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It has been some time since I put pen to paper and wrote something for my blog. I got distracted for various reasons, some good (I wrote two books of short stories and published the second edition of my screenwriting book, see above), some not so good (I’ve been caught up in one of those downward swings moody, artsy people tend to get into from time to time). But for some while now, I’ve been mulling over an idea, a subject that has finally formed itself into something that compels me to share it.
In the past, I’ve written about the zeitgeist, that overall spirit in art that can define a creative period of time. However, my writing about it has been somewhat negative since for some time, mainly from 2007 and on, I felt there wasn’t one for US filmmakers and that American films suffered for it and were constantly falling short and disappointing.
One conclusion I came to for this state of being is that as a result of technology, anyone and everyone can and have been making movies, resulting in that ubiquitous saying that the great thing about filmmaking today is that anyone can make a movie; the awful thing about filmmaking today is that anyone can make a movie. But I think the main drawback to this advance in technology is that though we have a more than over abundance of filmmakers, at the same time, they have had nothing to say, no real reason to make a film. There was no zeitgeist.
But I think that’s changed. Over the last few years, a new spirit of the times has wormed its way into the world of film, one that has taken filmmaking into a new direction and breathed new life into an art form that often seemed to be dying of mediocrity in America. And I think this has had, or should have, a serious impact on screenwriters. I suggest that new screenwriters (and even more experienced ones) should consider embracing it with, ironically, open arms.
The name I give to this brave new world of filmmaking is diversity meets genre.
Before I get any farther into why I believe this is central to what is happening in filmmaking today, I will backtrack some and suggest historically just how this came to be. And in doing so, I think I must admit to an error I believe I made earlier regarding a zeitgeist of the past, in fact the most recent American zeitgeist. I termed it post modernism and said it revolved around a group of core filmmakers: Steven Soderbergh, Quinten Tarantino and the Coen brothers, all starting in the 1990’s. However, I think it might be more accurate to call these filmmakers post post modernists.
It might be more exact to attribute post modernism to the period from the 1960’s to the 1980’s. There are few reasons why I think this may be more exact. And here I am defining post modernism as artists taking everything from the past and treating it with equal value, from the lewdest of scatological humor to the highest of philosophical debate. Everything is of worthwhile fodder in creating art.
It was during this period, possibly for the first time in the history of film art in the U.S., that filmmakers were more influenced and inspired by movies and directors and writers and stylists that had come before them than anything else. These were artists who learned how to make movies by watching movies as they grew up.
These filmmakers lived, breathed and almost totally existed within the history of cinema. And not just art, foreign and prestige films, but also the lesser films, the B-films and lower budgeted genre films that were not held in as high a regard as many others. And this led to many changes in movies when these younger viewers became adults.
One major one is that filmmakers began taking B-picture genres and making A films out of them. These included horror (Jaws, The Shining, The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby); sci-fi (2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., Star Wars); crime/film noir (Bonnie and Clyde, Chinatown, Night Moves, The Late Show, The Long Goodbye); comic book movies (Superman); and serials (Star Wars and Indiana Jones).
Another change was the introduction of existentialism from post war Europe, especially in the films of Paul Schrader and Woody Allen, as well as the films of other filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick and Paddy Chayefsky.
Finally, this was the period of great satires of film genres including Take the Money and Run (documentaries), Sleepers (Sci-fi), Love and Death (epic films), Blazing Saddles (westerns) and Young Frankenstein (horror), leading up to the great satires of Airplane and The Naked Gun franchise.
Then came the 1990’s and the triumvirate of the period, the aforementioned Soderbergh, Tarantino and the Coens. They continued to emphasize genre, but often with a post post modernistic smirk where it felt as if the movies sometimes were also commenting on themselves and the genre conventions.
Which leads us to the new zeitgeist which takes the post modern emphasis on genres, but breathes new life into them by having a new and diverse set of filmmakers making them. And these movies are doing well, both from a critical and money making standpoint. These films either having diverse characters in the lead (and I include women here with recent films having some of the best roles for female actors in some time), or have a diverse cast, or have diverse screenwriters, directors and producers, as well as other more technical aspects of film, behind their creation.
Horror (Get Out, Hereditary, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus);
Rom Coms (The Big Sick, Crazy Rich Asians, Love Simon);
Film Noir/crime (Widows, Dope, Jackie Brown and the upcoming Scarface);
Fantasy (Mary Poppins Returns, Beauty and the Beast, Frozen, Moana);
Sci-Fi (Gravity, Annihilation, Arrival, Under the Skin, The Hunger Games).
This can also be seen in more non genre films as well, straight dramas or stories of social commentary (Boy Erased, Monsters and Men, If Beale Street Could Talk, Call Me By Your Name, Moonlight, Roma, The Favourite). In fact, there are studies that suggest the more diverse a cast is, the more money that film will make at the box office.
So what does this mean for up and coming filmmakers, for writers, directors and producers? To me it suggests that diversity, especially diversity meets genre, is the zeitgeist of the day and this should be embraced and taken to heart. If you are a member of a diverse group, then don’t be afraid, in fact, be proud to tell your story from your own background, with that special insight that being a member of a diverse group can give you. For others, it might be something as simple as changing your lead or setting. Can your white-bread male lead, as well as supporting cast, be made female or gay or a member of a diverse group?
And generally speaking, it means making your world larger rather than smaller and be open to all possibilities in the world today.
In closing, I am going to talk about two movies that have core similarities: Into the Woods, the film made from the Stephen Sondheim musical, and the live action remake of the animated film, Beauty and the Beast, both fantasies, both musicals.
About halfway through Into the Woods, where on stage the intermission comes, everyone is singing Happily Ever After at the castle. Standing next to the main characters is a black woman, the only character of diversity I remember seeing in the film. And at that moment, all I could think is that, my, this movie is incredibly white. Cut to Beauty and the Beast which had an amazingly diverse cast, including two gay characters.
Now, I’m not saying that this was why Into the Woods didn’t do as well as expected or hoped and Beauty and the Beast was such a success. Into the Woods had other problems. And there are many reasons why one movie fails and another succeeds.
But still, I couldn’t help but take notice. And I think this is an area where filmmakers should probably start taking notice.