As critics and film execs examine last year's box-office trends, many are coming to the conclusion that 1999 was a turning point for American cinema.
From the cyberpunk hyperrealism of "The Matrix" to the fractured storytelling of "The Blair Witch Project," the year's films point to an emerging tug-of-war between old-guard producers who have refined their techniques over decades and new iconoclasts who are changing the way stories are filmed and told.
Girded with computer technology and encouraged by moviegoers increasingly eager for innovation, this "PlayStation Generation" is offering a glimpse of the future of film. The outcome, observers say, will be a melding of traditional Hollywood formulas and Internet-age experimentation.
"This is a real pivotal moment for Hollywood," says Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University in New York. "All of the innovation that used to percolate in obscure films seen only in Greenwich Village or San Francisco art houses is now going on in ... mainstream Hollywood films."
Hollywood this year continued to set records for box-office attendance and intake, and some of the most successful movies broke new ground.
In "The Matrix," the fifth-highest-grossing film of 1999, actors dodge bullets rippling by in super-slow motion, scale walls like insects, and step in and out of a virtual world. In "The Blair Witch Project," a herky-jerky, hand-held video camera creates a vivid documentary-esque realism while the story develops in an improvisational fashion.
Among the other harbingers of the trend: the ultra-bizarre "Being John Malkovich," the rapid-fire "Run Lola Run," and the multistory collage of "Magnolia."
"The trend boils down to directors being willing to mess with narrative in new ways, to mess with time, with space, with the laws of physics and the structure of story," says Jeff Gordinier, a senior writer for Entertainment Weekly who tracks new directors.
He calls this new crop the PlayStation Generation (referring to the Sony video-game console) because they bring to their movies the cut-and-paste sensibility of video games and the Internet. Indeed, such directors are multiplying plot lines, playing with a sense of time, and bombarding audiences with more and more images per minute - from 600 to 700 cuts per film to as many as 2,000.
Technological advances - including the digitization of images - have enabled writers and producers to create and execute plot lines previously thought too outlandish to film. With the success of each new attempt, a newer, edgier - many say weirder - aesthetic is being born, and with it a higher bar for the next wave of innovators.
New technology has also helped make moviemaking cheaper, a development that could open the industry to the experimentation of those who previously had no access. Purveyed by these younger writers, directors, and producers, the look and feel of films in the next decade are likely to be vastly different than in previous decades, many say.
"We have reached the point where we are coming to the expansion of what a film can be," says Jim Toback, writer and director of "Black and White," due out in April. The film includes the splicing of a literal world with a cinematic world where several stories are going on at once. "We don't have to think of it as a linear narrative with certain plot expectations, behavioral expectations...."
The changing priorities of both creators and audience who grew up flipping through hundreds of TV stations is also a key.
"Younger audiences are looking for innovation, while writers and directors are looking for that combination of surprises that makes their picture stand out from the thousands of movies made before," says Paul Dergarabegian, movie analyst for Exhibitor Relations, a movie-industry tracking firm. "It's a different world of creativity now for up-and-coming creators."
Still, some observers say these creative ideas have been around for years. The recent trends, they say, were presaged by names such as Jean-Luc Goddard and Federico Fellini as far back as the 1960s. In addition, they say the barrage of montage images now frequent in Hollywood is just a glorified version of MTV videos.
"We are not seeing anything we have not seen before," says David Gaydos, executive editor of Daily Variety. "We are just going through a period where lots of people are asking for very strange, edgy, original movies."
Although he notes the liberal use of digital images in this year's blockbusters, "The Phantom Menace" and "The Mummy," he says the plots reflected old-school storytelling. "You are not going to see the end of traditional storytelling," says Mr. Gaydos. "You will see these new technical and creative advances used in the service of such stories."
But others hold that the dike is about to break, and the success and proliferation of current trend-busters signal the first crack.
Says Mr. Toback: "You can expect more reliance on startling surprises and new jumps in what cinema is trying to do than anytime in history."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society