Film Latest - - by Steven Herron

2016’s Grim Reaper Curse: What it means to mainstream cinema

2016’s Grim Reaper Curse: What it means to mainstream cinema Image via celebfresh.co.uk

While being a tragedy in its own right, the untimely death of Anton Yelchin is being seen as part of the 2016 curse on some of the world’s greatest talent. Formerly of note in the musical sphere, his death has shone its unwanted attention on the world of film. But now it’s here, what do we do with it?

2016 has gone from taking the lives of some of the eldest statesmen of the music world and turned its focus towards the world of cinema. Even before the death of Star Trek’s rising star, the world of film was subject to this curse. It began with the taking of Alan Rickman, widely admired for his humility and acting ability. What was perhaps not so well established was the fact that Prince and Bowie crossed over into film. Of course, Prince’s collection didn’t really get passed his self-indulgent Purple Rain and his series of blockbuster-styled music videos that screamed of 80s, but in Bowie there was just as great a deal of genre-splitting iconism as his music.

Martin Amis famously said of Bowie in 73 that he captured the aesthetic feel of the time and sensed its shift long before others noticed. He marked Bowie out, in his usual derisive way, to be the manifestation of what was emerging as ‘faddist’ culture. This shift hadn’t been marked then. Amis was working out what it was all about, using Bowie as a tool to denote the emerging changes in culture. And what Amis was originally being critical of was to become what saved the soul of music from the banality of the 70s music industry. But while Bowie was an icon of the artistic expression that came to reinvigorate 70s culture, and Prince an icon that came to do similar things for the 80s, the decade we’re in has not seen the same.

The world of mainstream film has, of course, been saturated by adaptations, mainly of the comic book kind. Star Trek has been a fairly solid example of this, one that has attracted less criticism than most. But while most see this as a sign of the times, it isn’t exactly new. Batman harks back to, well, Prince’s reign, 1989 to be precise, and a time when the artist formerly known as could command the exclusive rights to the film’s soundtrack. This age brought forth a gluttony of post modern and alternative cinema, which sliced apart the old order indulging the aesthetic faddist culture that Amis pointed out with Bowie, while critiquing the 80s blockbuster made music through Prince.

But further into the 20th century we gained access to a new school, which pulled together new and old. It combined the narratives, music, tropes and genres of various generations and artforms and played them all against each other. That school manifested spectacularly in Pulp Fiction, a clear post modern classic. The time line was disjointed, the characters were a mix of old and new actors playing on their types, delivering a film not easy to categorise. But it didn’t stop there.

The comic book was ripped apart not only by the cartoon antics of Batman, but also the cartoon juxtaposition of films such as Cool World and real world perceptions in adaptations like The Crow. While this age brought about an amalgamation of cinema and music, cartoon and film, old and young, it was to be replaced all too soon by a return to conservative realism that sought to reveal the real behind the madness. It spawned countless reinterpretations bordering on the neo-real genre, but with the addition of massive unexplained flaws – the kind that any discerning consumer beyond Generation X would bemoan. This has filtered into television, music and the arts, with reality television, Kardashian Instagrams and selfie art all following this very same trope.

During this period, an antithesis offered hope. Acting within the genre, his brilliance was owing to a hark back to the shift first spotted by Amis, delivered through Bowie, manifested through the work of Tarantino and cemented by Lee’s Crow – Heath Ledger’s Joker. Ledger played the Joker as a nihilistic facade that proved not only as a foil to the man behind the bat, but to an unceasing canon of neo-realist cinema that was too interested with the back story of the protagonist to pay any attention to its glaring flaws. But there was no man behind The Joker. There was only the personification of nihilism and the interplay of a post modern foil. Batman wasn’t even his real nemesis. In truth, that title belonged to the existential romance in Brandon Lee’s Crow – both tragically bound by their star’s immortal portrayals. As Ledger’s Joker proved, the man behind the bat never really appeared, generating thousands of college humour parodies the genre has never truly recovered from.

As Jared Leto now tries to portray The Joker in a post ironic flip, we see that tattooed misspellings, getting into character pre-production, and PG-13 ratings have done nothing but fail to enlighten the role and what it meant. As Amis recognised, the anti-hero was not meant to go beyond the confines of his culture; merely indulge it or critique it. But another anti-hero has stepped into the fray, armed with black comedy draped in traditional post modern attire and a seething-turned-learned Generation X attitude. Deadpool is his name. Harking to the alternative culture of the 90s as if a wild west hero of a golden age, he is as shameless as he is nonchalant in his references. And they come thick and fast. From the early post modern genius of Monty Python, in a bravado skit based on the Yorkshire men, to cutting slights on phone addiction and the immaturity of hashtags.

The new Joker and his Twitter pre-production portrayal is set to fail as a marker for cinematic characterisation and Leto’s post-post modern nihilism will be seen as it is – a glorification of childishness and a mockery of the acting method. On the other hand, Deadpool, with its indulgence of traditional post modernism, wise cracking black comedy, and generational references both to the heyday of the alternative 90s and the brooding nothingness of today’s millenial culture, has set the world of cinema on fire.

The real tragedy in 2016’s curse is that we’ve lost some of the key players in the western canon of film, old and new. It would seem that while on the brink of returning to the hey day of post modernity, intelligent film and biting critique that we’ve had to say our ironic farewell to some of the men behind the acting mask. Yelchin joins this contingent. Only time will tell, but he too showed promise in another saga set to take the world of mainstream cinema in another direction. But perhaps we can now join him, Rickman, Bowie, Ledger and so many others and party like it’s 1999, just as Prince wanted.

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Steven is a writer and journalist specialising in culture and politics.

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