If the film industry is ever going to be what it was—just a few short months ago, when pictures as varied as Parasite, 1917, Joker and Little Women were among those vying for honors—it’s going to need more than union safety protocols, disposable seat covers in theaters, and new Oscar inclusion standards, all of which were in the news last week.
Those might serve as door-openers in a popular culture that has been nearly shut down by virus and strife.
But what Hollywood most needs is something that may or may not be forever out of reach. That is, a movie that actually moves us.
Not all of us, of course. Nation-wide (never mind world-wide) intellectual and emotional unanimity isn’t possible, nor even desirable. The notion of 330 million people thinking and feeling exactly the same way is scarier than our scariest disagreements. (See Invasion Of The Body Snatchers.)
But the movies have occasionally brought forth a cultural touchstone—something that vast numbers of people view, consider, re-watch, discuss, and perhaps argue about. And we desperately need one of those, soon.
I don’t mean simply a theatrical blockbuster. As chains wrestle with a checkerboard of national coronavirus restrictions, ticket sales won’t be the best measure of impact.
Plus, even in the best of times, an enormous hit is often just empty spectacle, or a giant niche film that plays deeply to a devoted fan base, but pretty much leaves everyone else untouched. Another Star Wars: Episode IX isn’t going to do it.
Neither is topicality much of a plus. Once in a very long while, a true touchstone film may connect with live political and social currents. Black Panther, with its racial awareness, and Avatar, with its environmentalist sensibilities, come to mind.
But far more often, films that captivate brains and stir great emotions among vastly disparate audiences seem to come from out of nowhere. Why Titanic in 1997? Why The Blind Side in 2009? Who can explain the fascination of The Matrix? What made the time right for Saving Private Ryan? What’s the deal with Forrest Gump?
Those films, and others like them, seem to dwell in a space of their own. They command attention even from those of us who didn’t know we cared about football, or blue aliens, or the red pill. Once having seen them, we are changed, mostly because they lift us outside of ourselves.
If just one such picture soon appears from out of nowhere, the film business will be up and running again.
And if not—if we, the audience, have become incapable of a broad, shared, big-screen experience—then the movies, well-crafted as they might be, will have become something less than they were.