By Ken Stokes
When streaming services began producing original feature film content, pundits were quick to write the obituary for cinema—a term that no longer refers to the medium so much as the elusive standard of originality and artistry that holds up over time. A similar thing was said when paid cable got into the production of long-format television.
As it turns out, Netflix is doing for film what Sundance and (I hate even mentioning the brand name anymore) Miramax did for film in the ’90s. They’re not the only guys in the game, but if this were high-stakes Texas Hold’em I wouldn’t relish being one of the other players at the table. This year, Netflix is involved with the creation and presentation of two instant cinema classics: The Power of the Dog and Tic, Tic … Boom!
Rewind to 1993. In any other year Jane Campion’s The Piano, a watershed film about a woman crafting a life worth living from the very obstacles presented to her by both nature and men, would have been a lock for the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars. Then Schindler’s List debuted. It was Seabiscuit and War Horse, and the big horse won. After a seeming-eternity away from filmmaking, Ms. Campion is back and has reset the bar for herself and her colleagues with The Power of the Dog, a film so gorgeous, so unique, so relevant and so unexpectedly moving that, frankly, it has no rivals this season.
It’s a Western. So what is a Western anyway? When all is said and done, it’s a genre where people, like hothouse flowers, have been transplanted into hostile environments and circumstances and it’s thrive or wither. And there’s a bad guy. A really bad guy.
Or is he? What opens up as John Ford by way of David Lean slides into psychological study (thriller?) territory and ends up as a bona fide tragedy. People throw around the term ‘toxic masculinity’ pretty freely, but the composition and process of making the poison makes all the difference. I’ve never seen the sheer weight of a man’s loss and self-hatred shown on screen as it is in this film, and it opens over time like a festering wound to expose a person so hardened and yet so fragile that one cannot help being moved.
But the capper, of course, is recognition and redemption from the most unlikely and yet the most obvious source. Benedict Cumberbatch gives a performance for the ages. It’ll break your heart. The sheer craft of the film is astonishing. And it has a debut role for Kodi Smit-McPhee as a very well-placed interloper (not unlike Christ) that will be an inspiration for more struggling people than I care to count.
Now for something completely different but nonetheless wonderful, Tic, Tic . . . Boom!—the little musical that could. In a year when the Latinx community and its gatekeepers are hand-wringing over the merits of two very expensive film musicals, the adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s sophomore outing in musical theater snuck in under the radar. Jonathan Larson—the van Gogh of musical theater—died before the preview of his third and last work, Rent. The unexpected harbinger of an unimaginable tragedy, Tic, Tic . . . Boom! is about running out of time, creatively for oneself and for the genre itself. Hamilton fans will be familiar with the concept.
Moreover, it is a love-letter to the creative process and how that process is inseparable from the life one lives as one creates. It’s a beautiful tribute to Larson’s mentor and spirit animal, the iconic Stephen Sondheim, and especially to Sunday in the Park with George—Steve’s masterpiece about the creative process.
The film is charming because it’s small, intimate; this is not West Side Story. Lin-Manuel Miranda directs with a deft second-unit, news-at-11 sensibility that opens up—but not too much—into ingenious musical outbursts that are never less than funny, moving or delightful. Andrew Garfield’s performance is all puppies and birthday candles, even when his character is on the ropes. It’s the embodiment of hope with the foreboding of a short shelf life. But the most refreshing aspect of Garfield’s performance is that it reminds us that current film musical darling Hugh Jackman is old-school and that times must change. And thankfully there’s a new kid in town.
Format & Function
So back to the medium, Netflix. Does this mean artistic imagination will be imprisoned by the dimensions of the largest in-home theater packages sold at Costco? Three things are still very much in play: the ratio of proscenium size to viewer distance, sound, and communal experience. The two films I’ve mentioned are extraordinary in-home entertainment experiences. Offered on the same screens that are the more-customary home of Marvel and DC Comics, suddenly The Power of the Dog becomes “the magic of the movies” in exactly the same way as cerebral, breathtaking and enduring epics like Lawrence of Arabia or, and not coincidentally, The Piano.
The challenge will be, as it has been since Mr. Spielberg showed up on set, to get screen time in the best venues that are ideal for a given film’s target demo. How to do that? Well Steve, rather than bitch about the seismic change in who makes what and what’s shown where, wouldn’t this be a marvelous legacy project?