Win, lose or draw, the frantic election cycle has already made one thing painfully clear: The movies will never catch up. They are too slow. A collaborative, deliberative medium like cinema can never keep pace with events—or more properly, with perceptions of and fascinations with seeming events—that change almost hourly.
In early March—was it just eight months ago?—I was wondering if Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7, a Paramount/Amblin film about a 1968 political showdown, might connect with a potential convention battle between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. Silly me. By July, theaters were closed by coronavirus and the picture had gone to Netflix. Sanders had backed off. Biden had a lock on the Democratic nomination, and the political conventions, having gone virtual, left little to disrupt. Or connect with. The Sorkin film, deep in the folds of a streaming service, was left scratching for the sort of relevance promised on billboards that said: “The Whole World Is Watching.”
Since then, news “crises” have cascaded at a rate that leaves you wondering how many more will land between this morning and the close of polling (more or less) tomorrow. Through the summer and fall, it was one Story of the Century after another. Chaos in Portland. Crack-down in Seattle. Uprising in Kenosha. RBG dead. ACB named. Trump diagnosed. Trump hospitalized. Trump cured. Trump taxes leaked. Hunter’s laptop opened. Tech censors. Tech hearings. Postal collapse. The brutal debate. The mute button. New viral surge. Whitmer stalked. Anonymous revealed. Toobin exposed.
Frankly, I’ve lost track. In all likelihood, so have you.
But this bewildering blizzard of urgency isn’t going to end any time soon. Here in Santa Monica, as elsewhere, retailers are already boarding up against the next emergency, a presumed outbreak of post-election violence and looting. (Our spanking new Target store opened on October 25; within six days it had plywood on the windows.)
In fact, speed seems to be a cultural addiction. The news cycle always kicks up, never down. Attention spans don’t increase.
So the movies are left with a problem even trickier than the traditional challenge of hustling slightly historical, “ripped-from-the-headlines” films—The Social Network, The Big Short, Zero Dark Thirty, and such—through production while their characters and stories are still reasonably fresh.
In the current chaos, bombshells obliterate bombshells. News stories eat their own tails. Promotion becomes impossible, because no film—not a Bond, nor a Star Wars, nor a Joker—can flourish in the few hours during which it might hold the attention of a potential audience that is already hungry for the next sensation.
Sheer exhaustion at some point might bring a hiatus. In that space, some lucky studio might get a blockbuster, streamed or otherwise, into the market.
But over the long haul, one suspects, what’s really left to the movies is a quieter place, and pictures that operate well apart from the supposed zeitgeist or the frenzied flow of mainstream “news.” Attempts to connect with the spirit of the times are futile when that spirit shifts two or three times in the course of a day. Better to stick with history, humanity, heart. (More Mank, less Bombshell?) Go deep. These days, that’s not a bad place to be.