The movies are poised for a mood swing.
Signs of it were all over the Golden Globes on Sunday. The audience went missing, down a startling 60% in the early numbers. Mired in self-apology, the ceremony chewed its own tail: Something has to be different next year. As for the film awards, they scattered in all directions. Nomadland. Borat. Ma Rainey. Judas. The Chicago 7. The only unity was an underlying vibe. Whether laughing or crying, contemporary or period, fictional or quasi-real, the movies seemed to share an emotional matrix. They were somewhat angry. Mildly depressive. Ideologically correct. Fundamentally earnest.
That cinematic sulk — far more than production missteps or the failings of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association — has reduced viewer enthusiasm to the vanishing point. But things will change, probably as quickly as this fall. It’s just human nature.
To a degree, any attempt to define the tone of a movie year is muddled by self-projection, and open to flummery. With 366 films qualified for the Best Picture Oscar — an astonishing number, given the pandemic — a case can be made for almost anything. Emma is light-hearted. Palm Springs is downright silly.
Still, in any given year, a handful of pictures tend to preoccupy the culture. And in certain years, a sudden modal shift becomes too obvious to ignore.
This happened, for instance, in 1969. A year earlier, mainstream film was all about Funny Girl, The Lion in Winter and the Best Picture of 1968, Oliver! Good movies, indeed, but grounded, each of them, in what were then conventional feelings about romance, ambition, love and honor. 2001: A Space Odyssey, a jarring experience, got only a Visual Effects Oscar. Film was still in a comfortable mood.
Then suddenly we were watching — no, devouring — Midnight Cowboy and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Hollywood had caught up with the counterculture, and the new mood was distinctly unconventional. A misalliance between two Manhattan hustlers felt somehow transcendental. A whimsical death-trip in the Old West, complete with song on bicycle, made existential sense.
The mood of the movies had changed, much as it had shifted toward the gaiety of An American in Paris in 1951 from the cynical intelligence of Sunset Boulevard and All About Eve the year before. Earlier, there had been a tonal shift as the world drifted into war — from the romantic eccentricity of You Can’t Take It With You to the sobriety of Casablanca and Mrs. Miniver. Much later, in 1976, came a sudden transition to pure heart with Rocky after the twin terrors of Jaws and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. (Really, Nurse Ratched was as scary as the shark.)
For the past decade or so, the more prominent, awards-oriented movies have been operating on something of a tonal plane. Since at least 12 Years a Slave, through Spotlight and The Revenant and The Shape Of Water and Green Book, they have been intelligent but subdued, careful, sometimes bleak, very often suffused with social purpose. Where they occasionally erupted into joy, as with La La Land, a downbeat ending took control. Messaging supplanted exuberance. If a film, say, The Irishman, had no real message, it didn’t win the prize. That went to Parasite, which clearly had something to say.
For the moment, we’re in pretty much the same place. But viewers are restless. They certainly weren’t watching the Globes. The mood is going to swing.