Is Cynicism Dying in Film and TV?
There's a growing trend across Hollywood and in the rooms where ideas are born. A trend that's empowering audiences instead of depressing them. One that, by and large, is offering an overwhelming feeling of warmth which casts out the shadows of a downbeat-ending or nihilistic point of view. That's right, cynicism - our old friend and mentor - seems to be dwindling in power throughout the texts we watch.
Now this isn't a bad thing, and tentatively may not be a thing at all, but a couple of standouts from this year in particular have led me to believe that we're seeing a shrink in the pessimistic attitudes that plagued films and TV shows of old. So let's have a looksie....
Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror has made a name for itself by taking humanity's ever growing dependence on technology to its darkest depths. Sure, every once in a while we'll be gifted with an uplifting story of love such as the wondrous San Junipero or Hang the DJ, but these optimistic endings are revelations compared to the trials and tribulations that come before them. Hang the DJ is a downtrodden tale of monotonous relationships and throughout the episode we're supposed to believe that Frank (Joe Cole) and Amy (Georgina Campbell) are destined to stay with partners they feel nothing for. The rebellion against the Coach system stands out because the protagonists aren't punished for it, it feels like Brooker's letting them have this win...especially when the next episode is the black-and-white nightmare Metalhead.
When watching season 5 of Black Mirror however, there was a strange feeling of optimism throughout. Both Striking Vipers and Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too featured, again, torturous concepts and ideas (Striking Vipers the repression of a complicated relationship, Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too the corporate control over a young popstar) with (fairly) upbeat and...daringly 'happy' endings. Yet for some reason, particularly with the season finale, with its buddy-comedy style featuring a goofy sidekick in the form of Miley Cyrus' Ashley-Too-imbued-with-her-actual-consciousness, the comments on technology and inherent bashing of humanity as a whole seemed to disappear. Smithereens on the other hand, the sandwiched episode between the two, played like a safety net for the series' embedded tone, with a story that deftly comments on the dizzying highs social media allows us to experience whilst pushing humans to their breaking points.
Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too in particular diverts all of its energy into becoming a fully-fledged heist film in its second half, filled with comedic beats and set pieces that I'd have never expected from Black Mirror in a million years. In many ways it was quite jarring to watch, but it's not the only text that's taking an unseen step away from cynicism this year either...
*Spoilers ahead for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood...*
You could write a thousand pieces about Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood...and barely scratch the surface of its intentions or nods to other works. It's the work of a Director at the top of his game, simply having fun in a sandbox that he chooses to creates. For many audience members however, it's not what they were expecting from the man who brought them Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill.
I think a big part of that is due to the film's subject matter, and how its advertising campaign refused to tell anyone what the film was actually about (more on this in a moment). Tarantino's choice to tell a story set during the dreaded Manson Family Hollywood murders of 1969 and have Margot Robbie play Sharon Tate in one of the pivotal roles, led many (including myself) to believe that we were getting a comedic story set against the backdrop of trauma during 'Hollywood's Golden Age'.
What we actually got was a comedy-drama about the friendship between ageing actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) in a day-in-the-life style that pretty much surprised everyone. Not only that, but in OUaTiH, Dalton is the fictional neighbour to Tate during the attacks by the Manson Family, and merely by a series of fortunate (or unfortunate, depending on who you are) he and Booth end up preventing the murders and unknowingly save the lives of everyone who was murdered that night.
Whilst of course the film's climax features the typical violence and satire one expects from Tarantino, it's with a hopeful and endearing edge that the film ends on a blissfully-unaware and pregnant Sharon Tate inviting Dalton up for a drink after the tumultuous night he's had. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood... is a story of what could have been, and is an alternate reality of events where Tarantino prevents death by interfering with his own characters. It's actually a rather touching tribute to Tate and the victims of the night itself, with none of the associated sentimentality attributed to the usual ideas such as this. Tate is given minimal dialogue as a choice, with Tarantino wanting just the sight of her 'living and breathing' to evoke an emotional response to the story. Aside from the pitfalls and unfortunate discourse/ideology that was present within Hollywood during the time period, Once Upon a Time spends most of its runtime hanging out with Rick and Cliff as they get on with their lives...and it's a pleasant delight. There's no seeking vengeance or bubbling-under violence, in fact apart from the climax the only real violence in the whole film is fake - taken from Dalton's career across films and television. It feels like a standout from Tarantino's filmography because of this...but should it?
After all, Inglorious Basterds does the same thing. Whilst we may be hung up on the terrifying antics of Christoph Waltz' Hans Lander and the scalp-ripping antics of the First Special Service Force, we forget that the alternate-history film ends with the early murder of Adolf Hitler himself as the Jewish cinema proprietor Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent) burns her screening of Nation's Pride to the ground.
Not long ago, Todd Phillips' Joker was released and made all the money in the world. And whilst I wasn't among its fans it's obviously had a huge effect on the discourse of film and...somewhat troublingly, about the stigmatisation of mental illness. I'd personally argue that Joker works better when it's leaning into the more lavish and deviant acts of its protagonist in the second half and not offering a cynical and easily-copied approach to building character by toppling them with insurmountable and cruel odds. To me, it's a cynical piece of filmmaking in both intention and narrative, and yet it's the most talked-about and profitable film of the year.
So if cynicism isn't dying in film and television...what's going on?
I think it comes down to the world we're currently living in. Films and television shows, much like all media we absorb, is a reflection of the world it's based in. It why the 80s-written Gemini Man wasn't seen by anyone. We're not part of that world anymore and it's not tailored for a current audience. In the present, we're awash with bad news constantly, whether it be the looming threat of climate change, the idiots who still refused to believe in climate change or, godforbid, another extension to the whole brexit debacle. Even as a form of escapism, film and television need to have one hand in reality in order to allow audiences to connect. And yet, we're in a period of such environmental and economic downturn that the auteurs/filmmakers that are known for translating real-world pain and cynicism into entertainment, are choosing to focus on the brighter side of storytelling.
The real world has become so void of adventure to them, that these filmmakers/writers/producers etc. now want to tell stories that have an old-fashioned uplifting-element to them. Charlie Brooker and Chris Morris predicted the millennial/boomer discourse almost fifteen years ago with Nathan Barley, so of course by now they're sick of it and want to tell other stories.
Tarantino has spent his entire career telling these tales of violence and revenge, and the only way he felt he could tell a wholesome story is to go back to 60s Hollywood. That's where we are right now.
So no, cynicism is not dying. Far from it. In fact, in many respects the depiction of it is evolving. Shows such as Bojack Horseman have taken the cynical discourse and transformed it to a higher standard by which all other shows are beginning to be judged. Child-friendly cartoons such as Adventure Time, Gravity Falls and Over the Garden Wall have created a new subgenre which translates complicated, initially-cynical issues to both kids and adults simultaneously. Overt cynicism will always exist. But the best shows and films have never been overtly cynical, they apply this cynicism to their plot with a deft hand and make it feel like a part of the world.
This could all be stemming from a very personal place for me. Gone are the days where I was the angsty, sarcasm-fuelled commenter eager to make a name for himself by casually ripping off Brooker's own mannerisms (more on that, next week). As a lover of film and television a lot of the previous cynicism I used to express was needless. It's unnecessary. I'm glad I'm out of that period and know now, that the tone is decided by the story being told itself in the best instances, and that filmmakers/writers/producers etc. shouldn't try to enforce a particular world-view in their art and just let it speak for itself.
...now, did any of this make any sense or was I just too busy rambling?
Here's an eye-opening piece about the writing process of Gemini Man. One that kind of puts into perspective the way Hollywood can work.
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