Hollywood has always excelled at the Epic. You know that type: a recreation of a significant historical event with an enormous featured cast backed up by a larger cast of thousands. Cleopatra (1963) or Lawrence of Arabia (1962) come to mind. The last big Hollywood Epic in the traditional sense was Warren Beatty’s Reds (1981).
Since then, Hollywood has certainly made big movies. The Marvel Comic movies are always on the epic scale. Of course the Star Wars franchise. And then during the summer of 2017 we had Christopher Nolan’s sweeping war epic Dunkirk.
I’d like to propose, however, that in recent years there has emerged a new kind of movie that I like to think of as the Post-Modern Epic. “Post” is one of those words like “neo” that if you put it in front of another noun it sort of implies “revised” or “new” or “this is a much smarter/dumber version of the thing we’re talking about.”
Here is my concept for the Post-Modern Epic. These are a diverse set of films that I would describe thusly: any movie with a large cast and a variety of storylines that center around a serious topic, with the storylines colliding and intertwining in interesting ways.
Okay, now that we have established that this is my sandbox and we’re talking about what I want to talk about, let’s start things off with what I believe is the seminal Post-Modern Epic: Crash (2005). If you’ve never seen this movie (and most people haven’t), it’s a masterwork. One of the things that always annoyed me when I was a TV sitcom writer was the way Hollywood strictly categorizes actors, writers, and directors into the forms they have done work in. I was a comedy writer and was known for my joke pitching in a room. So that’s what I was. I was the Joke Guy. Never mind that I was a serious person who read a lot and could write other things; I was the Joke Guy. This actress is the ingenue, that director makes action pictures, etc.
Paul Haggis, who wrote, directed and produced this movie (what I like to call “pulling an Orson Welles”) spent much of his career prior to the early 2000s as a writer on supremely mediocre TV shows, including, among others The Love Boat, Diff’rent Strokes, and Walker, Texas Ranger. But he was also a smart person who read a lot. He bought the screen rights to a couple of short stories about boxing written by F.X. O’Toole and turned them into Million Dollar Baby (2004), a grim and impassioned film by Clint Eastwood that won Best Picture.
The following year, Haggis won another Best Picture for Crash. This movie covers two days in Los Angeles, exploring the racial and social tensions in that city that explode after a car accident. The cast includes African American, white, Hispanic and Middle Eastern characters, male and female. It treats racism as something that afflicts everyone and makes everything more complicated, making the social fabric of the city seem even more fragile. The huge cast is led by Matt Dillon, who turns in the performance of his career. Also featured are Sandra Bullock, Don Cheadle, Jennifer Esposito, Brendan Fraser, Terrence Howard, Ludacris, Thandie Newton, Ryan Phillippe, and Larenz Tate. It’s a great movie, and definitely worth adding to your queue.
This movie fits my definition of Post-Modern Epic almost better than any other movie I can think of: multiple storylines set in four different countries (Morocco, Japan, Mexico, and the US) that all bump into each other. Directed by the fabulous Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu, and including a cast led by Brad Pitt (in one of his best performances), Cate Blanchett and Gael Garcia Bernal. What’s it about? Uh… well, that’s complicated and definitely post-modern. Just watch it. It’s extraordinary.
This enormous story of the Civil Rights movement in the early 1960s is retold from an utterly unique perspective: the lives of African American domestic workers in Jackson, MS, in 1963. Nominated for several Academy Awards including Best Picture, the cast is peerless: Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Emma Stone, Jessica Chastain, Bryce Dallas Howard, Allison Janney, Sissy Spacek and the incomparable Cicely Tyson. Based on Kathryn Stockett’s novel of the same name, The Help proves that an epic story about women who are housekeepers and cooks fighting for their dignity is as powerful and resonant as any men-at-war picture.
They don’t get much bigger than this movie: multiple plot lines, six different time periods, a lead cast of 15, and just to make it even more epic—three directors (Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski, and Tim Tykwer.) Tom Hanks and Halle Berry head the gigantic cast. The story follows a series of characters who appear in each of the six different time period stories. They keep meeting each other over and over again in different times and places. It is a deeply emotional and moving film, visually breathtaking and intensely involving. Does it all work? Not really. Is it worth watching? Absolutely! The score is outstanding—composed by Tykwer, Johnny Klimek and Reinhold Heil.
I’m just going to go out on a limb here and guess that not only have you never seen this movie, you’ve never even heard of it. Well, time to rectify that! A movie about a series of interconnected events relating to two car accidents that both occur at 11:14 p.m. Relentlessly inventive and often quite funny, this is a movie that has largely been forgotten and deserves another look. Written and directed by Greg Marcks, it features a wonderful cast led by Henry Thomas. You may remember him as Elliot in E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. He’s all grown up here and really good. Give this one a try, too.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication.