The latest big-think article about the future of film—I mean, the Future of Film—recently landed on my doorstep with the Sunday New York Times: “Will the Movies Exist in 10 Years?” According to the unfortunate headline writer charged with summing up the answers that two dozen people gave the Times, “The visions range from crisis to hope.” Dog bites man!
I can’t imagine any other art form being subjected to silliness of this magnitude. Even during the summer culture-page doldrums, would the Times devote four full pages to the question of whether drama, poetry, the visual arts, dance, or music will exist in 10 years? The difference with film, I suppose, is that its birth was regarded as a technological marvel whose usefulness was uncertain (“The cinema,” Louis Lumière supposedly said, shortly after he co-presented the first public screening, “is an invention without a future”) and whose artistic possibilities wound up being developed, in large part, through a rationalized system of industrial exploitation. This history consigns me to a world in which the babble of technobloviation and the beeping of chip readers will always drown out discussions about the art of film.
To be fair, the editors of the Times publish more film criticism, week by week, than almost anyone else. But then they turn around and actually pay someone to ask, “Can anything beyond blockbusters succeed in theaters?” (please define “succeed”) and “Will the streaming era force us to rethink the Oscars?” (please define “us” and explain to me again why I should care about the Oscars, because the last 120 times I didn’t get it).
I am not one of the subheadline’s “biggest names in Hollywood”—hell, I’m not even one of the biggest names on the 500 block of Eighth Avenue in Manhattan—and I have no forecast to offer. But here, for what it’s worth, is my reading of the present of the movies, or at least some of the movies I found recently knocking around in the theaters.
To start with one of those blockbusters that alone can succeed: Toy Story 4, directed by Josh Cooley and written by a bunch of people, mostly Andrew Stanton and Stephany Folsom, confronts difficult, even painful questions in the animated lives of its characters, old and new. Can Woody, voiced again by Tom Hanks, face a likely future of abandonment in a closet? Can Forky, voiced by Tony Hale, accept the joyful responsibility of being the new favorite toy of its child, who slapped it together from discarded odds and ends in a kindergarten classroom, or will this weird little agglomeration continue to long for the comfort of its native wastebasket? In other words, how should we feel about artifacts that have outlived their usefulness or were crafted without purpose from leftovers—things like Toy Story 4?
I have it on good authority that when Disney decided to produce Incredibles 2, writer-director Brad Bird went to his former collaborators and said they had to make the picture, or else the company would go ahead without them and screw it up (or words to that effect but stronger). Only a curmudgeon would complain that the latest Toy Story sequel has screwed up the original idea. The many chases are as ingenious as ever (in premise improvisational, in practice engineered to the last pixel), the new characters are vivid in modes ranging from goofy to sinister, and the principal imagined settings (an antique shop and a carnival) keep the eye happily overloaded. That said, it would be frivolous to pretend that this fourth Toy Story has anything to add to the previous three or exists because of anything other than a commercial imperative. It differs from the grotesque, ungainly Forky in being astonishingly well crafted—and yet it, too, cries out confessionally that it arose from the refuse bin.
By contrast, Mindy Kaling’s Late Night comes onto the screen as if waving cue cards about its goals. Equality! Inclusion! Respect! And better sexual opportunities for people of all skin colors and body types without overstepping the bounds of monogamy, which would be bad! If Kaling were not so disarming and endearing a performer (her piping voice, attentive-schoolgirl carriage, and roving eyes combine to make you believe the impossible, that she’s ingenuous and at the same time devilishly witty) you’d fall over in exhaustion before she finished listing her agenda. As it is, you readily transfer onto the movie the goodwill she generates toward herself and her semiautobiographical character, Molly Patel: the only woman—and the first woman of color—to penetrate the writers’ room of the story’s network talk show.
