I believe there is a moment in every die-hard cinephile’s life when they view a film which changes their life and set them forth upon the path of cinematic obsession. The moment where they stop viewing film as they did – as entertainment – and begin to appreciate film as an audio/visual artform.
For me, and I’d wager many others, that moment was the first time I watched – after being prompted by a friend – Kubrick’s iconic Magnum-opus, 2001: A Space Odyssey. I, like most human beings, had always enjoyed film, and, being an autistic, spent most of my youth before a screen, watching an unhealthily large pile of VHS tapes. (Yes, I’m that old). Yet, it wasn’t until I first saw 2001 that I became obsessed with the artform, leading to my love for the likes of David Lynch and Lars Von Trier. It was a hypnotic, spell-binding, mind-blowing moment of clarity that I doubt I’ll ever experience again. And now, after fifty years, it finally returns to cinema screens to celebrate the anniversary.
It’s tragic then – especially knowing how beloved and influential the film is – to come to a sobering and heart-breaking realisation: 2001 A Space Odyssey would have absolutely no chance of being produced in the contemporary landscape of cinema, and we, the audience, are to blame. There can be little dispute that, despite a massive budget for the time – 10 – 12.5 million dollars – and a worldwide cinematic release, the film was an arthouse experience; favouring technique and composition over dialogue and narrative, rich on atmosphere and visual spectacle. It has, through multiple re-releases, made over $100 million worldwide, yet, if we adjusted it for inflation in today’s money, the film would have cost roughly $250 million. This would make it, in the contemporary age, potentially the 9th most expensive film ever made. If one looks at the rest of the top ten, a worrying trend becomes apparent: it’s littered with dumb, loud, tentpole blockbusters.
Pirates of The Caribbean: Stranger Tides tops the list, despite being absolutely awful, coming in at a jaw-dropping $397 million. After that, it’s the likes of The Avengers: Age of Ultron, The Avengers: Infinity War, and John Carter. Incidentally, this means that Disney make up most of the top ten in terms of expenditure, though I feel that’s an article for another day. Effectively, 2001: A Space Odyssey would be an incongruous anomaly in such company, and easily the most expensive arthouse production ever made in today’s money. With only $150 (roughly) pulled back from box-office results over the years (though, of course, one would have to adjust that for inflation as well), it’s likely that it would lose money in the contemporary market, causing studios to become afraid of taking a chance upon it. So, how did we go from a position where such artistic endeavours were funded by studios without fear to the contemporary model, where blockbusters dominate the landscape and art films are near impossible to find large-scale funding for?
Unfortunately for fans of Spielberg and Lucas, those two are entirely to blame. Spielberg’s Jaws is considered by many to be the first true blockbuster. Released in 1975, it garnered an incredibly huge release for the time, becoming the first film to be released in over 450 cinemas on the opening day. It focused heavily on marketing and merchandising and changed the Hollywood model forever, being labelled by many as the prototypical blockbuster. If Jaws was the prototype, then Lucas’ Star Wars (known now as Star Wars: A New Hope) was the first true blockbuster event, changing cinema forever. Gone were the days of the film itself being the priority, and ushered in was the era of merchandising being equally, if not more important, than the actual film itself. Over the years this simply became worse and worse, and the arthouse further and further into the darkness, until we reached the contemporary model where franchising and shared-universes have become the norm, and many tentpole productions feel less like a film in their own right, and more like episodes of a long-running Television show that just so happens to play on the big-screen.
Put simply, if your film doesn’t have potential for umpteen sequels, or isn’t part of some wider on-going narrative, studios aren’t interested; culminating in the iconic David Lynch declaring that ‘I think feature films are in trouble, and the arthouses are dead.’. He has a point. Look at how Paul Thomas Anderson’s fantastic Phantom Thread was swept under the carpet by the box-office domination of Marvel’s Black Panther. Look at how Villenueve’s Blade Runner: 2049 failed to make a major impact at the box-office. Look at how Aranofsky’s Mother! – the most interesting film released last year – was met by audience disdain and labelled by many as one of the worst films ever made. It seems the modern audiences have no time anymore for thought-provoking or intriguing cinema; instead salivating as Hollywood spoon-feeds them the same repetitive braindead shit time after time, over and over, in an endless cycle of homogeneous monotony.
The more these attempts at artistic expression are overlooked or chastised by audience, the fewer opportunities become present for filmmakers with actual integrity to be given chances to make authentic and pure cinema that strikes at one’s soul and forces us to think for ourselves. Sadly, we’ve done this. We continuously give the likes of Disney our money, reinforcing the notion that this is what we want. Would 2001: A Space Odyssey – one of the most critically revered and beloved films of all time – have any chance of being produced today? Would a film that runs for 142 minutes but only features 40 minutes of dialogue, with the first 25 minutes being entirely dialogue free, have any chance in the modern cinematic landscape? The answer, tragically, is no. The film is simply too audacious, and modern audiences are likely to lack the patience to watch something so ambiguous, metaphysical, with an ending that is still vehemently discussed and analysed by critics and fans today. It would likely be labelled boring, or pretentious – which seems to be the go-to term for art films these days – or, even more annoyingly, self-indulgent; a criticism that I’ve never understood. Surely we want artists to express and indulge themselves while making films?
Surely we don’t want to experience something that is clearly the result of multiple suits sitting around a table and making tick-list cinema, a la Avengers: Infinity War? Unfortunately, it seems that, in the modern age of Netflix and iPhones, we don’t want these things. We seem to want studio products that all feel the same. We seem to want films that feature irreverent characters making cringe-inducing one-liners every five minutes that have no interest in artistic expression. We seem to want the same product given to us all the time, like monkeys waiting around for the zoo-keeper to chuck us a peanut, and turning our nose up in disgust and disdain should they offer us a slice of bread. However, we’ve been given a golden opportunity to prove that the arthouse isn’t dead. To prove there is still a market for films such as this one. We’ve been given a re-release. Now, I’m not the preachy type, and I believe entirely in personal freedom, so, if you really have no interest in attending the cinema and basking in the glory of potentially the greatest film of all time, then that’s fine. If, however, you are like me, and are an arthouse loving cinephile, please try and attend a screening. Maybe if enough of us turn up, and enough money is generated, it may cause studios to reconsider and invest more heavily in these projects.
Maybe, just maybe, we could cause an arthouse renaissance via our attendance, by speaking with our wallets. Perhaps not, but it’s worth a try. Open the cinema doors, Hal, and turn up for 2001: A Space Odyssey.
FILM ARTICLE BY JOSHUA MOULINIE
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