Over the last month I’ve watched several movies that have suffered from a common flaw. It is this: their directors build their stories around adult characters who behave like adolescents. They then stylize their films with all kinds of jump cuts, colorful photos, eye-catching clothing, use of music and sound, and so on. In general, there seems to be a new breed of director in Hollywood, one who expects his audience to be endlessly fascinated by adolescent emotions and experiences and to be tricked by cinematic bells and whistles into thinking that style is substance.
In watching “Atonement” and “The Darjeeling Limited” (okay, give me hipster points for that one), and in reading reviews of “The Wackness” (just out), it became clear to me that the current generation of filmmaker seems personally trapped in adolescence. Why else would so many directors pour their lives into films that chronicle the ups and downs of the pre-adult years? Yet there’s the catch–these films, while capturing the struggles of pre-adult life, are actually about adults. Furthermore, our moviemakers seem to think that it will be meaningful for audiences to watch their creations which attempt to ennoble adolescence, to baptize its rather small concerns and focuses as substantive and engrossing.
Here’s the thing, though: while it can be fun to watch an occasional chronicle of adolescence (think “The Wonder Years” before it went off the rails), the stuff of true drama and comedy is found in the adult world, where people tackle real struggle and hardship. Heavy questions confront the adult. Difficult decisions besiege the adult. No such struggle exists for most adolescents. Beyond this, it is simply far more interesting to watch adults acting like adults attempt to handle the pathos of life. Think quickly: what would you rather watch–Russell Crowe trying to escape gladiator life to save his wife and son (in Gladiator), or Owen Wilson annoyingly bossing his brothers around on an Indian train (in The Darjeeling Limited)? It is amusing to watch Wilson, for sure (I think he can be hilarious), but it is far more meaningful to watch an adult acting like an adult try to handle the challenges of life.
“Atonement” suffered from the same problem. It presented us with two rather shallow characters living rather vacuous lives, threw a bunch of style into the mix, and then cooked everything in the surefire dramatic oven of World War Two. What was the result? Profound rumination on the sadness of life? Well, there was some of that, to be sure. But there was also a strong lack of concern on the viewer’s part for the protagonists (played by James McAvoy and Keira Knightley). Put simply, they didn’t do much except sit around on an English manor. Their drama was the drama of adolescents–will he ask her out? I don’t know!!–of the sort that is whispered in high school hallways. Yes, the second half of the picture was poetic, but as a whole, the movie’s adolescent characters, with their adolescent attitudes, failed to convey any real weight.
What does this all suggest? It suggests that the culture of the adolescent is no great thing for art. I’ve found the same is true in music. I don’t know about you, but as one who sometimes listens to secular music, I find most of it simply boring. Not horrifyingly debauched (though much of it, particularly rap and r&b, is), not scarily nihilistic, but boring. Much of what’s avant-garde and much of what’s popular today centers thematically around things like breaking up and setting out in life and handling a cheating lover. Boooorrrriiiinnnngg. These are the concerns of adolescents. This is high school stuff. The true power of art is in its depiction of the deeper realities of life, the stuff that you can’t plumb in a text message or a conversation on the bus. It’s in showing what it looks like for a man to love his Alzheimer’s-afflicted wife, or a lost soul to grapple with question of God’s existence, or a father to ruminate on his legacy, or a woman to reflect on her empty nest, or a poet to delve into the causes of war. I could go on. This is the sort of thing that compels the artist to make great art.
Don’t get me wrong. I found parts of the above movies engrossing and enjoyable. But both of them–and so many others–suffer from characters who are boys in men’s bodies and girls in woman’s bodies. They are immature, narcissistic, foolish, impetuous, and shallow. They possess little of the depth of an adult, and they are consumed by small things. They avoid the great matters of life and trivialize them when they cannot avoid them. Here is hoping for Christians to seize the day and to make a bunch of art that is meaningful and populated with mature people and mature, compelling existences.
In a culture that is making art that is both secular and boring, we have a chance to be neither.