Before I begin, it might be helpful to define what is and what is not ‘recent’ in American Cinema. Pulp Fiction is probably the most influential film of the past twenty years. As such, it makes sense to refer to recency as anything coming after that film.
Before considering other American cinema, it’s important to understand why is Tarantino’s masterpiece is such an important film.
When it was released in 1994, Pulp Fiction’s audacity and style impressed both critics and cinema-goers alike. The techniques it used have since become hallmarks of much of recent American cinema.
Its use of a non-chronological narrative can be seen in films like Memento, Sin City or Mulholland Drive
It also chooses to move between different characters in each of its ‘chapters’ in a similar way to Magnolia, Crash or Babel.
Finally, the type of story it told: One of showmanship, larger-than-life characters and diegetic music can be seen in a lot of modern American cinema today. Films like The Life Aquatic, The Big Lebowkski and The Squid and the Whale.
Of course when looking at recent American cinema, it’s important to consider the cinema of old to see how it has changed.
The seventies and New Hollywood brought cinema a new type of film that presented the world in a very different way. As a result of Watergate and Vietnam, these films had with them an anger and urgency to them that seemed to force the medium forward. Think of Taxi Driver, The Deer Hunter or All The President’s Men.
In terms of modern American cinema doing something new or different, one may think of Christopher Nolan’s complex, weaving stories in films like Inception and Memento. Something which Scorcese seems to have latched onto in his recent films, Shutter Island and The Departed.
One may also consider Charlie Kauffman’s films, which take a post-modern approach to film; creating worlds which are dreamlike and playful. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Being John Malkovich play with reality. As well as forcing us to consider the state of our own mind’s perspective on things.
Finally, there are ‘network narrative’ films. That is, films which cut between lots of different characters all of whom seem to be unrelated intially. Examples include Magnolia, Crash, or even Love, Actually.
These ‘network narrative’ films seem to have been influenced a lot by television. It regularly expects its audience to keep up with the storylines of its four or five main characters over the course of each episode.
However, often it is the case that these film making techniques seem to there more for show than really driving home a point. It’s difficult to pinpoint a particular philosophy or agenda to recent American cinema.
It seems like the expectation on the audience to keep up with films like Inception or The Departed has risen. However, what these films are actually saying or doing does not seem to be that different to the previous generation of films.
Pulp Fiction is certainly a brilliant film on its own terms. Its use of every trick in the cinema handbook to create a stylish, enjoyable, original piece is to be applauded. However, in trying to mimic it, recent American filmmakers seem to be doing more at the expense of saying less.