The film’s effect is pleasant but the outcome foreordained. Although Molly’s antagonist, the show’s veteran star, is a supposedly formidable person played by Emma Thompson—the actorly equivalent of a full orchestra compared with Kaling’s plangent harmonica—there is never a moment’s doubt that this brittle and humorless comedy legend will not just accept the awkward, inexperienced, endlessly sincere Molly but will change because of her. But who says the star has to change, other than a corporate villain who is conveniently wheeled in at the start? What inner need mandates a reformation project? The answer, sorry to say, is missing.
Unlike Molly, Kaling is an experienced television writer, and in the tradition of episodic TV, as distinct from movies, she is incurious about Thompson’s character or even her own. It’s enough for her to posit that Thompson suffers from chronic depression and maintains a stiff pride in her high standards. How? Why? Sorry, no time to bother with details. Or plausibility, for that matter. (Faced with the threat of losing her career, Thompson makes a speech about the indignities she suffers as a woman of a certain age in Hollywood, which would be scathing and funny, except that the character is not an actress and works in New York.) As for Molly, there’s no time in Late Night even to visit the family members who supposedly dominate her but amount to just another plot stipulation on the way toward a meritorious ending. Add to these superficialities the TV-friendly, stop-and-start rhythm of Kaling’s script and Nisha Ganatra’s direction—including the personal-growth checkups, in which characters pause to state exactly what they think of each other—and you have a comedy in which an Indian woman must struggle to prove herself, but not all that hard, crossed with a behind-the-scenes drama in which people strain for excellence while the movie they live in cuts every corner.
Which is to say that Late Night is charming enough but could have been more. If it turns a profit at the box office but doesn’t clean up, maybe that’s because, as the big names say, a midbudget, character-driven, issues-oriented picture can no longer succeed in theaters—or, alternatively, because a picture of that description ought to be a little better.
I might say the same about the comparably budgeted, teen-women’s-empowerment movie Booksmart, though greater revenues have flowed toward this picture, thanks to a plot full of adolescent misadventure and hot touches of gross-out humor. A comedy about nerdy best friends trying to cut loose on their last day and night in an affluent Los Angeles high school, Booksmart benefits from the lead performances of Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever—loose, unembarrassed actresses playing chronically mortified kids—and from the direction of Olivia Wilde, who in her first feature film behind the camera exerts the command of narrative rhythm that escapes Late Night. I did not feel that Booksmart wasted a moment of my time. But I can’t say it has the nuance, ambition, or grace of another recent teen drama, Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird (same budget, more or less, but much higher profit, despite its seriousness). And although Booksmart flirts intelligently with the sexual politics of the present moment, it doesn’t begin to approach the daring of Amy Heckerling’s 1982 Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which can match any 2019 release for sex, drugs, and loud music but also deals head-on with a subject that almost no mainstream filmmaker today cares to address: abortion.
Was American film that much freer in the early Reagan era? Of course not. But I think a sense of diminished artistic possibilities has now set in, quite apart from all the thumb sucking about streaming services and the YouTube generation. You see the horizon contract even in the work of filmmakers who have good reason to know better—Jim Jarmusch, for example, whose 2016 Paterson was worldly wise, perhaps even disillusioned, and yet thoroughly lovely, generous, kind, and imaginative. You might have expected his new film, The Dead Don’t Die, to have at least a bit of that warmth, given that he cast the film almost as a reunion of old friends: Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Chloë Sevigny, Tilda Swinton, Iggy Pop, Eszter Balint, Sara Driver, and Steve Buscemi, among others.
But if Jarmusch is bringing together the people he loves, it’s evidently to say goodbye. The world comes to an end in this zombie-movie mash-up, and so does his filmmaking, which disappears up its own meta. By the time Tom Waits, as the voyeur and quasi narrator Hermit Bob, delivers his summing up—a sermon on the suicidal consumerism of humanity (or that portion of it living in America)—and the characters go to their predestined doom in an old Pennsylvania cemetery, beneath a full moon swimming in a poisonous blue aura, this most indie of productions has waved as many placards as Late Night while crying out like Toy Story 4 about its own futility.
