What Happened to the Great American Movie?

What Happened to the Great American Movie?

Dec. 1 2004 11:06 AM

What Happened to the Great American Movie?

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Frank Rich
8:23 a.m.  Wednesday  10/2/96 

       What struck me about Joe Queenan's enthusiasm for Mike Leigh and Jack Valenti's for Paul Scofield--both of which I wholeheartedly share--is that both Leigh and Scofield are products of the theater. In Leigh's case this may have helped immunize him from the showbiz insularity that Queenan so rightly decries, and that is too pervasive today in all of pop culture, which is so dense with references to other pop culture but often so lacking in reference points to life as it is lived when the TV or radio is off. Leigh's art was honed with an acting company playing in a London theater to audiences who intimately knew the people in his pieces; he couldn't get by on glib pop attitude alone.
       We tend to denigrate theater as a source for movies (and movie talent) because we've all seen such bad (i.e. "stagy") adaptations of plays on screen. (A Man For All Seasons is something of an exception.) But many of the directors, screenwriters and actors we revere from what I now call Herb Stein's golden age (as well as after) came from the New York theater--bringing sparkling dialogue (Sturges), luminous star power (Hepburn), and even cinematic verve (Kazan) with them. As Queenan points out, these are not the gifts you bring to the big screen if you are an alumnus of Saturday Night Live (unless, perhaps, you are Eddie Murphy on a good day).
       As for Nixon, wasn't he the inspiration for The Godfather?

Joe Queenan
9:25 a.m.  Wednesday  10/2/96 

       In discussing why Latin America has produced so much great fiction in the past 20 to 30 years, while the pickings have been pretty slim in this society, somebody once said that writers in Third World countries don't have the luxury of writing about their disappointing parents, their listless children, or their unsatisfying jobs as fact-checkers at major magazines, so they have to write about something important. Like, er, life.
       I think the same argument can be made about recent American films. Americans don't make good films anymore because we don't have to. Society no longer demands it. Most films are made by and for dunces. They do not address any issues that any serious adult could care about. They are frivolous works made by frivolous people.
       In a sense, this has always been the case in American society. In times of crisis, when America needed great leaders, it got great leaders. When it needed great artists, it got great artists. But this is not a time of crisis. This is one of those many periods in American history when we're just sort of meandering along. Nothing important is happening, not in politics, not in film, not in cinema. The only real life in American pop culture is in rock 'n' roll, an idiom that has always had the ability to reinvent itself every eight to 10 years. It is interesting that rock 'n' roll--music made for teens by people who are just out of their teens--is often original, powerful and inspiring while films--artworks made for teens by people in their 30s and 40s--are usually horrible. Unlike rock, American film has no capacity for constant self-renewal. Most comedies being made today are mere remakes of Caddyshack (1980), The Blues Brothers (1980), or National Lampoon's Animal House (1978). I'm not kidding about this: Lorne Michaels ruined everything.
       The current Jane Austen mini-craze is certainly worthy of note. It is fascinating that an Englishwoman who has been dead for more than 100 years can speak to those of us who still possess a brain in a way our own contemporaries cannot. But it is hardly surprising: Most of us have had our hearts broken or been betrayed by lovers, but few of us have ever been in danger of having our ears cut off or being murdered by a rogue government agency. Yet perhaps the greatest service Jane Austen has rendered this society is furnishing material for films that, because they are set in the 19th century, cannot have a soundtrack featuring The Four Tops, Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Supremes. Thank you, Jane Austen, wherever you are. Thank you.

