A few days ago I began a blog series talking about the new style of cinema I call “Brave New World,” which has arisen only in the last ten years and particularly since 2014. These are films that represent a fundamental sea change in what cinema is doing, how it tells stories and how it reflects our complicated and shifting times. If you need a primer on what I consider Brave New World to be, go back and read the first installment of the series, here. In short, BNW cinema tells stories by or about people or things that have traditionally not had their stories told in big Hollywood movies before; these films generally ask for deep emotional and intellectual commitment from their audiences; they’re visually beautiful and slick, with production values that were, a generation ago, more common to “epic” films than small stories; and they depict landscapes of moral confusion, which are perfect for mirroring our own times.
In this installment, I’ll continue to flesh out what Brave New World cinema is through a number of representative examples. Because I keep returning to the theme of stories that haven’t generally been told in Hollywood films–or stories told by minority voices–I’m going to focus this installment on a few of those “small story” films, whether they were made by minority filmmakers or not. All of these films I consider to be excellent examples of how Brave New World cinema is changing our conception of what movies are and what they can do.
Get Out (2017, Jordan Peele, director)
Brave New World is not limited to any genre. That’s one of its strengths: it’s a style and an attitude that transcends genre. Get Out shows us what can happen when horror takes a step into the Brave New World. A popular and acclaimed film–it was a huge box office hit and writer-director Jordan Peele won an Academy Award for Best Screenplay–Get Out masters the horror genre which has always been about morality more than anything else.
The film is the story of an African-American photographer, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), who is dating a white woman (Allison Williams). She brings him home to meet her wealthy parents who live in a Southern plantation-like home. Observing strange behavior among his girlfriend’s parents’ guests, Chris comes to suspect that a mind-control cult with racist motivations is operating out of the plantation home. Naturally he is its next victim, but nothing quite goes like you would expect it to, and Get Out delivers one chilling surprise twist after another.
Get Out is the horror film we desperately need in the late 2010s–an era of increasing social and political polarization, much of it based on race, that we have not seen since the 1960s, another period rife with innovative experimentation in cinema. That a horror movie can illuminate both spoken and unspoken prejudice, and hold up a mirror to how we’ve failed to deal with race constructively in the whole history of America, is a truly amazing illustration of how powerful the Brave New World style can be. And the movie is a rollicking good time to boot.
Carol (2015, Todd Haynes, director)
Just as Brave New World cinema has no specific genre, neither does it have to be set in contemporary times to be extremely effective. The story of Carol’s making is an example of how movies have changed in the 2010s. The story of a wealthy woman (Cate Blanchett) who falls in love with a much younger woman she meets at a department store (Rooney Mara), Carol is based on a novel written in 1952 by Patricia Highsmith which was semi-autobiographical. The book, which Highsmith originally had to publish under a pseudonym, was republished in her own name in 1990 not long before her death, and about the time interest in making a film of it started. As the development stretched into this decade, marked by significant legal and social advances for LGBT people, the material remained risky for film producers not because of homosexuality but because it required two women (and no men) in the lead roles. Gay director Todd Haynes ultimately brought it to the screen, and it’s a wonderful bittersweet story that has a lot to say about the experiences of LGBT women in the 1950s, where it is set.
Carol is an amazing film on a number of levels. When contrasted with the rather ham-handed treatment of homosexuality in Brokeback Mountain (2005), Carol shows how far LGBT cinema has come in a decade, and that’s entirely due to the Brave New World era. Here we have women who happen to be gay, but it’s their love, not their sexual preference, that defines their characters and drives their actions in the story. Before the present decade, even sympathetic treatment of LGBT characters in movies tended to tell stories where acceptance (or non-acceptance) of a same-sex relationship was the central message. Carol, however, unfolds just as a romance among heterosexual people would, treating the acceptance question in much the same way it treats the culture of fear surrounding Communism in the early 1950s. What you might call “gay cinema” has been around for decades, but Carol is not a “gay” film. It’s a romance like any other. It’s also painstakingly authentic in its portrayal of the look and feel of the 1950s, perfect in its costumes, set design, cinematography and editing. This is about as good as Brave New World cinema gets.
Brooklyn (2015, Nick Hornby, Director)
As stories go, they don’t get much smaller than Nick Hornby’s Brooklyn, but rarely do they get more lavish screen treatment. The film, based on Colm Tóibín’s 2009 novel, is the quiet story of Ellis (Saorise Ronan), a young woman from an obscure town in Ireland who decides to immigrate to the United States and who settles in Brooklyn. At first Ellis struggles to adapt to the challenges and loneliness of her new life, but she strikes up an unlikely romance with Tony (Emory Cohen), an all-American kid of Italian extraction. When Ellis’s sister dies suddenly and she must return to Ireland to attend the funeral, she is suddenly torn between her old life in Ireland, which part of her misses, and her new life and love in America. Like Carol, Brooklyn also takes place in the early 1950s and is steeped in the culture and mindset of that time. But its characters are so well-developed and the picture so deftly and subtly directed that the whole project rekindles your faith in what movies can do. I cry at the end of Brooklyn every time. It is one of my favorite Brave New World films.
The expert touch and stellar production values lavished on Brooklyn would simply not have happened in any other time. Technological advances now available in the 2010s mean that you can shoot a picture like this, for a mere $11 million, and have it come out looking like Lawrence of Arabia. Almost every shot in the film could be framed and put on a wall. The sets, photography and costumes are painstakingly perfect. I couldn’t see a cigar-chomping Hollywood studio exec giving an idea like this the time of day. “She moves to Brooklyn and falls in love? That’s it? No exploding buildings or CGI monsters? Get out of my office!” But this is the essence of Brave New World cinema.
Leviathan (2014, Andrey Zvyaginstev, Director)
With American, British, Swiss and Irish-made films already profiled in this series, it should be obvious to you that Brave New World is a worldwide movement. Leviathan is Russia’s early entry into the BNW sweepstakes. Every bit as visually stunning as Brooklyn and packing even more of an emotional wallop, Leviathan, although set in modern Russia, parallels the Biblical Book of Job. It’s the story of Kolya (Aleksei Serebryakov), a car mechanic, battling the corrupt mayor of his small town who’s trying to swindle him out of the small patch of land he owns. The human tragedies in Leviathan pile up, and the overall effect is very much in tune with classic Russian literature, which is to say, quite a downer, but one that provokes deep thoughts on the human condition. Leviathan has a big name and is shot and edited like an epic picture, but it too is a very small story, one man, one town, one obsession.
Leviathan is depressing. Of course a movie based on the Book of Job is bound to be depressing, but director Andrey Zvyaginstev–possibly the new Andrei Tarkovsky–uses this small story to show the environmental and moral ruin of Russia in the Putin era, and, as visually beautiful as it is, it’s also dark and troubled. Only the best directors get to paint with such broad and brilliant strokes, and to do it in a film so intimate and with so “small” a story is simply genius. I love Leviathan and hate it. It’s a fantastic movie, but a slog to get through. That’s as it should be. Very Russian, and very Brave New World.