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Wherefore Art Thou, Michelangelo?

Once upon a time culture was exciting. Society had fizz and verve: and this was reflected in the arts. Pick your poison: whether you’re a Swinging Sixties acolyte, or a fin de siècle fanatic, we all have an affinity for one of the great periods of creative disruption, littered throughout the ages. Which is a shame, because right now our culture is about as virile as a can of baked beans: possibly even less so. In our current age of sterility, creativity is beating a hasty retreat on all fronts, caught between the twin pincers of bland consumer capitalism, and genuflecting new age moralism. What we need is a new Renaissance: a rebirth of originality and the consignment of our current, aesthetically bankrupt, culture to the dustbin of history.

Nowhere is this gut-wrenching slide into tedium more apparent than in the film industry. What was once a lively mish-mash of standalone thrillers, historical epics and independent comedy, is now a monolith of predictable mediocrity. The facts speak for themselves; over the last decade, 17 of the 25 highest grossing films have been sequels. Only 4 of the top 50 highest grossing films had an original Intellectual Property (not a sequel, reboot, or franchise film). Even amongst these 4, we are still confronted with the somewhat dubious Frozen and Secret Life of Pets. To put this into context, the figure for the 1990s was over 5 times that, with over half of the top grossing films being original.

Something clearly went terribly wrong in the 2000s, and film historians think they know what. Termed “The Phantom Menace effect”, after the particularly atrocious (but financially rewarding) 1999 Star Wars reboot, the term signifies the point at which Hollywood realized that hype sells better than quality. The studios discovered that they could be far more certain of a film’s financial success, if it was part of a pre-existing franchise: interest could be drummed up with minimal effort and audience numbers could be predicted. The increased costs that came with modern CGI and special effects could be offset against the fact that studios could be fairly certain of not losing their money, as had been quite common in the decades before. In simple terms, the iron grip of economics squeezed experimentation out of the film industry.

Evidence of this decline is all around us: adverts for the latest Marvel reheat are now a permanent blotch on the sides of buses across the world, and the studio behind the Fast And Furious franchise are starting to push the boundaries of their audience’s (admittedly limited) numeracy skills. And against this backdrop, a deafening silence. Martin Scorsese, a lone artist in a flaccid sea of corporatism, recently attracted widespread criticism by daring to suggest that superhero films lack artistic merit. The torrent of abuse which greeted him for making this perfectly reasonable observation, merely confirmed my worst suspicions: that a large proportion of Superhero film fans spend too much time in their rather sweaty bedrooms and have no knowledge of real life, or art. I think the key to their online vitriol is guilt: in their hearts, the grubby-fingered angries, who get worked up about these things, must realise that the films which they cherish are, by all objective standards, rubbish.

Even critics tend to tread carefully around these new genres of film, fearful of being called out as elitist or out of touch. The only criticism which many will voice is concern about the lack of diversity, an important issue no doubt, but one that somewhat misses the point. Having a debate on whether a superhero character should be a man or woman, or whether a certain sci-fi character is straight or gay is, from the artistic side, irrelevant; I’d rather see less superheroes and stormtroopers full stop and couldn’t give less of a toss about precisely what form they come in. Let’s, instead, make films that are representative of the world that we live in, not the ones we want to escape into.

This brings me to the crux of the point. If we accept that today’s film culture is sterile, then it follows that something must be done about it. Of all the examples that history’s tender hands pass down to us, that of the Italian Renaissance surely stands out. Against a backdrop of stultifying drudgery, the men of Florence, Rome and Venice managed to cast off the weighty shroud of Medieval mediocrity and mysticism. Out went endless saint’s lives, shoddy biblical adaptations and formless paintings, in came a new age of learning and beauty. If they could do it, why can’t we? So, let’s break the emergency glass, and pull the Michelangelo lever; by looking to the past, we may well save the future.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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