Why All Movies From 1999 Are The Same

In film studies, reflectionism is the idea that movies are a reflection of the times in which they were made. It is the notion that the political and social environment of a given era, the fears and aspirations of its contemporary citizens and the zeitgeist in general, are in some way mirrored in the films made in that era. Interpreting the 1956 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers as a reflection of the communist scare of the 1950s is a good example. (And one that has gained a lot of traction among film historians as well as movie buffs and the media, even though this interpretation was disputed by its writer and main actor).


Reflectionism is a problematic notion. On the one hand, there seem to be good reasons to believe that movies are a sign of their time. Film is a commercial art form that has to take into account the economic climate (and the political mood as well, for instance in times of censorship). Some films and filmmakers have an overtly ideological agenda, which is almost always a critique of contemporary conditions. And many films explicitly refer to the (pop or high) culture of their day, whether jokingly (the Shrek series comes to mind) or more seriously (take for instance Cannes winner The Square). On the other hand, there are also ample reasons to doubt the wisdom of the concept of reflectionism. Since films usually have a very long production process, for example, it is hard to see them as reactions to any recent shifts in the political or cultural climate. Renowned film scholar David Bordwell is on record as being very sceptical of the whole idea of reflectionism.


All of this didn’t deter Jack Nugent of Now You See It. His video essay starts from an intriguing hypothesis: it’s easy to find examples of movies that reflect the turmoil of their times, but how does cinema reflect periods of stability? He looks back at films made in the year 1999 to investigate to what degree they mirror the relative calm of the last decade of the millennium. Nugent focuses on a dozen or so movies that seem to reflect the stability, even monotony of their day and dubs them “cubicle films” (since many feature scenes set in dull office spaces). Although there’s always a danger in cherrypicking a limited number of examples to prove such a wide-ranging hypothesis, this video essay makes a convincing case. It is helped by the admission that there also are many examples to the contrary, and by calling attention to the fact that the perceived calm of the period mainly applied to white males and not to many other groups (minorities, women).