Ben Stein
10:50 a.m.  Wednesday  10/2/96 

       Jack Valenti writes:
       "If there is a vacancy in Hollywood today, it is the small supply of first class writers."
       This is a stunningly on-target comment and one which I frequently find occasion to believe. Years ago, I was partners with several producers who have gone on to fame and fortune, notably Brian Grazer and Tova Laiter, on film ideas I brought to them. We had to find writers who were available, studio acceptable, and had a modicum of ability. The parade of losers, incompetents (and I mean TOTAL incompetents), liars, and frauds through our office was terrifying. You need look no farther than the Writers' Guild roster for the problem.
       It amazes me that major newspapers and magazines have talent coming out their ears in terms of writers (I particularly think of my beloved American Spectator, but also of any issue of American Enterprise), but Hollywood, where the pay is far greater, draws so few decent writers. You really have to attend a general meeting of the Writers' Guild some day to see, to see and be horrified, about what passes for writing talent these days.
       Maybe Hollywood, despite its fine pay, is simply known to be so trashy and hurtful to the human spirit that good talents just don't want to come here even with the good pay. It may be that the Zeitgeist of the place, the competition, and the slaughterhouse toughness of the movie making process drive away genuine artists and leave the con men. (I have given up screenwriting for the decade--the process is just too appallingly painful.)
       Or, to look at it another way, behold who is in line at the movie theaters or in the video stores: 9- to 12-year-old boys with dirty faces. (My son is exhibit A.) This may give a clue as well. Demand equals supply.

Jack Valenti
1:54 p.m.  Wednesday   10/2/96 

       TO: Herb Stein and the happy band of SLATE brothers:
       About Joe Queenan's comment about the erupting popularity of Jane Austen, and why now?: I have always been a Jane Austen fan. At the time I read two of her works, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE and SENSE AND SENSIBILITY, I have to confess I didn't really see a popular film in either of them. I am also an acolyte of Anthony Trollope, whose novels are close cousins of Austen's. Or so they appear to me. Yet Trollope hasn't made it to the screen. Perhaps we should nudge Hollywood producers to examine Trollope. They are soon to run out of Austen novels, but Trollope has a fatter inventory and they have a sense of place and character the equal of Miss Jane.
       Who among our group understands how writers and/or filmmakers rise and then recede? Why? I remember when I lived in Houston; at an early age I began reading a novelist named James Branch Cabell. He wrote his most celebrated novel JURGEN after World War I, and was the toast of the literary community. Within a generation, he has vanished. I read him just about the time he was about to fall off the peak. I haven't gone back to JURGEN in years. Perhaps it wasn't worthy of endurance, but at the time I counted it pretty good.

Herb Stein
2:33 p.m.  Wednesday   10/2/96 

       We now have on the table a long list of reasons why this is not a golden age of movies or, with a bow to Valenti, why it isn't 14-karat golden. In fact, the problem may be overdetermined; we have more explanations than are necessary. If all of these explanations are valid it's a wonder that we have any decent movies at all.
       As I read our panelists, this is a rough outlines of the causes:
       1. General decline of American culture:

  • Possibly because there are no serious issues to evoke artistic creativity.

       2. Low quality of movie-makers, especially scriptwriters:

  • They are poorly educated (went to Harvard).
  • They are over-educated (went to Harvard).
  • They don't know about life.

       3. TV:

  • In general, for degrading standards on part of film-makers and audience.
  • Saturday Night Live, as corruption of taste.
  • As competition for audience, forcing filmmakers to more extreme effort to get attention.

       4. Dumbing down of audience, for reasons not connected with TV.
       5. The corporate culture, control of movie-making by tasteless bureaucracies:

  • The high cost of distributing movies, which makes it difficult for independent film makers to find an audience.

       6. Chance--everything moves in cycles.(This is how economists explain recessions.)
       7. Richard Nixon--took the fun out of life.

       I am surprised that no one has mentioned taxes, which destroy the incentive for talented people to bear the rigors of Hollywood.
       Does any one want to add anything to this list, or subtract anything from it?

Ben Stein
3:05 p.m.  Wednesday   10/2/96 

       Herb Stein wrote:
       "I am surprised that no one has mentioned taxes, which destroy the incentive for talented people to bear the rigors of Hollywood. Does any one want to add anything to this list, or subtract anything from it?"
       We seem to have completely ignored regulation.