This year will be, without doubt, the biggest ever at the box office. That’s because it’s impossible such big beasts as James Bond and Star Wars – not to mention the Avengers troupe and those dinos from Jurassic World – will again share a release year. It’s also highly unlikely that, in the future, we’ll cough up to watch them at the cinema.
That said: we seem more than happy to do so. Even the most optimistic multiplex owner wasn’t prepared for the rush on Star Wars tickets when the first batch was released on Monday (the movie isn’t out until Christmas). Sites stalled and web pages crashed like dominos as sales records were broken. Elsewhere online there were further server creakings as reaction flooded in to the final trailer (does that girl have the force? Is that new bloke a Jedi as well as a stormtrooper?) and to the first poster (wot, no Luke Skywalker?).
Fans of franchise sci-fi again tested the strength of the internet on Wednesday, aka Back to the Future day, the date to which Doc Brown and Marty McFly journey in the time-travelling sequel. Appetite for reflection on this also far exceeded expectation. And software programmers will be further girding their loins for a week of 007 chatter, with the first reviews imminent.
Such eager stampeding beneath big cultural tentpoles is, of course, cheering. The watercooler is open! It’s free, it’s global, and it’s endlessly replenishable. Remember the days everyone use to talk about the previous evening’s Hancock’s Half Hour? This is that, all the time, with everybody. It is a golden age of democratised mainstream debate. It’s especially great for somebody like me, whose job, as this paper’s film editor, is in part to encourage such engagement. Right?
Yes. Absolutely. And yet, sometimes, I find the relentless discussion of mainstream movie series, both online and in real life, risks alienating as much as unifying. Losing yourself in a cinematic universe is fine if you’ve bought your own ticket. Less pleasant is to be immersed in a world about which you’re ill-equipped and unfamiliar, either through ignorance or design. There’s little that can make you feel more alone than everyone agreeing the genius of something that leaves you cold.
This isn’t just contrarianism. Personally, I’ve long been a bit lukewarm about Star Wars – sorry. But Back to the Future has always been one of my favourite movies. Or it was until I couldn’t go a hour without seeing or hearing someone discuss it. There’s now a complete confluence between social media and studio blockbusters – even those from 40 years ago.
Over the past decade the public sphere has undergone a compulsory conversion into a sort of Comic-Con-style convention centre. The logic is obvious: all creeds define themselves in part by exclusion, and Marvel fans are no worse in this regard than disciples of Tottenham Hotspur or Scientology. We all seek a place in which we can sink our own demanding and disappointing individuality into an ever-comforting communality. The more mysterious the theology, the more mutually sustaining the sustenance it offers.
But amid all the costumes and the clamour, it’s hard to hang on to whatever might have drawn you to something in the first place. For even those films that you see in the company of others depend for their impact on a direct connection. They are individual experiences, highly filtered, not live, distinct in this way from theatre and from sport.
Hardly a fresh insight, of course: it was back in 1936 in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction that Walter Benjamin pointed out the difference between stage and screen – in the former, the audience’s identification is with the actor; in the latter, it’s with the camera. Now, people forget there’s a lens. They have seized ownership of works of art such as movies and TV, and consequently become confused about how far they should be integrated into their lives. Ubiquity is the new normal.
Today we treat the imaginary as if it were real. Facebook feeds are filled with snaps of friends, selfies styled as celebrities, memes featuring movie characters and gossip about the people who play them. The same jargon is used for fact and fiction. Both blur. And everything becomes a little blander.
There is, as it happens, a movie coming up about this. It’s called Anomalisa and it’s a stop-motion tragi-comedy in which a depressed customer-service guru strikes up a fleeting connection with a woman in a Cincinnati hotel. Apart from these two, everyone else not only sounds the same – they’re voiced, without any modulation, by the same actor, whatever their age or gender – they also have the same faces too, just with different hair and make-up.
The hotel is named the Fregoli, after the psychological disorder that causes you to believe everyone is the same person. But the film is not about what it’s like to be deluded. It’s about the flipside of that global watercooler boom, in which people can seem to speak and look and act alike, in which everyone has the same purchase on everything: all their experiences, including those that once seemed rare and special.
I was lucky enough to see Anomolisa quite early, before a lot of buzz had built. Since then, lots of other people have seen it too and, I think, raved about it on Twitter. I just mustn’t look.