What Happened to the Great American Movie?

What Happened to the Great American Movie?

Dec. 1 2004 11:08 AM

What Happened to the Great American Movie?

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Ben Stein
8:23 a.m.  Friday  10/4/96 

       There is also an economic component here as well. Movies and big stars are so incredibly expensive that the studios have to drive at the lowest common denominator to even hope to make out. When, in fact, movies hit at a higher level, Hollywood tries that for a while and then rapidly gives up and goes back to the lower level.
       I was moved by Frank Rich's comments about the poor quality studio executives picking the poor quality writers. This happens to be exactly the problem. There are some very bright screenwriters but they are rarely employed. The best scripts I have ever read here never got made and the writers are uniformly unemployed.
       Hollywood works on a buddy system. It specifically works on a "cover your ass" buddy system. This means writers with powerful agents, past success, however fluky, or powerful friends get hired. Ability has absolutely nothing to do with it at all. If a bad writer is hired but he has powerful agents, the guy who hired him never gets in trouble. If a good writer out of nowhere gets hired and the movie is a bomb, the executive can lose his job. Play it safe. Play it cool. Play it mediocre. That's the name of the game.

Ben Stein
8:37 a.m.  Friday  10/4/96 

       Herb Stein wrote:
       "Could the community of film critics do anything to elevate standards? Every day I see ads for movies in which some critic is quoted as saying that what is obviously a mediocre movie is 'the best ever.' " (I don't know where those quotations come from. When I read reviews I never see such statements. Perhaps my eyes glaze over.) Incidentally, on the subject of reviews. I look at the movie reviews in TheNew Yorker and they always deal with movies I never heard of. Is there a genre of movies produced only to be reviewed in TheNew Yorker?
       This is interesting: It is well known here in Hollywood that there are certain critics for obscure outlets who are for sale directly or indirectly. This is a scandal that bears looking into.

Ben Stein
9:08 a.m.  Friday  10/4/96 

       The bottom line here is that despite the drastic failure of Hollywood product, it is still probably our most vibrant art form, open (despite the buddy system) to a great extent to new talent, and very far from dead.
       As much as we lament Hollywood's problems, we must be conscious of its successes over the century: It was the art form that told America who we were.
       If I might say a short prescription for a better Hollywood, it would be this:
       1) stop leaning on violence as a crutch when you cannot think of a story;
       2) stop appealing to the crudest instincts with vile language, which is far more of a problem than sex;
       3) stop glorifying sickness;
       4) make yourselves even more open to the multitude of Americans with talent who would be part of the creative process if you would let them;
       5) dare to walk away from the buddy system, at least occasionally;
       6) remember you are America's third parent, and with power comes responsibility commensurate with that power--not just to be wholesome, but to uplift and inspire.

Frank Rich
9:19 a.m.  Friday  10/4/96 

       I don't think politicians can shame Hollywood into doing better--look at the results thus far!--nor do I think that greater distribution of movies (whether through cable or the Internet) will improve things, either. (TV quality isn't up with the addition of more channels.) And as for critics ... not only is there the corruption problem Ben Stein refers to with some of those "critics" who appear in quote ads but, thanks to the recent media mergers, some of the most-seen movie critics on TV now literally work for the studios who make the movies they are reviewing!
       But while I don't believe we'll ever look back on 1996 as a golden age for movies, I do believe in the turn of the wheel. Hollywood is still a market; eventually the public turns against shoddy goods; and once it does, the wheel will indeed turn yet again. In a way this period in Hollywood is comparable to that period in the late '60s when the studios were bloated and turning out costly bombs like Tora! Tora! Tora! and Star; when small, non-major-studio movies (Easy Rider started this revolution) started drawing audiences instead, there was upheaval--leading to that golden age of the '70s we were talking about earlier this week. History could well repeat itself again soon--or so at least we must hope.

Joe Queenan
9:41 a.m.  Friday  10/4/96 

       I agree with Frank Rich. Things have to get worse before they get better. But they will get better. One reason the Beatles, the Animals, the Rolling Stones and the Kinks took America by storm in the middle '60s was because young Americans were sick of Lesley Gore, the Four Seasons, Frankie Avalon and all those doo-wop cornballs. The same thing happened in the early '90s, when the MTV hair bands like Whitesnake and Bon Jovi were purged overnight by the emergence of Nirvana and the rest of the grunge bands. But rock 'n' roll bands can turn the wheel more quickly and decisively than exciting new directors because it doesn't cost much money to make a record, and because rock bands can always find alternative routes to reach their audiences. As for film, certainly the emergence of Quentin Tarantino, Mike Leigh, the Coen Brothers and other industry outsiders is a very positive development. Those Irish guys are doing good work. Spielberg still makes traditional Hollywood films that are both entertaining and intelligent. And let's face it: You can never have too many films about Scottish heroin addicts. In short, things are not as bad as they seem. One way of looking at the industry is this: Whatever doesn't kill it makes it stronger. If Chris Farley, Adam Sandler, and the rest of Lorne Michaels' neo-Jutes couldn't destroy motion pictures, nothing can.
       But they're certainly giving it the old college try.

