Warning: Weak Language
The problems with Cinema and Communication
One of the strange things about communication in Post-Modern culture is how indirect it has become. Whether it is the use of emojis and gifs or through the use of oblique references to other media, the act of communicating has become a strange web of intertextuality. This is not to say that the message doesn’t get across but it has become emblematic of the apparent age of anxiety in which we live where unguarded honesty and vulnerability has become occluded through layers of digital deniability. When someone shows their unhappiness with their body, their joy with the sexuality or their hostility towards a current trend, there is a level of deniability baked into the medium. For instance, a knee-jerk response when found being dishonest about any of these things can be “Social media isn’t real”, or the fact that a post or a message can always be said to have been “ironic”, whether that was its intention or not. It also creates issues wherein the person you are communicating with may not be able to decode the many layers of subtext given to them, or, even worse, decode it incorrectly. Many are the stories of parents/grandparents using “the wrong emoji” when talking about what’s for dinner. But as much as this observation can be labelled as the rantings of an old man complaining about the kids and their new fangled slang that poor grandpa can’t understand, the fact is, this is precisely how I communicate as well. For instance, talking to my wife about the state of the news in the UK today, instead of replying to my wife “yes it’s awful, isn’t it?” I simply messaged her the the audio of The Sex Pistols’ song Anarchy in the UK. So while this strange mode of references as language is undoubtedly a confusing place to be for most of us, we appear to be navigating quite well. Or at least some of us are…
The trouble with this kind of abstract mode of communication that relies on a weird form of cultural knowledge akin to doing homework, is that it outpaces slower forms of communication and, more significantly, doesn’t always translate. Here I am specifically talking about film and how it has seemed so hilariously out of touch in representing the contemporary modes of speech and communication.
Every Frame a Painting did a short essay on a portion of this topic about 7 years ago when TV and Film grappled with a way of displaying a text on screen. It was a conundrum, as it has always been difficult to put text on screen and not make it seem non-diegetic (i.e. make it look like it is part of the world and something the characters can read not something only the audience can read). This resulted in the infamous Sherlock text-on-screen technique that got picked up in a lot of places to the point that even soap operas would have texts appearing in a chyron along the bottom of the screen when a character got a message. Many of these creative methods used at the time have fallen by the wayside in recent years in favour of going back to just showing us the screen of the phone again but something a lot of productions don’t seem to have moved past is the actual way characters express themselves directly, something that is undoubtedly influenced by how we communicate online.
The ‘meme-ification’ of language in film seemed to reach its apex in Black Panther when a character screamed “What are those?!” at the superheroes sandals, referencing a popular trend on the (now dead) Vine app from (by the time of release) a year previous. By the very nature of film production, it is a slow process, even today, so these kind of misguided cultural references pretty much always fall flat due to being at least a year out of date when they finally release. More often than not though a lot of memes and new turns of phrase come from these films themselves and, typically, the ones trying to devoutly avoid such trend chasing. Here I am thinking of Leonardo DiCaprio pointing at the TV in Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood. Films are better off being the influencer rather than the influenced in this regard, but even a film so utterly in love with itself and its disregard for contemporary pop culture that it is set in the sixties like Once Upon A Time… is not removed from the influence of post-modern communication. The entire of Tarantino’s most recent epic is predicated on a very specific piece of information: the murder of Sharon Tate and its exact date, time and location. If you are unaware of who Sharon Tate is, how she was murdered, when and by whom, this film means next to nothing. Entire scenes revolve around adoringly watching and mooning over the character of Sharon Tate, setting her up as a charming, winsome character we are supposed sympathise with and understand. This works if the character were to, say, as she did in real life, die an untimely and tragic death. Except she doesn’t. “Haha” says Tarantino, “aren’t I clever I undermined your expectations there, didn’t I?” But what if you don’t have clue that she was murdered by Manson’s creations? Then you’ve just watched a whole film that occasionally cuts to Margot Robbie doing things that have entirely NO relevance to the rest of the film and a character who has no impact at all on the movie. “Well,” you might say, “Tarantino has done this before, when he kills Hitler at the end of Inglorious Basterds or has the helpless women get revenge on their aggressor in Death Proof, this is all the same kind of undermining expectations, isn’t it?” Well yes, but firstly it was called the ‘World War’ for a reason and most people are taught how that conflict went in school, and DeathProof establishes the trope of the murderous misogynist in the movie itself before undermining it. And even then this isn’t a very good argument because it argues that you need to be familiar with Tarantino’s oeuvre to understand Once Upon A Time… so to appreciate or even understand the film you must either be intimately familiar with Sharon Tate’s murder before seeing it, or intimately familiar with Tarantino’s back catalogue, or, more likely, both. In short, Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood is a meme movie. Sorry Quint.
