When you are born at the very beginning of a decade, it means the decades line up exactly with your own ten year intervals. Being born in 1971, the 1970s were my childhood, the 1980s were my adolescence, etc. I think this has shaped how I view time profoundly. I definitely put stock in decades more than many because the turning of the decades has matched big transitions in my life.
Your 20s are a precious thing. In our delayed adulthood society, one’s 20s are a wonderland where adulthood and youth circle one another but never totally touch. You have the freedoms of both an adult and, unless you marry or procreate early, you’re completely unencumbered by huge responsibilities. I realize this isn’t true for everyone. But I spent most of my 20s in academia (something I am literally paying for now) so that time was one of self-discovery and liberation.
The 1990s were a great time to be in your 20s. It was a curious decade, something of a middle child of history. It was the era between the Cold War and the War on Terror. It was a time of prosperity, relative peace (with apologies to Bosnia and Rwanda), and above all, hope. The 1990s were the twilight of the American Century and it was the (beginning of the) end of a time when Americans were confident the future would be better than now. Even the haters of President Clinton were optimistic.
For me, the 1990s will always be about the cinema. It was the first decade where I could spend as much time as I wanted in the dark, watching movies (to this day, 1990s television is a hole in my prodigious TV consumption because I spent the whole decade in the streets, or in school, or in the movies). After the cinematic drought of the 1980s, the 90s were a boom time for cinema. As a film student in the 1990s it really seemed like anything was possible. Independent cinema was exploding. The major studios were creating indie subsidiaries. We all believed we’d have a deal within years of taking our master’s degrees. But the year 2000 changed everything. As soon as George W. Bush appeared, it was all over. We went from Being John Malkovich to Gladiator.
For my whole life, a 20 year interval meant a decade came back into fashion. It started in the 1970s: that decade saw a backwards looking trend to the 1950s. Given the instability that marked the late 1960s and early 1970s, this is entirely understandable. By the 1980s, the 1960s were all the rage. And the 1990s saw the rehabilitation of the 1970s, a decade mercilessly mocked throughout the Reagan Era.
So where are the 1990s? I am told it is currently making a comeback in the fashion world, but the 1990s has yet to take hold of the present the way the 1970s did in the 90s. There are a few reasons for this. For one, I don’t think any previous decade will ever reanimate the way they did between 1970 and 2010 (the 1980s did have a rebirth in the early 2000s but to a lesser degree than earlier flashback trends). I think we have become such a radically of-the-moment culture there is no room for sustained nostalgia for one particular moment. Also, the 1990s themselves were already so shaped by 1970s nostalgia it doesn’t offer a lot for contemporary people to look back to. It has all become pastiche now: a little from this era, a little from that era.
It would be overstatement to call the 1990s a lost decade but I don’t think its signifiers will get their moment today the way 70s stars got a second act in the 90s.
So who are these lost figures and trends of the 1990s? The following are filmmakers and trends that, whether surprisingly or not, never made it out of the 1990s. This is not a knock on anyone. Longevity isn’t accorded to everyone’s celebrity. That doesn’t diminish it, some people just have their moment and some have a longer span.
1. Atom Egoyan
The Egyptian-born Armenian-Canadian was the definitive arthouse darling in the 90s. He won international film festival awards, got Oscar nominations, and always threatened to become a mainstream sensation. But a series of disappointments in the 2000s dealt Egoyan a stinging reversal of fortune. What’s most baffling is Egoyan’s preoccupation with alienation (and how technology furthers our isolation while seeming to cure it) was ahead of its time and very relevant now.
2. New Queer Cinema
A victim of its own success, the Queer Cinema of the 90s, as exemplified by producer Christine Vachon and directors Gus Van Sant, Todd Haynes, Tom Kalin, Marlon Riggs, and Gregg Araki, doesn’t exist because it successfully acted as a beachhead in an aggressively homophobic period. There is an argument that segregation can be beneficial to a minority, giving it a space to figure itself out and encourage its voices to sing. The filmmakers of this movement have largely found mainstream acceptance, and with a miniseries recently on network TV on the history of the LGBT movement, it is easy to say that New Queer Cinema changed not only film, but also the world.
