Where to Now? – How Cinema Transitions from One Era to Another

When we enter into a new decade, the first thought that we often ponder over is what the last 10 years were all about.  This can cover a variety of things; politics, music, culture, and really just the lives we had during that time.  Essentially, we like to mark this transition in years as an era of time, as if these 10 calendar years themselves had their own defining characteristics.  The truth is that eras are not so easily defined, as a time period we know as the 70’s in fact probably didn’t define itself until probably the latter half of the decade, and spilled a little bit over into the early 80’s.  But, we still seem to define these decades as such because of all those above factors: the culture, the politics, the music, and of course, the movies.  If anything, it’s really the movies that have come to define the transitioning of our culture from decade to decade, as you can definitely see a progression that not only was shaped by the culture that made them, but also would go on to influence the culture itself.  We all like to determine what was the defining 80’s movie, or the defining 70’s movie, and so on, and there are always some worthwhile candidates throughout.  But, as indicated earlier, the movies that come to define an era don’t always come right at the turn of a new decade.  Despite some rare examples, few movies actually make that transition hit right at the turn of the decade, and are often found somewhere in the middle, or even at the very end.  But, even still, it is interesting to see how much eras of cinema coincide with the character of the decades that they exist within.  And as we go into a new one this year, it makes us wonder where the next ten years are going to take us next, and if those markers even matter anymore, given how much change cinema seems to be going through even year to year now.

In many ways, we really didn’t take into account how much a decade left it’s mark on the movies until really after the culture itself shifted.  Once the counterculture movement started to move into full swing in the late 1960’s, it was about then that film criticism and analysis started to look back on the years prior as a way of defining the past from the culturally shifting present.  That’s when people started to look at the eras that were apparent, much less defined by the decades they existed in, and more defined by the advancements they made within the art-form.  Specifically, early films were defined as the Silent Era, which encompassed decades worth of movies extending from the first Edison Vitaphone shorts at the turn of the 20th Century to the grand expressionist masterpieces of the German masters to the very beginnings of Hollywood itself.  This celebrated era finds it’s end with the release of Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer (1927), the first “talkie” which would revolutionize the industry overnight and bring synchronized sound to the art-form.  But even after The Jazz Singer, silent films didn’t just end; Chaplain for instance would continue making silent movies for several more years.  But it would mark the end of their dominance in the medium, as sound film would quickly take over as the norm.  This as a result becomes the narrative of the history of cinema; with one fell swoop, one era of movies comes to an end and then another begins, ignoring the more opaque line that really exists between each.  Even still, cinema aficionados really want to classify a time period within these parameters and pinpoint exactly where the era ends and begins.  This is why the Silent Era feels so fittingly concluded by The Jazz Singer, because it’s works like a cinematic exclamation.  Also, it marked a point where new advancements in technology would play the defining role in presenting a transition for cinema in general.

As such, the years that followed would see new eras defined by the various new advancements in the medium.  The introduction of technicolor, the invention of anamorphic widescreen, even 3D and Smell-o-vision would characterize the changing times of cinema in the years ahead.  Real world issues would also play a factor too.  The 1940’s would absolutely be characterized as one thing in particular within cinema, because it was the thing that was on everyone else’s mind at the time; the War Years.  With World War II raging throughout the globe from 1939 to 1945, it’s easy to see how such a worldwide event would dominate every aspect of the culture, including the movies.  Indeed, every movie made in those years was in one way or another affected by the War, with some more overtly addressing it than others.  Even if you watch a sweet little romantic movie from that era, you’ll notice in the movie’s credits that there’s a reminder to buy war bonds in the lobby, which shows that even escapist entertainment needed to do it’s part for the war effort.  But, even despite the war hanging over the culture and the industry like it did, it doesn’t mean that there was a disruption in the advancement of film-making during that time either.  Some of the greatest movies ever made directly deal with the War head on and still hold up even long after the conflict is over; Casablanca (1943) being one of the shiniest examples.  But the War years as they are known in cinema also extended beyond just the War itself, as the aftermath also left it’s mark in the years after.  Soldiers coming home from the war became not just a different audience for the movies, but also an interesting subject as well.  The Oscar-winning drama The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) tackled the lingering trauma of the post war experience head-on, including having a real life wounded vet, Harold Russell, playing a key role.  There was also a movie like It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) that while not about the War itself still was thematically linked to it; especially considering that both director Frank Capra and star Jimmy Stewart were returning vets themselves.  Culture and technological advancements alike would both shape the different perceived eras of cinema, and though brief in comparison, the War Years themselves would leave the most profound of change on the industry.

