Perspective | While Oscar filmmakers were looking back, the audience passed them by

The nominees say more about where we’ve been than where we’re going

(Carolyn Figel for The Washington Post) (Video: TWP)


Will this year’s Academy Awards ceremony mark the end of an era, the beginning of a new one, or both? The presumed front-runners for best picture, “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” represent polar opposites in terms of sensibility and generational appeal: one, a throwback to the stirring, straightforward blockbusters of the 1980s, starring Tom Cruise, avatar of old-school American stardom. The other, a manic, undefinable mash-up of genres and tonal values, populated by a mostly Asian cast playing versions of their characters in a rapidly expanding multiverse.

Each, in its own way, represents a medium that finds itself stalled, between repetitive nostalgia and chaotic attempts to use old tropes to say something new. The result is movies that, even when they have something profound to say about family, connection, friendship and self-belief, feel long on spectacle and short on substance.

In 1968, in an Esquire article called “The Movies Will Save Themselves,” screenwriters Robert Benton and David Newman wrote: “Millions of cocktail parties subsist on potato chips, onion-cheese dip and discussions of ‘The Graduate.’ … All in all, there is a kind of momentum going with the movies now which indicates that, of all art forms extant, the films are going to make it intact, robust and still growing, into the twenty-first century.”

Benton and Newman, whose film “Bonnie and Clyde” had helped revolutionize American cinema the year before, were writing at the height of postwar expressive ferment, when the baby boomers came into their own as creators and audiences, pushing nearly every form of art and mass entertainment to new edges of possibility.

The stakes could not have been higher: movies — and literature and music and theater and, eventually, television — were worth arguing about, if only to divine what they meant, what they could and should be, how they might help nudge America away from calcified 1950s conformity and help define a generation just beginning to claim the political and cultural power it would wield for decades to come.

That generational power is now waning, along with the notion that movies — as distinguishable from the undifferentiated wash of visual storytelling that now pervades nearly every waking hour on screens as wide as IMAX and as tiny as an Apple watch — could ever matter that much again. Not only is global attendance down in a post-pandemic world of changing viewing habits and skinnier production slates. The very idea that films — art house fare and mainstream motion pictures alike — could provoke debate over martinis and hors d’oeuvres increasingly seems like a relic from a vanished age.

When it comes to this year’s Oscar movies, more is more

That slippage is palpable in Hollywood, and it helps explain why filmmakers seem more intent than ever to resuscitate the romance of filmmaking and filmgoing, most often through the lens of their own artistic youths.

“The Fabelmans,” Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-nominated exploration of his alternately idealized and troubled past, chronicles a boy first terrified of film’s immersive power, then determined to harness it for his own emotional salvation.

“Babylon,” Damien Chazelle’s delirious homage to Hollywood’s wild early days that is up for three awards, casts a fond eye back to cinema at its most ungovernable and liberated, before it was defanged by Wall Street capital and decency codes.

Sam Mendes’s “Empire of Light,” nominated for Roger Deakins’s lambent cinematography, is set in a crumbling Art Deco palace in the 1980s, which becomes not just a venue for crowd-pleasing movies of that era, but a secular humanist house of worship.

Along with such similarly-themed recent films as “Belfast and “Mank,” these movies-about-movies were made just before or during the pandemic lockdown, when shuttered theaters made many of us long for the collective ritual of moviegoing, and when filmmakers had the time and space to sink into their memories.

By the time they came out, though, it felt like the era had passed them by. As people were inching back into having cocktail parties — masks optional! — they were far more likely to be arguing about “The Queen’s Gambit” and “The White Lotus” than the most recent best picture winners (those would be “Nomadland” and “CODA,” in case you forgot).

Deeply personal bagatelles like “Belfast” and “The Fabelmans” felt like the feature-film version of Nicole Kidman’s widely mocked “We make movies better” ad for AMC: sweetly sincere, but perhaps protesting a skosh too much. Movies-about-movies were clearly meant to remind us of why we loved watching films in the first place, and to reward our loyalty when we paid the price of admission. But as they accrued — to the frequent indifference of wide audiences — they began to feel more like whistling past a graveyard than soaring hymns to the repository of our shared hopes and dreams.

Despite Kidman’s dewy-eyed protestations, not to mention the crowds who thronged to “Avatar: The Way of Water,” AMC wound up suffering a 15 percent drop in business in late-2022. (The company’s solution: push filmgoers away even more by charging extra for the best seats. Movies, they’re magic! If you can afford it!)