3. Mohsen Makhmalbaf
The Soviet Union was our undisputed chief antagonist in the 1980s but in second or third place, depending on the year, there was Iran. Though their filmmakers had to work under onerous censorship, Iranian filmmakers in the 1990s began dominating the world cinema scene with their neo-realist influenced filmmaking. Two figures emerged as the big names, Abbas Kiarostami (who passed away last year after making his final films in exile) and Mohsen Makhmalbaf. The critic Jonathan Rosenbaum likened their relationship to Tolstoy and Dostoevsky with Kiarostami as the former and Makhmalbaf resembling the latter of the Russian masters. I quickly found myself on Team Makhmalbaf. Kiarostami was lofty, stately, universal, but Makhmalbaf had a nervous urgency that spoke to me in my 20s. He also had tremendous range: he could craft folk tales imbued with magic realism and make films that were so realistic they felt like documentaries. Makhmalbaf tried to turn his family into something of a cinematic Wu-Tang Clan. His daughters and wife all directed films with his guidance and this dissipation of focus slowed down his output. The 2001 invasion of Afghanistan gave him his biggest film in the West. Kandahar arrived just as the name meant something to Americans and they turned up to learn something about the region that was now dominating the news. He has continued to make films in exile but none of had the impact of his films during Iranian Cinema’s 90s Golden Age.
4. Taiwanese Cinema
The other world cinema powerhouse of the 1990s was Taiwan. Just as Iran was dominated by Kiarostami & Makhmalbaf (with the younger Jafar Panahi rounding out the trinity), Taiwan had Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-Hsien (with the younger Tsai Mingliang rounding out that trinity). Taiwan made it a priority to support its homegrown cinema in the 90s, but as the economy struggled and Hollywood took over more and more screens, the momentum was lost. Hou continues to make films but he no longer inspires near-religious awe in cinephiles as he once did (like so many Asian auteurs, he recently had to surrender to the market and make his martial arts film). Edward Yang died of cancer in 2007 but his final film Yi Yi is a masterpiece that serves as a fitting coda for Taiwan’s cinematic hot streak.
5. Linda Fiorentino
She first appeared in the 1980s but the actress became a staple of 90s American Indie Cinema. Her turn in The Last Seduction (the 90s was obsessed with mimicking film noir) as a femme fatale made her one of the many 90s “it girls”. Hard to say what happened. She is an actress so aging always threatens career longevity. I know (from first hand accounts) she could be difficult to work with but you can never tell what that means where actresses are concerned. I don’t think there is anything particularly 90s about her that precluded continued career growth in the new century, but in any case, her work dwindled in the 2000s. Perhaps she will make her comeback in the years to come. Her persona, the woman unafraid to look you in the eye and tell the truth with a hint of sarcasm, could sharpen beautifully with age.
6. Alan Rudolph
The one-time Robert Altman protégé was a fixture in the 1980s and 1990s at the arthouse. Rudolph made slick, jazzy films for grownups. He also made films with one eye eternally on the past but not the past of history books; but instead, the romantic past of novels that may never have truly existed in the first place. Like so many of the filmmakers on this list, his final credit is around 2002 (the first years of a decade always truly belong to the decade before). According to IMDB he has a film in post-production starring Sondra Locke (!!!) but when it will surface, no one knows.
7. Matty Rich
You’ve probably heard his story before. At the tender of age of 19, Rich exploded on the scene with his autobiographical take on inner city struggle Straight Out Of Brooklyn. He brashly crowed about dropping out of film school after a week before making his film (“And it shows” observed Spike Lee). And brasher still, in an act of Oedipal lunacy, Rich attacked Spike Lee, dismissing him as a bourgeois pretender when it came to delivering the “authentic Black Experience”. One could argue that only young white men are allowed to survive such vainglorious obnoxiousness, one could also argue that white men rarely set themselves up for disaster with such public braggadocio. In either case, after a second film (a film that still has its fans), Rich’s filmmaking career came to an abrupt end. The 1990s, like the 1970s before them, were a Golden Age for Black Culture though many like Rich or Love Jones auteur Theodore Witcher contributed to that moment and disappeared when the moment ended.