Joe Queenan
2:39 p.m.  Friday  10/4/96 

       Two years ago, when The Brothers McMullen was released, many of my friends were puzzled that I didn't move heaven and earth to see it. After all, the film dealt with working-class Irish-Americans in Notre Dame football jerseys, and I am an Irish-American with a blue collar background who really likes the Fighting Irish. But I hated The Brothers McMullen. I thought it was a load of ethnic hooey, a Cuisinart of every cliché about Irish-Americans: the Church, Guinness Stout, the Chieftains, dear old Mom. I thought it was a truckload of blarney.
       I raise this subject here for the same reason I mentioned Jane Austen yesterday. Quite often, the artists whose work most affects us come from other cultures and other centuries. No work written in the twentieth century has had anywhere near the effect on me as Madame Bovary, King Lear, Tartuffe or Gulliver's Travels. (Others could make the same argument about the Bible.) Similarly, no American film made in the past 20 years has affected me as much as the work of Satyajit Ray, Jean Renoir, Federico Fellini, Werner Herzog. The last American movie to make a really big impression on me was True Confessions. And that's only because I was once studying to be a priest.
       Since Europe and Asia have film industries of their own, and produce scores of films of the type we do not make here, it doesn't really matter that much if America is going through a fallow cinematic period, because we can always shop elsewhere. I simply wish critics would stop writing about mainstream American movies as if they were serious artworks. They're candy. In fact, the best American films of recent years are the ones that have no pretensions beyond providing pure entertainment: Speed, Braveheart, Jurassic Park. I honestly think it would be best if contemporary American filmmakers stuck to their knitting and made films like Jaws and ET and let Kurosawa do the heavy lifting. There's absolutely nothing wrong with making candy. But make it good candy--like Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Clint Eastwood--not rat poison like that Saturday Night Live stuff. Sorry, I just can't let this thing go.

Jack Valenti
2:46 p.m.  Friday  10/4/96 

       There is such despondency in the comments of Joe Queenan and Ben Stein about the decline and fall of the American movie. When a country produces 550 plus movies a year, of which the major studios produce and release 160, there are bound to be a lot of dogs and turkeys. There aren't enough talented and skilled craftsman in this country to create 550 splendid movies anymore than book publishers or weekly news magazines and daily newspapers can convey to the public a seamless web of excellence.
       The fact is we seldom define what it is we're measuring. For the rest of the world the American movie is the most wanted of all U.S. exports. Most American movies are received hospitably and enjoyed by audiences of just about every race, color, nationality, and religion.
       Most people go to a movie to find two hours or so of entertainment, escaping the tedium of their own daily grind. Most people do not go to a movie to be instructed. Immanuel Kant is a great philosopher who influenced succeeding generations of philosophers. But few people read Kant for pleasure. No one says, 'I think I'll curl up in bed and read Kant tonight. I find him so interesting." The fact is that American movies today are the #1 choice of most movie audiences in the world.
       Ben Stein makes some points in which I thoroughly concur. I find the use of four-letter words, particularly the plentiful use of such words, to be the mark of literary poverty. The English language is rich and muscular and first class writers should not have to dip into their knapsack of four-letter profanity, which elevated and coarseness and defames elegance. I think Ben Stein is off the mark when he suggests that Hollywood works on a buddy system which means the abolition of ability and the embrace of friendship. I've been in the movie world for 30 years and I have learned that the daily search engaged by the major studios, about which I am most familiar, is to read a script that fills you with joy because the story and writing hold you enthralled. No powerful agent can fake or disguise a lousy script. This is my judgment based on what I know. But hell, anybody else can have another opinion. Today movies cost too much to tolerate a "buddy system."
       The fact is making a first class movie is probably the most difficult achievement in all the art forms. Between the ideas and the finished picture much can go wrong and often does.

Herb Stein
2:52 p.m.  Friday  10/4/96 

       And so we end on a hopeful note. I'm not sure that Queenan's next golden age will seem like a golden age to me, even if it arrives in time for me to see it.
       I will close with a hopeful note of my own. Anyone with 30 good CDs need never be without great music, even if no more great music is ever written. Anyone with 100 great books need never be without good reading, even if nothing more is ever written. Anyone with 50 great movie tapes need never be without a good movie to watch, even if no more good movies are ever written. Not only will the listening, the reading and the watching be good each time it is repeated, it will be different each time, because the listener, reader or watcher will be different. As Heraclitus said, "You cannot watch the same great movie twice," because "you" will be different each time.
       And now, the Oscar for this year's best analysis of the state of movies--
       The envelope please--
       The winners are--Joe Queenan, Frank Rich, Ben Stein and Jack Valenti, in S
LATE'sCommittee of Correspondence.
       I thank them all most heartily for a discussion that has been both serious and entertaining.
       Next week the Committee of Correspondence will discuss "Affirmative Action: Is there a Middle Way?" The panelists will be:

  • Christopher Edley, author of Not All Black and White: Affirmative Action and American Values.
  • Michael Kinsley, editor of SLATE magazine.
  • Glenn Loury, professor at Boston University.
  • Stuart Taylor, senior writer with American Lawyer Media, L.P., and the American Lawyer magazine.
  • Thomas Wood, co-author of the California Civil Rights Initiative.