The Golden Age

FYI- I also recently posted a Film Nerd-ish entry updating folks on The Nocturnal Third over at our production blog.

This summer movie season seems to recall a conversation that is one of the cornerstones of Film Nerds.

Before this weekend’s Transformathon, the most talked-about film of the season has been JJ Abrams’ Super 8. The most well-regarded films have been Tree of Life and Midnight in Paris. The latter of these addresses an idea that I feel is the season’s unifying theme. Woody Allen’s latest follows a struggling writer as he escapes to his own idea of bohemia’s Golden Age, the Paris of the 1920’s.

Super 8 also points to a kind of Golden Age for my generation. The movie is a throw-back to the suburbia of The Goonies and E.T., where pre-adolescence is a heightened life of irresponsibility, mystery, and early brushes with a chosen sub-culture. However, much of the chatter around the film has centered less on the film’s setting and more its marketing, which points heavily to the directorial Golden Age of producer Steven Spielberg.

Also, it would seem to me that the last of the summer’s superhero movies, Captain America: The First Avenger, takes a romantic look at World War II adventure- its hero literally born in the “Golden Age” of comic books. In addition – and again, having not seen it – Tree of Life seems to point to an idyllic memory of America’s past.

You see my point. So far, the idea of a “Golden Age” seems to be this year’s thematic through-line when it comes to mainstream film, as last year’s films seemed to be focused on an acceptance of realities (Inception, Social Network, Black Swan, True Grit).

Let’s go back to the specific idea that’s exemplified in Midnight in Paris, though. Allen’s hero gets to witness the peak creative years of a movement or group of people. When weighing that against this summer’s mainstream movie creators, I think less of Spielberg’s Golden Age and more of the authors of Cars 2.

I won’t bury the lead- I think that Pixar has closed the books on its first era of greatness. It would seem that the company has two overall eras of feature film-making up to this point. Their “Independent” era stretches from Toy Story to The Incredibles, before they were purchased by Disney. The “Disney/Pixar” era would start with 2006’s Cars, and appears to close with this year’s sequel to that movie and a changing of direction.

Looking forward, much of Pixar’s original guard is dabbling in other arenas. Finding Nemo and Wall-E auteur Andrew Stanton is directing the long-gestating adaptation of A Princess of Mars. Incredibles and Ratatouille director Brad Bird just saw a trailer released for his live-action debut, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. Pete Doctor doesn’t seem to be visibly working on anything for Pixar. John Lasseter tagged in to helm Cars 2, but at this point, his duties as an executive at Disney probably keep him fairly busy.

Lee Unkrich seems to be the leader of the new guard, taking over directorial duties for Lasseter on Toy Story 3 and doing quite a bang-up job. Next year sees further proof of the next phase of Pixar, as the company is releasing the uncharacteristic Brave, which looks to introduce a beautiful new direction. I trust Pixar completely, but Cars 2 does sit as a kind of demarcation point for me, as I’ve resolved to skip the movie in its theatrical run. That’s the first time I’ve done so since Monsters, Inc., which is a mistake I still regret. I can only hope that the next few years are full of exciting and unique stories from a brand new slate of Emeryville storytellers. While I do expect a certain brand of “special” from Pixar, I certainly don’t expect them to bottle the feeling of Wall-E, Toy Story, and Up and try to sell it to me again and again.

That returns us to Spielberg. The release of the trailers for The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse, as well as Super 8’s continued theatrical run, has kept the Great Film Nerd War raging about Spielberg’s own Golden Age. Let me remind you- I count myself as our troupe’s biggest fan of the director of my favorite movie of all time. The guy needs no defending, but I need to be honest when I say I believe Spielberg to be the greatest director of all time. I say that not to qualify myself, but to warn of extreme prejudice in this dialog.

In finding the proper Spielberg eras, you can break it all down in a few different ways.

You could use decades: 70’s Spielberg (from Duel to 1941), 80’s Spielberg (from Raiders of the Lost Ark to Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade), 90’s Spielberg (Hook to Saving Private Ryan), and 00’s Spielberg (A.I. to Indiana Jones & The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull). That would allow us a clean break that begins with The Adventures of Tintin.

For me, I would break Spielberg’s filmography into two overall eras, after his establishment in Hollywood with The Sugarland Express: The Amblin Era, from Jaws to Jurassic Park, and the Dreamworks Era, from Amistad to Munich. There’s a marked difference in Spielberg’s approach once he won an Oscar, locked onto Janusz Kaminski, and became the revered, old King of Hollywood.

Despite these arbitrary boundaries, it is certainly a unanimous opinion, however, that Spielberg’s Golden Age lies within that Amblin Era, stretching across two decades from 1975 to 1982: Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 1941, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T. These five films are most likely what people refer to when they say “classic Spielberg”. Sure, one of these films is not like the other, but you cannot argue the visual bombast going on in that particular World War II sex comedy you’re squinting at.

Keep in mind those are only really four films. So, out of a four decade career and over twenty movies, a Golden Age can be created, the same as Pixar’s Golden Age is represented by a strong four years. That is, if we agree Pixar has only had one so far… or isn’t just now exiting one giant streak of magnificence. Really, this kind of perspective that can only come with time and distance. The end of a Golden Age, however, must come. Eras of prosperity and vibrancy must end for growth to happen.

Look at Pixar’s rich uncle, Walt Disney Animation. How many eras of brilliance has Disney had? I can count at least three: The dawn of feature animation, from Snow White to Bambi, the post-war hot streak, from Cinderella to The Jungle Book, and the renaissance, from The Little Mermaid to The Lion King. How about Woody Allen, the prolific workaholic that started this conversation?

That should give one hope. Perhaps your favorite writer, director, or musician is just one new creation away from beginning a new personal Golden Age. After this year, Spielberg will have a three-film streak of films aimed at children, before returning with the assumedly Oscar-chasing Lincoln, followed by perhaps the serious sci-fi of Interstellar or Robopocalypse (yes, “serious”). The man has proven himself adept at a variety of fare, and I hope that he achieves a late-career Golden Age like his friend Martin Scorsese.

Regardless, don’t get too caught up in worrying if your favorite has lost the golden touch. That rarely happens. Yes, Pixar is changing, but don’t lament that fact. As great as that 2007 to 2010 streak was for Pixar, we do not want them to attempt to manufacture what made Wall-E, Up, or Ratatouille so incredible. The proclivity to green-light sequels to Toy Story, Cars, and Monsters Inc. seems frightening, and is proof that we don’t want these men and women to look back, but rather forward. Haters of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull should beware what happens when a filmmaker forcibly attempts to recapture magic.

We should not ask for Golden Ages to be artificially extended. It doesn’t work in overall culture, it doesn’t work in family, and it won’t work in film-making. Enjoy the valleys as well as the peaks, because in the midst of a perceived dry period, you might just find yourself a Minority Report or a Munich or a Tarzan or a No Country for Old Men. And, with that, I may have talked myself into seeing Cars 2.