But, once the counterculture began to really push society in a different direction, the importance of cinema leaving a statement became more relevant to how it would define an era.  For the most part, the years immediately following the War probably defined cinema the most, as it has been affectionately been dubbed the Golden Years.  During this time, to give rapidly growing families from the “Baby Boom” the kind of escapist entertainment that they desired, Hollywood began investing in bigger, more lavish productions.  This was the era of the Roadshow picture, with massive scope and production values meant to envelope the audience in an experience that they could only find on the big screen.  This was also spurned on by the beginning of television as a direct competitor.  Movies became grandiose spectacle, and with it, so came the inevitable downfall.  These movies often became financially unsound, with budgets ballooning to unfathomable heights.  20th Century Fox’s Cleopatra (1963) nearly bankrupted the studio, and they weren’t the only ones feeling the crunch.  At the same time, people were growing frustrated with the Hollywood machine, and were more attracted to the international output of bold new artists coming out of the French New Wave or the Italian Neo-realist Movement.  Thus, we began to see push-back from the Counter-culture, who saw big “Hollywood” as a relic of the past, and who wanted to carve out a “New Hollywood” in it’s place.  And in this period of time, you will find the most definitive year of stark transition ever in Hollywood.  Though the psychedelic 60’s had a major influence throughout the decade in cinema, Old Hollywood was still a lingering presence.  And then came 1969, where you see the real schism finally split the two apart.  It was the year that produced both Hello, Dolly (1969), an old-fashioned, and expensive, throwback musical and Easy Rider (1969), a micro-budget celebration of hippie culture in America.  Dolly crashed and burned at the box office, while Easy Rider became a smash hit, and the writing was finally on the wall.  1969 was the year that New Hollywood had finally come into it’s own.  This was even more apparent come Oscar time, when Best Picture was given to the first X-Rated winner, Midnight Cowboy; on the same night that Old Hollywood legend John Wayne won his Oscar for True Grit no less.  You won’t find a year that stated so much about the change in cinema than that one right there.

From that point on, it became less about the advancements in the medium that defined, but more about the culture itself that defined the movies.  And as such, the decades themselves became the benchmarks for the movies that premiered within them.  The 1970’s, in retrospect, took the counter-culture ideal more seriously, and as a result we saw a significant reduction in Studios being the driving force behind the movies and more the directors being the one’s pushing cinema to the next level.  It was the era of the director, a time period defined as some would call the “easy riders and the raging bulls,” as the 2003 documentary of the same name details.  Coincidentally enough, those were exactly the same movies that would bookmark the era, as the creative freedom given after Easy Rider would dissipate soon after Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980).  Much like the studios before them, the ambitions of the maverick directors of the era would soon become unmanageable, and their projects would in turn go over-budget and under-seen as well.  Great promising careers from amazing directors like William Friedkin, Michael Cimino, and even Francis Ford Coppola were cut short because they lost the trust of the studios financing them, and were left to work under tighter constraints for the rest of their careers.  Only Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese would manage to continue working on consistently high levels in the years ahead, which would be easily defined as the era of the blockbuster.  The 1980’s evolved in the wake of the downfall of the director era, and became more about escapist entertainment.  Every studio thereafter wanted their own Star Wars (1977) or Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), and it became a fruitful time for fantasy, sci-fi, and adventure.  Though we see this as a defining aspect of the 1980’s, it would also extend far into the 1990’s, as digital technology began to redefine special effects.  And in this time period, box office became a race like never before.  Back in the early days of cinema, there would always be untouchable kings, like Gone With the Wind (1939), but starting in the 90’s, records would fall with regular consistency, and it was not always an indication of the quality of the film, but more about how well a movie can do on it’s opening weekend.  Thus we got into a time when intellectual properties became the most prized commodity in Hollywood; not the stars, nor the directors, but the brand, and that in a way has led to an era that more or less hasn’t changed in the last 20 years.