That’s how the contemporary mode of communication infects even the stuff that’s trying to avoid it but what about the stuff that leans into it? This is when it gets particularly insufferable. Chief among the worst offenders for nudging and winking their way through a script is Joss Whedon who internally references the absurdity of the story he’s telling in the same movie. The “The city is flying. I’m shooting a bow and arrow. None of this makes sense” line remains one of the most pathetically smug attempts at this form of post-modern communication ever. It’s a line that deliberately bounces you out of the movie to point and laugh at the production itself all so it can free itself from criticism. Instead it just undoes any sense of immersion you might have felt in the climactic battle, all for a shit gag. This only got worse further down the line for the Marvel movies with the nadir of self-satisfaction that was Endgame. A film that wandered off for an hour of its three hour runtime to give the audience a quick tour of the last ten years of its billion dollar toy adverts. The entire ‘time heist’ portion of Endgame is explicitly an intertextual indulgence that relies on you having an intimate knowledge of all twenty two sequels until that point, and it was a safe bet because it worked. Most people knew what “I don’t feel so good” meant before they even saw Infinity War.
This is all before pointing out the very fact that a lot of these movies only exist because of a post-modern absorption of all-that-has-gone-before. Be it Marvel, or DC, Tarantino or Villeneuve, mainstream pop culture has become one long campaign of referencing and intertextuality. Superhero movies have been going since the 70s and were comics for thirty years before that, Tarantino’s entire career is based on rehashing aesthetics from classic Hollywood, Villeneuve has made a sequel to a cult classic and is remaking another. The fact that a majority of people around the globe now have access to all human knowledge in their pocket means that the necessary research required to understand the significance of these products can be assumed by all who make them so need to clarify. Or, even better, think of something new.
The reason I bring this up is that I have been watching through a lot of 70s cinema that passed me by in the last couple of years and what I’ve enjoyed about it is how refreshing it is, both then and now. The cinema of the 70s was responding to a lot of contemporary changes in culture at the time (like all art does) but they were able to be experimental. The studio system had collapsed in the late 60s which opened the door for more unconventional fare that still had its share of influences but was, at least, trying to be different. But, relevant to this discussion, Popeye Doyle wouldn’t be seen dead referencing other chases in other films after he catches his main suspect. And when movies of that era did make a direct appeal to acknowledge the audience it wasn’t an implied wink to the audience, Christopher Reeve just straight up winks at the camera. A good example of how diametrically opposed these two eras are, purely in the way they communicate, both within the movie and with the audience, is in the movie Joker.
Joker is an unabashed two hour long Taxi Driver reference. Where Scorsese’s breakout cinema classic revolutionised the contemporary crime drama, Joker wallows in its wake. Taxi Driver used looks to camera as a direct confrontation to the audience over its use of violence, it made the camera look away from embarrassing scenes, centred on minor details like bubbling alka-seltzers and generally used all the methods of Scorsese’s cinematic technique to offer a nuanced, difficult and ambiguous look at the psychology of a deeply flawed lead character. Joker uses the Cliff Notes, aping its visual aesthetic and fonts, some of its characters, and even its period (though that is left deliberately unclear), to try and summon the same success. It doesn’t work. The whole of Joker is merely an extended homage to Scorsese, without that the film stands on nothing at all. To say nothing of the fact it is, in fact, about a comic book villain. “The Comic Book movie for people who don’t like Comic Book movies” was the pitch. So why make it a comic book movie at all? Taxi Driver was an original screenplay with original characters. Joker’s entire premise is based on the audience decoding multiple layers of understanding before they’ve even sat in their seats.
What these examples prove is that if you were able to travel back in time fifty years, the majority of mainstream cinema today would be incomprehensible to that audience. Whether it’s not being able to decode the multiple layers of references suffused into the pores of every production today, or simply the actual words people speak in these films, it would be unwatchable to them. Whereas I don’t think that would have been true for films from the 70s. Taking a lot of the biggest cinema hits of the 70s back to the 1920s would be a very different affair. I don’t doubt 20s audiences would find the harsher, hyper-real, grittiness of 70s cinema difficult but it would at least be legible. Given the strain post-war, those audiences might identify better with the peculiarities of the 70s new wave and its vocally critical commentary on society. It’s also indicative that though fashions, slang and opinions on social issues from the 70s have certainly dated the films themselves have not. The films of the last decade will. Because, as much as we are able to decode the vast sprawl of intertextual references today, a lot of that will be lost to history. Joker will not communicate its message as effectively as Taxi Driver continues to do. Or to express it more succinctly:
These films don’t speak to me.