Capturing Modernity: The Challenge of Portraying the Contemporary World

There is an observable trend within modern filmmaking that becomes clearer with each passing year. With few exceptions, our biggest, critically-acclaimed directors have been engaged in a hasty retreat from the difficult act of portraying modern life. From Paul Thomas Anderson to Barry Jenkins to Céline Sciamma, the bastions of subtle, empathetic filmmaking have for the most part veered towards period pieces or – if on the oft-chance their film is set in the current day – have avoided substantial engagement with that major facet of modernity: the online world. A glance at the Best Picture Nominations from 2010 to now would reveal that, of the nominated films, around 30% have been set at any time after 2010. Of that 30%, only three films actively dealt with distinctly modern themes – films that couldn’t have been set at any other period. Though Oscar nominations certainly don’t offer an all-encompassing insight, they do give a good indication of the public and critical mindset.

Of course, none of this is a critique of any filmmakers. Indeed, directors should tackle whatever subjects they want to tackle and the resulting works will be all the better for it – I suspect Scorsese’s exploration of the intricacies of social media wouldn’t be as fulfilling as his established wheelhouse. But there remains a worryingly large hole in the cinematic vocabulary regarding modern life – especially when film can be so powerful in reflecting and developing an understanding of one’s existence. In the swiftly evolving, industrialised world of the 30s, an overwhelmed public found solace in Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. Directors like Jacques Tati (Mon Oncle, Playtime) and Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon) spent much of their long and successful careers crafting cinematic microcosms of contemporary society. So where then is the seminal modernist satire for the 21st Century? And if there was one, would audiences be interested in engaging with such subject matter?

The first question is perhaps the simplest. Given the age of most of Hollywood’s prominent directors, covering something that has developed so rapidly and so recently would present a variety of challenges. They have little experience of this new environment, and many will have even less interest in it. Indeed, the online world is viewed by many as an interconnected web of often-anonymous, superficial behaviours with little insight into our own “real” lives. Furthermore, even now, almost 20 years after the founding of Facebook, we have yet to see the extent of the internet’s impact on our collective psychology, our sense of self, and our social lives. So unless one has grown up within this environment, there is perhaps little foundation from which to launch any creative engagement. But even if the older generation is understandably hesitant, one might assume that there are younger filmmakers bringing an authentic perspective to the issue. Here, cinema appears to be in an odd place. There are certainly many young, exciting, and popular filmmakers – the Safdie Brothers, Joe Talbot, and Emerald Fennell to name a few – but for the most part, these are from a generation that came of age just before the dominance of social media. There is, however, one intriguing exception.

Bo Burnham has dedicated much of his career to exploring the effects and particular absurdities of this new unregulated space. His peerless status in covering such subjects perhaps explains the respectful adoration of his many young fans. Whether it’s 2018’s Eighth Grade, or 2021’s ‘Inside’ (which feels more like experimental film than comedy special), Burnham has provided a comedic, cathartic, and empathetic insight into a world seldom explored on screen. The particular effectiveness of his work is rooted in both his experience as an early “content creator”, but also in his belief that social media is not merely a forum for youthful superficiality, but – like 12 Angry Men’s jury room – a window into the complexities of human beings and their social contexts. Throughout ‘Inside’, it is this approach that allows Burnham to segue from parodying Instagram posing to sympathising with the common grief-stricken outpourings that randomly find themselves on our screens. It allows him to brilliantly satirise the overwhelming, quick-fire chaos of online existence on “Welcome to the Internet”, but it also gives the work an authentic quality. In the case of ‘Inside’, young people, who feel the brunt of the internet’s effects more acutely than anyone, felt represented by a voice that acknowledges the absurdity, even laughs at certain behaviours but never looks down upon its subjects. This nuance, rooted in lived experience, is what evades most internet-oriented films and “screenlife” horror productions. Indeed, if one of social media’s worst offences is to anonymise, dehumanise, and generally flatten our complex experience, Burnham seems intent on reminding audiences of the real people behind the screen.

Aside from Burnham – who appears to be the only major figure consistently tackling the online age – there are occasional efforts by established auteurs that merit discussion, not least the work of Steven Soderbergh. Interestingly, within the director’s recent work there has been a distinctly modern streak not just in theme but form: 2018’s psychological horror, Unsane, and 2019’s sports drama, High Flying Bird are both shot on iPhone. Though these films are not about anything uniquely contemporary, the use of the iPhone camera places Soderbergh amongst a small cadre of directors making films that are aesthetically, identifiably current. Furthermore, with 2021’s Kimi, Soderbergh would turn his gaze towards that strange contemporary phenomenon of being both more interconnected than ever and yet equally alienated. It’s a surprisingly subtle, multifaceted take on tech and the nature of privacy, wrapped up in a Rear Window-esque thriller. The director, who has previously tackled everything from the War on Drugs (Traffic) to sexuality (Sex, Lies, and Videotape) to corporate recklessness (Erin Brockovich), deserves credit for consistently attempting to dissect the modern world.

There are other seminal works that might have prompted further engagement. With 2010’s The Social Network, David Fincher crafted a terrific insight into the man who has had such an enormous impact on the psychology of young people. 12 years after its release, following the endless, unregulated expansion of these companies, the film’s questions have grown increasingly prescient. Indeed, if the man behind Facebook – the forerunner of most modern social media – was so heartlessly calculating, what does this say about the duty of care of these mediums? As a despondent Burnham concludes during ‘Inside’, “maybe allowing giant digital media corporations to exploit the neurochemical drama of our children for profit … was a bad call”. Thus, given its critical acclaim, widespread popularity, and continued relevance, perhaps The Social Network is the closest thing we have to a seminal modernist work.

Elsewhere, there have been interesting efforts from outside the mainstream. Arthouse favourites A24 – who also produced Eighth Grade – distributed Zola in 2020 (the film is based on a viral 148-tweet-long Twitter thread). They have also produced Bodies, Bodies, Bodies, which attempts to satirise the dynamics of friendship in a social media-dominated world. Another recent A24 venture, the surprisingly successful Everything Everywhere All at Once, portrayed that strange predicament of having everything at your fingertips and yet feeling despairingly numb. Though the film doesn’t directly reference the internet, its affecting, gleefully silly portrayal of existential crisis clearly connected with audiences’ experiences of modernity. Indeed, incidentally or not, the film’s “everything bagel” is a suitably absurdist allegory for the informational overload of the internet.

Outside of the art-house, certain genres – horror and comedy – are usually comfortable satirising the modern age, perhaps owing to their popularity among younger audiences. Indeed, the emergence of “screenlife” thrillers – in which the story is set entirely on the screen of a laptop or phone – has yielded perhaps the largest set of internet-themed films. Amongst this genre – populated mostly by jump-scares and teen-slasher antics – there have been some well-received entries: 2018’s Searching was touted as a more sophisticated delve into online life. Eugene Kotlyarenko’s twisted thriller Spree introduced the unique director’s take on the subject. But beyond these efforts, most have been dismissed by critics as gimmicky or have been unable to break into the mainstream. Conversely, comedy has been slower off the mark. Where the genre might have taken encouragement from the success of Matt Spicer’s witty 2017 film, Ingrid Goes West, since its release there have been almost no equals. Though there have been countless teen-oriented studio rom-coms, that film’s thoughtful examination of parasocial obsession and envy remains an island.

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This is all particularly strange when one considers how consistently and how successfully TV has dealt with this cultural shift. Shows like ‘Euphoria’, ‘Mr. Robot’, and the ever-prescient ‘Black Mirror’ have been showered with accolades for their thoughtful, artful explorations of distinctly contemporary issues. Everything from online dating to social media groupthink to influencer culture has been explored by these shows. Though this is accompanied by the retro aesthetics of shows like ‘Sex Education’ and ‘Stranger Things’, it is the balance that counts. So when will the film industry correct its lopsided scale?

Perhaps this lack of distinctly modernist, tech-oriented cinema reflects a curious shift in both the composition and attitudes of audiences. Firstly, the modern film-watching audience – in part due to an abundance of entertainment across different platforms and mediums – is fractured and diffused. With the exception of franchise films, audiences are for the most part content to peruse the endless options of streaming sites without ever venturing to the cinema. So perhaps there are no seminal modernist works because, with audiences spread across various niches and only unified by big-budget franchises, there is no framework for an enormously popular film that effectively taps into the public consciousness.

Secondly, though young people have certainly found a few artists that authentically and effectively portray their experience, perhaps the dearth of explicitly contemporary cinema is less to do with auteur’s reservations, and more a simple lack of appetite – from filmmakers and audiences – for films that deal with the current state of things. For a chronically online youth, forced at risk of alienation to engage in or observe the addictive feeds, comparison-inducing artifice, and anonymous cruelty of social media, there is an understandable hunger for escapism. Why, in other words, when one does commit to briefly unplugging from the online world, must one observe that world on – ironically – an even bigger screen? For fans of cinema, the immersive and empathetic work of Scorsese, Anderson, Jenkins, or Sciamma is much more immediately appealing than any exploration of the tiring and inescapable dynamics of the internet. But this has always been part of cinema’s purpose. If Modern Times asserted the humanity of the exploited worker within the newly industrialised world, why should it be any different for what has been referred to as the Digital Revolution?

Thus, hopefully – if TV’s successful portrayals are any indication – there will soon be a wave of filmmakers keen to assess this Silicon Valley-crafted environment with nuance, insight, and authenticity. Considering how important art can be for understanding our context, the progenitors of an explicitly modernist cinema are worth appreciating. Indeed, for the moment, trailblazing artists like Bo Burnham remain the exception.

Written by Noah Sparkes

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