Yes, it’s easy to despair and maybe even reasonable to do so. But if a favorable economic forecast, stable technology, and a shoo-in social agenda were the preconditions for making art, even the walls of Lascaux and Altamira might be bare. Despite what the biggest names in Hollywood have to say and despite the pessimism (temporary, I hope) of Jarmusch, people continue to make movies, some of them excellent. Go watch Joe Talbot’s extraordinary The Last Black Man in San Francisco, which is sad and beautiful, as a Jarmusch character once said. And join me at the multiplex for Stuber, starring Kumail Nanjiani as a put-upon Uber driver, and Dave Bautista—the Guardians of the Galaxy guy with the body and face of a wrestling champion and the soul of Oliver Hardy—as (more or less) Dave Bautista. American cinema lives.
I notice, though, that American film is the only kind worrying the wise people in that New York Times article. The possibility of a cinematic future beyond America seems to have escaped them. So let me tell you, briefly, about the gorgeous, fascinating, continually problematic documentary Honeyland, which comes from the rural highlands of Macedonia, thanks to the directors Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska. It’s actually two films in one: an empathetic portrait of a woman living a traditional life in isolation, poverty, and independence, and an allegorical narrative about the encroachments of modernity.
At its heart is a woman of Turkish background, Hatidze Muratova, who in her early 50s is bony, stooped, and as wiry as an endurance runner. Apparently almost the last resident of a settlement of stone buildings that now sit in ruins, she lives without indoor plumbing or electric light in a single-story house that she shares with a dog, several cats, and her bedridden, half-blind mother. Hatidze’s only other companions are bees, which she finds and tends in the wild—in the cleft of a rock, behind the wall of an abandoned house—and cultivates in rows of conical hives woven from branches. Every once in a while, she collects honey and honeycomb—“Half for me, half for you,” she tells the bees—and makes the journey to Skopje, where she hawks her wares at the market stalls, picks up a treat for her mother, and indulges her vanity by purchasing a package of hair dye.
These scenes would be thoroughly absorbing if you weren’t always wondering what was happening outside the frame. Consider the first astonishing image of Hatidze gathering honey, when she walks along a narrow ridge, high over the valley, to uncover a hive on the side of a cliff. Where were Stefanov and Kotevska standing? There seems to be no room for them on the ledge, but somehow they didn’t just photograph Hatidze but caught her from two setups.
These questions multiply as the narrative takes hold. One day a caravan drives into the ruined settlement, and a boisterous family of nine, also Turkish by background, begins to set up house. (Did Stefanov and Kotevska just happen to be visiting that day? Or did they help create this event?) The ensuing scenes of Hatidze getting along happily with the children might have unfolded naturally, but when the paterfamilias, Hussein, starts asking her about this beekeeping business, are you watching him broach the subject for the first time? Or did the filmmakers perhaps ask him to sit down with Hatidze and show how their conversation went?
And what about that burly man who visits Hussein and urges him to sell honey in large quantities? How come the filmmakers were around—and Hatidze wasn’t—for a discussion that would cause so much trouble?
I don’t mean to imply that Stefanov and Kotevska have been underhanded. The tradition of semistaged ethnographic films goes back to Nanook of the North. But then, Honeyland doesn’t play as ethnography. It’s more like one of Abbas Kiarostami’s highly sophisticated narratives cast with nonprofessionals—with the difference that Kiarostami was open about making fictions infused with the grit of rural life, whereas Stefanov and Kotevska appear to be recording a documentary, which by chance tells a tale of encroachment and endurance that will appeal to urban audiences on the international circuit.
I like Honeyland, and I accept Stefanov and Kotevska’s right to make a splendid-looking film, under circumstances that must have been extraordinarily difficult. Still, when I consider all the doubts they’ve left swarming about the picture, I have to say, “All right. But half for you, half for me.”