If 2014 will be remembered for anything in Hollywood, it will be as the year that reality came knocking.
A glance at the signal movie moments of the past 12 months reveals a startling number of instances when the real world intersected, and sometimes collided head-on, with cinema in new and confounding ways. To an unusual degree, in form, content and effect, the movies of 2014 merged with the very reality they so often allow us to escape.
The past few days have been devoted to the most time-honored example: “Selma,” Ava DuVernay’s masterful dramatization of the 1965 demonstrations in favor of voting rights in Alabama, has come under fire for its depiction of President Lyndon Baines Johnson. In this newspaper’s opinion pages over the film’s opening weekend, former LBJ domestic affairs assistant Joseph A. Califano Jr. blasted DuVernay’s portrayal of Johnson in the film as too adversarial in relation to Martin Luther King Jr., when “in fact,” he claimed, “Selma was LBJ’s idea.”
A familiar tussle between historians, artists and first-hand witnesses has ensued, with DuVernay responding to Califano by calling the notion that Selma was LBJ’s idea “jaw dropping” and encouraging viewers to use “Selma” to “interrogate history” by seeing the movie and researching the historical events.
Veteran Oscar-watchers know that such truth-squading is now as much a part of awards season as oppo-research “gotcha” moments are a part of the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primaries. Along with the World War II drama “The Imitation Game,” which is coming under similar fire, “Selma” has been caught up in art-vs.-life conflation-confusion that, with luck, won’t scuttle its Oscar chances the same way “Zero Dark Thirty” was deep-sixed two years ago.
Indeed, thanks to robust pushback on the part of DuVernay and her real-life characters, “Selma” is still considered an awards front-runner, along with “Boyhood” and “Birdman,” which fused with and were informed by real life in fascinating ways of their own.
To make “Boyhood,” writer-director Richard Linklater found a 6-year-old nonprofessional actor in Austin named Ellar Coltrane and filmed him once a year over 12 years, creating a fictional coming-of-age story centered on him, with the actors Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette playing his parents. The resulting drama was a mesmerizing technical and aesthetic feat that allowed the audience to watch the characters and the actors playing them physically age and change in myriad subtle ways before our eyes. It’s not often that a filmmaker can claim to create a new visual language, but that’s precisely what Linklater did with “Boyhood,” using the time-lapse trope of countless YouTube videos to create a cinematic grammar that feels poetic and epic and utterly of its moment.
There was something even more poignant — even prophetic — about “Boyhood” opening this summer, just weeks after a mentally ill young man made a stylized amateur video confessing to the murders he was about to commit in Isla Vista, Calif. While in Texas a young man was starring in the movie of his life, in California one was mired in the distorted, ultimately tragic belief that his life was supposed to be just like a movie.
“Boyhood” joined a clutch of films in 2014 that dealt with the issues of time and change. “Birdman,” by Alejandro González Iñárritu, starred Michael Keaton as an actor trying to shed the constrictions of his former superhero persona by staging a “serious” Broadway play. “Birdman” featured its own visual flourishes, with Iñárritu constructing the movie to suggest that it was filmed all in one breathtaking shot.
But at its most profound, the backstage flight of fancy was about aging in the 21st century, with its attendant techno-anxiety and existential angst. Simultaneously worried that he’s no longer relevant and contemptuous of the social media that eternal relevance demands, Keaton’s character resembles so many middle-aged professionals who are too old to be comfortable with technology but too young to be able chuck it entirely. What’s more, he becomes the unwitting avatar of an age when technology has made the once impermeable membrane between artist and audience thinned to virtual nonexistence.
One of “Birdman’s” most memorable set pieces captured his conundrum with spot-on slapstick flair: Caught outside of the theater in his underwear, Keaton’s character is forced to run awkwardly through Times Square, with gaping pedestrians eagerly capturing the episode on their phones. Within hours, he’s become an Internet meme, his career jump-started not by artistic integrity but Twitter ubiquity.
Keaton’s bemusement in “Birdman” turned out to be an apt metaphor for a film industry caught between the lures and snares of technological progress. We witnessed those hydra-headed contradictions in real time a few weeks ago when Sony Pictures Entertainment was attacked by hackers, purportedly because they were unhappy with Sony’s North Korea spoof “The Interview,” in which Seth Rogen and James Franco set out to assassinate Kim Jong Un. In an unprecedented attack, the hackers released pirated films, sensitive corporate information and reams of damning confidential correspondence, finally threatening a 9/11-style attack on theaters if Sony released the movie as planned on Christmas Day.
The Sony hack — which was said to be the work of the North Korean government, but now, it is suggested, may have been cooked up by disgruntled employees — provided a wealth of hard-won lessons. The executive e-mails that induced shivers of schadenfreude were not only juicy gossip but also gave historians and journalists a candid glimpse of filmmaking as contentious creative endeavor and industrial practice. The fact that Sony could be so thoroughly compromised revealed how even the most seemingly sophisticated corporation could be caught flat-footed when it comes to cybersecurity. The spectacle of a vulgar, aggressively silly, otherwise disposable comedy such as “The Interview” being taken so seriously reminded Hollywood that, as the United States’ chief export, all movies have meaning in the international marketplace.
What’s more, when “The Interview” was released by way of gutsy bricks-and-mortar independent theaters and streaming sites including YouTube and Google Play, earning $15 million in online downloads, the movie industry learned that premiering a film the same day in theaters and on the Web is one of those cockamamie ideas that just might work (it helps when your tech-savvy stars show up at and live-tweet a few random screenings).
The crowning irony of “The Interview’s” circuitous journey is that, if its de-mythologized portrait of Kim ever makes it into North Korea — which some observers have suggested could help foment a popular uprising against the deified dictator — it will be thanks to the very cyber-theft that has brought Sony to its knees. As proof of concept that film is both cultural force and global product, and that technology can be a bane, boon and basis for a profitable business model all at once, “The Interview” has become an improbable but oddly fitting bellwether, albeit one propelled by poop jokes and stupid-slash-subversive politics. Sometimes when reality comes knocking, it bites.