Right now, if you were to define the 2000’s and the 2010’s in cinema, I’d say that you’d have a much harder time than previous eras before.  That’s because the traditional markers that we’ve used before in defining the different eras of cinema have kind of lost their value over time.  What I think is the most defining change over the last 20 years of film is the advancement of digital cinema.  Since the year 2000, digital film-making has gone from a novelty to a norm in a very short amount of time.  And in that same period, movie theaters have also quickly converted to digital presentations as well.  This has reduced the necessity of physical media in making and presenting media, which movie studios and theaters see as more cost effective and efficient.  But it also leads to something that I don’t think many people have realized.  The reason why so many movies from different eras have a different look and texture to them is because film stock itself changed so much over the years.  There are very big differences between how a movie looks in 70mm, 35mm, and 16mm, and even the brand differences between suppliers like Kodak and Fujifilm, and processors like Technicolor and Deluxe, would make a big difference in how a finished movie would appear.  But now, with many movies today not even using film, it leads to a result of all movies looking more or less the same, at least in terms of texture.  Everything now has that digital sheen to it, all the way down to the way they are presented.  Even television shows are beginning to look more like movies today, and that’s because they are using pretty much the same types of cameras.  There are holdovers that still shoot and even present on film, but for the most part, movies have been going in this decidedly digital direction, and that has defined most of what we’ve seen in the last several year.  Combine this with an even more homogenized studio system that favors brands over original ideas, and you’ve got an era of Hollywood that seems to be more driven by repetition and standardization than ever before.

The only really disruptive thing that we’ve recently seen in the last 20 years has been the way we watch movies now.  If there was ever something that defined the 2010’s in cinema, it would be the rise of Netflix and streaming cinema; as well as super hero movies.  Netflix didn’t start in the last decade (it’s actually a surprisingly 20+ year old company), but it certainly came into it’s own in the last 10 years, and that is mainly due to their decision to invest in their own content.  Probably seeing the writing on the wall early on, knowing that eventually the other studios would want to take their model and use it for their own distribution, Netflix spent billions on exclusive movies and shows that could only be viewed on their platform, and as result became a studio on their own with a reach in viewership rivaling that of the big six.  Even with Disney, Fox, Warner Brothers, and Universal all jumping into streaming now, Netflix still has themselves positioned well, because of the quality of content they’ve acquired, including movies now from giants like Martin Scorsese and the Coen Brothers.  More than anything, what Netflix has disrupted the most is the viewing habits of the movie going public.  Their streaming model has offered the most direct competition to the theatrical experience since the advent of television, and that in itself is defining the last decade of cinema more than any movie has.   Movie theaters are desperately trying to hold onto their patronage that has benefited them for several decades before, and because of Netflix and the like, we’re going to see a new era for the presentation side of cinema the likes of which we haven’t seen in many decades.  So, if it’s not the movies that are defining the eras of cinema at this point, it’s the way we are watching them that is.  For the last ten years, it was Netflix that reigned unchallenged; perhaps the next ten will be defined by how all the new platforms will challenge each other in this new competitive market.

There are many different ways to look at cinema as blocks of easily defined eras, but the truth is far more complex than that. The truth is that cinema has been fluidly flowing from one decade into another, and only in retrospect do we take a look back and try to form a pattern in it all. The movies that we say defined the decade may have, in fact, not been recognized as such in their day, and were instead more likely just seen as the great movies that they were. Defining an era more comes out of how we want to look back at the years that have passed us by, and see a way that we can explain why attitudes and personal tastes change over time. At the same time, our perceptions of cultural touchstones, like the movies, can also be influenced by the era they come from, and helps to shape their reception for newer audiences. Terms like the Silent Era, the Golden Era, and the Psychedelic Era are easily marketable and can help to draw attention to older movies based on what someone is looking for. In many ways, Hollywood enjoys define their different eras, even if they don’t exactly know how to shape them to begin with. In the end, it is determined by the things that we find the most fascinating about the movies in each era that determine how they will shape their place in time. Whether it’s through the technology that pushes the medium forward, the stars that capture our imagination, the artists that drive the art-form, or as we are seeing right now, the way we watch the movies, cinema will more or less tell it’s own story, which it does so through it’s own evolution. An era in cinema is an easy to grasp definition, one that doesn’t tie down to a set number of years. So, as we look back at the last ten years, and forwards to the next ten, it helps to understand that a new era of cinema is just another chapter in an ongoing story that flows in it’s own way. Great movies can come at any time from anywhere, and the great part of history is that it is constantly being written. For now, feel happy that you are experiencing a time in cinema that itself will be seen under different eyes in the years ahead, and that hopefully you’ll have been part of something exciting historical and important to the culture at large.

 

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