You can’t choose your family and neither do you get a say in the era you come of age. For me, cinematically at least, the timing was cruelly double-edged. As an 80s adolescent I spent formative evenings gawping in front of Blue Velvet, Brazil and so on; but by the time I was old enough to spend all my spare time in cinemas, the rather less magical 90s had rolled around.
And therein lies the rub. Because mulching the cinema of a decade down into a single impression is, of course, a reductive business. But it’s one almost all of us do: the 70s are routinely seen as the Edenic idyll portrayed in Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls; the 80s as a riot of subversive cultdom. But the 90s? No one seems sure what to make of those years.
The era is distant enough for many of its landmarks to feel dated, but plenty of its best film-makers are still active. Witness Gregg Araki, creator of dark hipster romps like The Living End and The Doom Generation. Now, having conjured up a genuine moment of brilliance in the interim with 2005’s Mysterious Skin, Araki is circling back to his roots with the expertly trashy Kaboom, due for a Britain release in June.
Such is the dilatory effect of the passing years, whereby history makes masterpieces of tat and one generation’s triumph a footnote to the next. But the verdict on some 90s moments seems a surer thing — not least the hubbub that will surely greet next year’s 20th anniversary of Quentin Tarantino’s hugely influential Reservoir Dogs.
True, for many the novelty of all that blood-soaked jibber-jabber wore thin pretty quickly. But only a churl would deny the potency it held the first time round, in the last period American cinema felt like a world leader, with Tarantino’s success given ballast by a purple patch for the Coen brothers and Robert Altman’s glorious Indian summer.
On screen, it felt like an American decade — which, given the tarnishing of the country’s reputation thereafter, may be one reason it feels unloved now.
That may also be down to the erratic outputs of so many of the film-makers who have kept on trucking into the present day. There again, many who were big news at the time later all but vanished; the ascent of others now just seems regrettable in the first place. And this is all without mentioning the pall cast over the decade by cinema’s most legendary names, their form veering from wobbly (Allen, Cronenberg, Scorsese) to inexcusable (Francis Ford Coppola put out both Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Jack).
Again, every time you try to find a coherent spirit of the times, you come up with the glib, plasticky post-modernism practised by Williamson and Tarantino at his most annoying. The triumphs are random and scattered — the elegant Suture, the unforgettable Hoop Dreams, Starship Troopers, Slums of Beverly Hills, and a sudden rush of excellence in 1999.
But it was also at the very end of the decade that perhaps its most crucial development took place — only it wasn’t on a cinema screen. In the final year of the 20th century, The Sopranos aired on TV for the first time, throwing the way open many other long-form, small-screen epics that in the last 10 years have so often stolen film’s artistic thunder.
So maybe the 90s has its place in things after all — as the last decade in cinema history when the movies would truly have the place to themselves.