People did go to the movies last year: Few were surprised when franchise installments like “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” and “Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” did strong business. So did other kinds of movies. At an awards event last month, Spielberg made headlines after he was overheard telling Cruise that he “saved Hollywood’s ass” with “Top Gun: Maverick,” which proved that old-fashioned values like strong scripts, human-scale characters and earthbound, non-CGI effects can still draw and dazzle audiences.

Baz Luhrmann’s frenetic biopic “Elvis” did surprisingly well, not just with its core audience of nostalgic boomers, but with their nostalgic grandkids who grew up watching the film’s star, former Nickelodeon idol Austin Butler. George Clooney and Julia Roberts proved their fizzy chemistry still pops in the agreeably undemanding romcom “Ticket to Paradise.”

Even a movie about movies became a rare hit: Jordan Peele’s “Nope” crossed $120 million at the box office, perhaps because it was not just a celebration of why cinema is so great, but an exploration of its not-so-great past.

The biggest story of 2022, by far, was “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan’s reality-skipping head trip that became a cult phenomenon with the younger viewers who had supposedly abandoned brick-and-mortar theaters for idly browsing social media and zoning out on true crime podcasts.

This year’s Oscar nominations featured a unicorn: Genuine surprise

Nominated for 11 Academy Awards, “Everything Everywhere All at Once” is the odds-on favorite going into the best picture race, not just because of its scattershot structural audacity and off-the-wall tone, but because it helped keep movies relevant at a time when many are questioning how we even define them. Is a movie still a unitary visual and aural experience undertaken with a group of strangers in a darkened theater? Or has it evolved into something else: something more sprawling, less specific, more ubiquitous, less tied to time and place? When Millennials and Gen-Z spend most of their collective life on Instagram and TikTok, hasn’t life become the movie?

These existential imponderables aren’t new. In “The Movies Will Save Themselves,” Benton and Newman extolled the growing sophistication of audiences, who were starting to lose interest in starchy traditionalism and were eager to embrace the unknown, whether by way of new visual languages inspired by the French New Wave and cinema verité or un-pretty character actors who were becoming the new stars. “That sense of adventure now appeals to people,” they wrote, describing the performances of actors like Dustin Hoffman, and the enigmatic, unpredictable visions of auteurs like Ingmar Bergman, Richard Lester and Stanley Kubrick. “[T]heir films can get personal, even quirky, and not lose an audience.”

The same holds true today, with some crucial differences. The majority still overwhelmingly gravitates toward endlessly self-iterating comic book and animated movies. But, even at their most impenetrable and dizzyingly incoherent, filmmakers like Peele and the “Daniels” (as Scheinert and Kwan are known) now seem to speak directly to a generation that can instantly parse their rapid-fire winks to anime and video games and martial arts films and “Ratatouille” and, well, everything else in the Millennial pop culture closet.

As generational norms and references shift, so have expectations of what movies should be, both as a means of mass entertainment and cultural identification. The revolutionaries of Benton and Newman’s generation went on to create films that, for decades, exemplified what people meant when they said “movie”: Whether it was “The Godfather,” “All the President’s Men,” “Tootsie” or “Annie Hall,” these were narratives that felt urgently of their time, unfolding in a recognizably real world populated with non-superheroic characters.

With human-scale stories now largely relegated to television and streaming, and with a new generation of auteurs more likely to think of “Spider-Man” than “Serpico” when they say the word “movie,” our dominant narrative tradition for the past 60 years looks like it’s facing a massive extinction event.

Movies will continue to be made, of course, and people will continue to see them, on big screens and small. But filmgoing will increasingly be reduced to mere spectatorship, with Benton and Newman’s cocktail conversations happening within social media silos and YouTube comments.

And it’s not just technology and changed viewing habits that have devalued film’s cultural currency. It’s the movies themselves. Regardless of how the generational divide between “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Everything Everywhere All at Once” is resolved on Oscar night, it’s unlikely that either film will have entered the national bloodstream five years from now, let alone 50.

Benton and Newman wrote that “the movies that unified the postwar generation in the 1960s and 1970s were those that could hit a nerve with everybody under thirty without alienating everybody over thirty.” “Top Gun: Maverick” was a gas to watch, and instantly disposable. “Everything Everywhere All at Once” alienated as many viewers as it beguiled. All movies reach into the past — of their makers or the medium itself — to be legible in the present. The question is what kind of future they’ll bring forth in the process.

That’s the thing about movies: They’ll always save themselves. But to survive, they always leave someone behind.

The 95th Academy Awards air Sunday night at 8 p.m. on ABC, DirecTV Stream, FuboTV and other streaming services.

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