Ourselves Through the Lens
What film in 2018 tells us about identity.
If you were so brave as to venture out into the virtual ooze that is the internet, you would know that at its best it is a gallery of topical Spongebob memes, but at its worst a fractured, tribalistic battleground with enough vitriol and snark to power a small sun. One of the latest theatres for the latter is the current discourse on cinema and the movies, more particularly, what they can and should say about society in 2018. The presence of personal online megaphones on reddit and twitter has taken film criticism, a somewhat niche form of editorial before the world wide web, and catapulted it into the public conscience, and like most things in our current partisan world, has demanded we choose sides.
For starters, the concept of fan service and franchise expectation has reached its nadir. The latest Star Wars film – The Last Jedi, made over $1 Billion at the box office, and was lauded by critics, but many long-time fans were so dismayed at the creative direction that director Rian Johnson took that 102,000 disgruntled viewers signed a petition to have it “struck from the official canon”. In an article for Vox, Todd VanDerWerff, it was pointed out that many publicly disliked the “progressivism” of making women the principal heroes of the film, while portraying the majority of the white men in the movie as villains, despite the fact that the main villain of the film was a giant grey alien who probably would not fit any “Caucasian” description. Another reason for the heat was because Johnson did not cater to any “fan theories” cultivated from decades of Star Wars message boards fantasies, which begs the question of whether franchises and movies exist to simply give what a vocal percentage of their fan base want, regardless of a director’s personal artistic vision. The simple answer from any filmmaker would be a hard no, but when you think of the billions in merchandise and marketing, it is a fair question to consider when something moves from art into pure product. Coupling the Star Wars outcry with the recent uproar against female ghostbusters, or angry and often abusive accusations from fans of D.C. Comic Books that Marvel pays off film critics, it does seem like there exists a population of film goers who feel entitled to the point of outward maliciousness of what they want as ideal multimedia.
Maybe no film release in 2018 better represents this idea of fan expectation that Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One. Based on the book by Ernest Cline, it is a smorgasbord of references from the 1980s, set in a world where nothing really exists except nostalgia in a virtual game. From the get go, critics were quick to lambast the film’s source material, with Alex Nichols of The Outline calling it “more like binge-reading 1980s-related Wikipedia articles than reading a novel”. While reviews have been decently good since its release in March, it has most been used in online film critique circles as an opportunity to opine on “fan-boy culture” as a whole, with some even going so deep as to interpret it as some sort of personal reckoning for Spielberg on his own legacy as a nostalgia-manufacturer.
The new frontier of film analysis isn’t all just about comic-con enhanced anger, as it has also collided with the concept of progressive representation in a very direct way. The hashtag #OscarsSoWhite acted as a direct challenge to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences proclivity to ignore people of colour from prestige film-making, and a push to diversify Oscar voting has led to small but visible steps towards a more diverse award season, with films like Moonlight and Get Out earning hardware. This level of discourse went both ways, as it also acted to challenge whether certain films appropriately tackled issues of race. One of this year’s award front-runners was Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a black comedy by Irishman Martin McDonagh which skewered (among many other things) race relations in America. While a hit with some, the film was excoriated by a number of critics, some for what they perceived was just poor storytelling, but others for what they saw was a problematic or misguided view of racism in America, and the level of respect that should be afforded to those who show those racist tendencies. The New York Times’ Wesley Morris specifically chastised the film for saying it tackles racism, but using the sparse black characters as set pieces and according to him, totally misjudging the political climate it has entered into.
The current film taking up the space of cultural discourse online is Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs. A whimsical animated movie about a pack of dogs sent to an island of trash in futuristic Japan, it carries many of the familiar Anderson attributes, namely that it is colourful, irreverent, and critically loved. However, its controversy is in its setting, and the seemingly arbitrary decision to set the film in Japan, while depicting the country in a way that some Asian-Americans have viewed as exotification, appropriation, and more specifically orientalism. In an article for BuzzFeed, writer Alison Willmore writes that “Orientalism surfaces in the New Age commodification of Eastern spirituality, in the predilection to glom separate cultures into a blurry whole, in the freedom that still seems to be felt in making open declarations about having a fetish for Asian women or dismissing the sexuality of Asian men”. She explains that even if Anderson claims to be honouring or respecting Japanese culture through his art, that doesn’t mean it cannot also be taking advantage of western perceptions of that culture for his own artistic whims. Some Anderson defenders have pointed to the fact that those in Japan largely enjoyed the film, but it begs the question of whether using that as some sort of explanation values one group’s feelings on appropriation over others.
While the debates, arguments, and fury of film discussion on the internet may be varied and on every wrung of the political spectrum, it seems evident that the new reality of going to the movies will involve in-depth, often controversial analysis of not only whether a film is worth seeing, but why it is worth seeing, and whether it has anything to say about certain ideological fault lines, which will inform how certain reviewers ultimately value it. Ultimately this seems like an unavoidable trajectory, but only time will tell how fundamentally different cinema will become because of it.
Ethan is a 3L, and Editor-in-Chief of Juris Diction.