8. Alexandre Rockwell
In The Soup debuted with a bang at the 1992 Sundance Film Festival winning the (dramatic) Grand Jury Prize. If memory serves, it instantly became a cautionary tale as the film walked away from the festival without a deal after holding out too long for a bigger offer. “Don’t Soup it” became the admonishment for years after when a filmmaker held to unrealistic demands so rigidly that it threatened the film’s long range prospects. The film, a French New Wave-influenced black & white comedy starring a young Steve Buscemi (along with Cassavetes stalwart Seymour Cassel), as an aspiring filmmaker in love with his single mom immigrant neighbor (played by Jennifer Beals, Rockwell’s then-wife) and trying to realize his dream of becoming a great filmmaker. I wasn’t a big fan of ITS back then and I wonder if time has given it a charm I didn’t see back then. Rockwell’s film wasn’t just a movie, it became a genre. Scores of films followed In The Soup and you can still see films employing its formula today. After another quirky indie drama, Rockwell joined forces with other mid-90s festival darlings Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, & Allison Anders to create the anthology comedy Four Rooms. Rockwell’s entry is the worst, but the film itself is a bit of a disaster- a teetering monument to ego, youthful self-indulgence, and a declaration of independence. The director, banished to American gulag ever since the excesses of Cimino & Friedkin, was back. But Rockwell fared the worst of the four. He fell out with Tarantino and his films never again captured the attention they once did. He has four credits since 2002 but I’ve never heard of them. Unlike fellow 90s directorial one-hit wonder Nick Gomez, Rockwell has resisted transitioning to television. He remains an auteur, on his own terms.
9. Peter Greenaway
I met him when he came to town to do press for his 1996 film The Pillow Book. He was fun to talk to. He was as witty, caustic, erudite as you would expect (he told a story about Cronenberg that suggested Dead Ringers was a blatant rip off of A Zed & Two Noughts). Like Egoyan, Greenaway’s decline in the 2000s seems counter-intuitive because his style of filmmaking and interest in employing multiple platforms seems perfect for our multimedia present. When I met him he talked a lot about his planned magnum opus, The Tulse Luper Suitcases. It was a sprawling epic about 20th century history that would play in theaters, the Internet, television, and as a novel all simultaneously. The project was realized, although not on the scale initially envisioned, but Greenaway has never regained the place he once held. Undoubtedly this is partly because the world has changed, has less patience for someone so experimental. Perhaps Greenaway’s penchant for trashing 98% of contemporary filmmaking & filmmakers has also had an effect. Greenaway persists, but the 90s brought just the right conditions for him to become a fixture of the Miramax Era.
10. Wong Kar-Wai
Far better writers than I have analyzed the auteur who worked in the genre heavy Hong Kong film industry and managed to create his own unique blend of romantic personal storytelling when John Woo-style action was king. Wong, along with his masterful cinematographer Christopher Doyle, was brought to the West by Quentin Tarantino who was dazzled by his diptych film Chungking Express. Wong was on fire in the 1990s, churning out a dizzying succession of singular creations that fused visual poetry with genre (until he decided to jettison genre altogether). The 1990s saw Wong build up to his best work. By 1997 he won the Best Director Award at Cannes for Happy Together and in 2000 he released what for many is his crowning achievement In The Mood For Love. Since then, with the decline of the Hong Kong film industry after Chinese reunification, Wong has been rudderless. He made short films (his BMW short is pure poetry) and I suspect if short films were more respected Wong could focus on them and do amazing work. He made an English language film but the magic wasn’t there. Wong continues to work (he and Doyle have parted company) but the 90s was his time. Like his characters, we can yearn in the meantime for a return to form but his influence lives on (our recent Best Picture Oscar winner Moonlight owes much to Wong).
The 1990s continue to leave its mark on cinema. The decade gave us Tarantino, Rodriguez, Linklater, Wes Anderson, Jon Favreau, Doug Liman, Paul Thomas Anderson but it also gave us Hal Hartley (I didn’t forget him) and other distinctive voices that perhaps don’t resonate like they once did. We often judge artists by longevity, but that isn’t the only metric. Perhaps it’s better to judge an artist by the impact they had on their moment, even if that moment has passed.