In his recent book, Clear Bright Future, the British political theorist Paul Mason admits to having recently experienced a moment of uncanny bewilderment. Walking down a UK high street, he was struck by the seemingly eternal youthfulness of Kate Moss, as she peered down at him from the towering heights of an outsized Calvin Klein billboard. It was only belatedly that Mason realised that the image of Moss was in fact a revival of an advertising campaign from the early 1990s, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of a particular brand of jeans. Apart from Moss’s age, however, nothing in the Clavin Klein ad was noticeably out-of-date. Neither the style of clothing nor the aesthetics of the photograph had appreciably evolved in the quarter-century separating the actual production of the ad from Mason’s viewing of it. It was as if, Mason thought to himself, culture itself had come to a standstill.
This is a sentiment that I have all too frequently felt myself. Compare a fashion magazine from 1999 with one from today, the differences between the two are imperceptible. Do the same with one from 1969 and one from 1989, and there is no mistaking them. Pop music in the last two decades has seen little genuine novelty, but merely the constant rehashing of established genres. Wander through a contemporary art museum, take in a play, read a recently-published novel, practically nothing produces a sense of the thrillingly unprecedented. Genuinely innovative artistic, literary or cultural movements in the 21st century are achingly thin on the ground.
The cinema of the 2010s, alas, does not escape from this severe judgement. Even in the previous decade, cinephiles were witness to the rise of new national schools – the various “new waves” of Romania, South Korea, Greece, Argentina and so on – and the emergence of auteur filmmakers with signature styles, as well as, perhaps most significantly, the blossoming of what came to be known as “slow cinema”. But by the onset of the present decade, Nick James’ polemical editorial in Sight & Sound had already noted the exhaustion of this mode of filmmaking. What had been new and bracing in 2001 had become mannered and formulaic by 2011. Perhaps Béla Tarr really had intuited something when he announced his retirement from directing with the release of A torinói ló (The Turin Horse) that year, a decision which he has since seen no reason to renounce.
On a personal note, the 2010s marked the moment when I started attending film festivals, and writing criticism, on an assiduous basis. I can feel a certain measure of confidence in claiming to have gained a reasonably thorough overview of the state of the art form during this decade. And to be sure, there has been no shortage of great cinema made in this time, whether from the old guard (Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Marie Straub, Manoel de Olivieira, Alexei German, Michael Haneke), those now reaching a state of maturation (Pedro Costa, Apichatphong Weerasethakul, Jia Zhang-ke, Albert Serra, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Claire Denis, James Gray), or a rising generation of young filmmakers (Matías Piñeiro, Ruben Östlund, Alex Ross Perry, Ryusuke Hamaguchi). But none of it has really cohered into the kind of movements or waves that have marked the cinema in previous decades, nor have any of these represented the point of departure for a sweeping aesthetic renewal of the medium. Instead, the dominant tendency has been one of continuity with and consolidation of the past, of variations on a theme rather than a revolution of the core.
Mason offers a hypothesis for this sense of cultural stasis. During most of the 20th century, the idea was widely held that the masses had the power to reshape the world, that history was an arena in which rival political systems, movements and worldviews jostled for supremacy. The prospect of radical social transformation was the fuel not only for artistic avant-gardes, but also, more mundanely, for the relentless shifts in pop cultural fashions. No sooner did a trend become dominant than it had to make way for a new, usually antithetical style. But the collapse of communism and the total ideological hegemony of neoliberalism, which is only now beginning to fracture, saw the collapse of any belief in the possibility of a world other than the one we live in, with all its inequalities, injustices and ecological disasters. As such, it also heralded the atomisation and stagnation of art, culture and fashion. The wheels propelling cultural change forward are, before our very eyes, grinding to a halt.
The irony is that this deceleration in the realm of the cultural is simultaneous with the dizzying pace of innovation in the sphere of the technological. Here again, cinema is totemic of this contradiction. At the start of the decade, even a trip to a suburban multiplex meant going to see a 35mm celluloid print passing through a projector. By the end of the decade, this experience had become the rarified preserve of cinémathèques and film museums. In the intervening years, the cinema succumbed to the omnipotence of the digital, whether in production, with the rampant use of CGI in both mainstream and arthouse filmmaking, or in viewing practices, with the adoption of digital projection, mobile devices and online streaming. And yet the films we watch remain surprisingly untouched by these phenomena. The disruptive promises of 3D and VR have gone largely unrealised. Instead, the 4K DCP screens in our movie-theatres show tired reboots of superhero franchises, and when we log in to Netflix on our smart TVs, it’s usually to watch old episodes of Friends. As Don Fabrizio in Luchini Visconti’s Il gattopardo (The Leopard, 1963) declared: “Everything must change so that everything remains the same.”
Of course, this is undeniably a Western perspective. I am presently writing these lines in a hotel room in China: my contemporaries here have directly witnessed, in the space of a couple of decades, an astonishingly rapid modernisation of their country. Only an intellectual dwarf could really think that we have somehow reached the end of history. Even in the West, the tendency towards inertia and the eternal recycling of the same is not an irreversible one. Already, in the political domain, the stirrings of a new era of struggle are discernible. This will also, I hope, make itself felt in the cinema, in ways that will no doubt be as unexpected as they are far-reaching. As an old revolutionary once said, “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.”