology may be weak but the idea was popular, and Campbell's ideas became a template for screenwriters, shaping everything from The Lion King to the Matrix trilogy. Among the followers is Peter Jackson, whose latest film, The Hobbit, opening this weekend, is expected to push the 2012 box office up this year after three years of decline.
I also blame Christopher Nolan. His monumental and brutal "dark Batman" movies, which started in the shadow of 9/11, finally came to a conclusion this year. By their sheer box-office gravitational pull, the Dark Knight movies forced too many wounded heroes with childhood traumas upon us. Yet Nolan, the creator of the ingeniously geeky movies Memento and Inception, has also provided narrative alternatives. Consider this year's sci-fi sleeper, Looper, with time-travelling assassins, which played with the same kind of brain-warping perceptual games. Cloud Atlas, based on David Mitchell's novel, was a European-produced attempt at a different kind of blockbuster, in which an ensemble of actors are reincarnated in different races and genders over several centuries. Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, which defies any conventional catharsis, also evokes time travel and the eternal recurrence of a master-servant relationship.
Other films have twisted genre expectations in productive ways: Using budget limitations to its advantage, Joe Wright's production of the epitomic big realist novel, Anna Karenina, is mostly theatre-bound. Ang Lee's Life of Pi reduces the hero quest down to a boat, a tiger and a brilliant use of computer-graphic imagery. French filmmaker Leos Carax's absurdist Holy Motors is one of the year's most audacious films, with actor Denis Lavant playing almost a dozen roles, corresponding to various historical cinema genres from science fiction to musical to literary drama, in a melancholy homage to what he views as a dying art.
"There are no true stories," declared rocker-poet-screenwriter Nick Cave at Cannes this year, taking about his screenplay for Lawless (based on Matt Bondurant's family memoir of Virginia moon-shining). The thought comes from philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, pointing out that no narrative of an event is the same as the real thing.
Yet, in cinema, there has been a persistent belief, articulated by French theorist and New Wave godfather André Bazin in the 1940s and 1950s, that film has an innately special relationship with the real world. Today, with the pervasive use of digital cameras and infinite malleability of the image, that special relationship is clearly broken. There are a couple of phenomena that have emerged from that rupture with reality. One is the rise of ordeal films, including torture-horror movies over the past decade, that break through the wall of illusion to make us feel, like it or not. Two releases yet to come, Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty, a high-minded procedural on the quest to kill Osama Bin Laden, and Quentin Tarantino's slave-era art-sploitation, Django Unchained, provide us with scenes of torture to create the immediacy of physical disgust.
Another response to the surfeit of movie fabrication is the rise of reality programming, documentaries and mumblecore low-fi fiction. The documentary boom, now more than a decade old, continues to provide a fertile field for playing the game of truth. Two Canadian examples come to mind. In China Heavyweight, filmmaker Yung Chang forges a moving melodrama about a sports hero seeking a comeback, two close friends facing different roads in life, and a nation struggling to find its moral compass. It's a social-realist novel but a record of life, where we mark our personal calendars against the background of historic events.
In Sarah Polley's Stories We Tell, the former child star mixes a conceptual game with her own family members, encouraging them to construct memoirs of her late mother, an actress who earned headlines in the 1960s when she lost custody of her children for the "crime" of adultery. Polley's approach, conscious of the no-true-stories maxim, is to use real and faked 8mm film and contradictory testimonies. ("It's embarrassing, to be honest" says Polley, a line that works even better without the comma.) Along the way, the movie serves as a cinematic séance to resurrect her mother's presence, the human subject behind the many layers of spin.
Leo Tolstoy has said that while writing Anna Karenina, he discovered to his surprise that when Vronksy returned home from making love to Anna, the character wanted to commit suicide. He kept writing to discover how the story turned out. Narration isn't just confirming what we already know, it can be a form of exploration. The best hope for movies to stay culturally alive is to keep leading us from the familiar to the unknown.