Movies Today

Movies Today

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
April 4 1998 3:30 AM

Movies Today

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Dear David,

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       You are a writer with whom one has conversations as one reads, so it is natural and pleasant to write a response to your piece in the current issue of The New Yorker. You've written an energetic lament for a film culture in decline. There was a moment when I felt that you were speaking to me with almost uncanny directness, and that was when you complained of a cadre of "young intellectuals and advanced media whizzes" of your acquaintance who are spurning serious, heartfelt filmmaking and delighting ironically in Hollywood trash. I would not be so immodest as to consider myself a "young intellectual," and I'd not care to be known as an "advanced media whiz," but some of what I have written on popular culture for Slate and elsewhere may tumble into the category you describe. So I will endeavor to speak in defense of the silent minority of young intellectuals and advanced media whizzes who are in your eyes "satisfied by spectacle alone." From this point on, however, I'll decline to use the word "whizzes."
       You speak of a "generation gap" between filmgoers of your generation, who were raised on the imported European masterpieces of the '60s and the pop-modern works of '70s Hollywood; and those of another, who were weaned on Lucas and Spielberg and never dreamt of anything higher and deeper in cinema. I had the same feeling reading that passage as I did in reading Susan Sontag's piece a while back for the Times magazine on the disappearance of cinéastes (not that your and her pieces were saying the same thing). I resist the assumption, apparently widespread among older moviegoers, that the younger ones simply don't know their classic film culture. Yes, the movies we went to see as kids were Star Wars, Close Encounters, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Later on, though, we may have put a lot of effort into catching up with older films. We may have watched not only those evil, inauthentic videotapes but also the real articles in the repertory houses that still straggle on in some college towns. I'd go with friends many Fridays and Saturdays to see 8 1/2, Bonnie and Clyde, Aguirre, or Andrei Rublev on the big screen. I think there are many who have had the same education, whether at the Castro in San Francisco or the Brattle in Cambridge or the Biograph in Washington, D.C. (New York is one of the few big cities that lacks a good repertory theater.)
       There is, of course, one major difference between "our" experience of these films and "yours": Namely, they were new when you first saw them. But are we to be blamed merely for our birth dates--for having missed out on the successive summers of love and loss? You say these films "defined our moods in late adolescence." This sounds a little back-to-front: Isn't it the adolescence that defines the moods? And are great movies the sole property of those who were adolescents during the first run? Yes, I first saw Chinatown on video, but I saw it again at the Castro in a new 35 mm print, and I'll be damned if it didn't have a huge effect on me. I also cherish the memory of coming out of a showing of Tarkovsky's Stalker and wandering wordlessly for an hour with a friend: The experience had been so strange we couldn't even begin to dissect it, and we really haven't tried to this day. (I am singling out Tarkovsky because he was the last monumental filmmaker of the European tradition, and because I was able to see a couple of his later movies as they were being distributed for the first time. So I can claim a fragment of that first-run authenticity. Or is Tarkovsky already too much a postmodern imagist? You write that a critic who cherishes an image without identifying any emotion behind it is "falling into the chic irony of emptiness." How would you account for the inhuman visual epiphanies in Welles and Tati and Tarkovsky? Can't images become emotions? Isn't that the medium's magic?)
       I assume you don't think that moviegoing culture should be concentrated entirely on a repertory of the past--that younger generations should line up for New Wave retrospectives with the same panting expectation that greets the latest DiCaprio opus. Filmgoing has to be in greater part about the new, the fresh, the unknown. Otherwise it really would cease to be a living art. (It would begin to look like classical music--that's a different matter.) We want to see movies from our culture. The younger, brighter filmmaking audience is perfectly well aware of this disparity between the present and the past; still, it wants to see new movies and not just gaze back in lamenting admiration at the old. (It's not as if anyone is going around claiming that Men in Black is, say, a haunting mirror of an alienated world. Except perhaps one of your editors.) And let's face it: No amount of clamor from audiences will bring into being a new Fellini, a new Tarkovsky. Those filmmakers worked on a vast scale and had vast support from their governments. They benefited from the no longer extant largess of communist and socialist monumentalism. Nor do we find movies on the order of The Godfather Part II and Chinatown--pieces that had their origin in pop style but twisted toward darker and grander themes. Was it the righteous demand of the audience that brought these movies into being? The auteurist trend in '70s Hollywood began, I believe, with the freak success of Easy Rider--not much of a movie. When Chinatown emerged in the latter days of the era, it struggled to make money.
       Which brings me to L.A. Confidential. You make this the linchpin of your piece. If an exciting, intelligent film like this can't catch on, you say, if film critics can't spread the news about it, then film culture may really be in deep trouble. I don't feel the same concern because I don't think L.A. Confidential amounted to much, once you took away the glorious Kevin Spacey performance. It had all the earmarks of a film made by a man who knows his film history but is also trying to make a film with some commercial prospects. The rich ambiguities that the characters possessed at the beginning were incrementally swallowed up in a formulaic police-corruption plot. Haven't we seen that noisy shootout in many Miami Vice reruns? Chinatown references here and there--meek subplots about superhighways and politicians and bribes--were not integral to the plot; they were décor, bits of pastiche, in-references for connoisseurs. So the film was perhaps not free of the "chic irony of emptiness." And wasn't there a little whoosh of cynicism as one of the heroes drove off at the end? I am being deliberately irritating in order to make the point that one could make a judgment against L.A. Confidential by your own criteria.
       You dispraise a few other '90s movies to which young intellectuals and AMWs seem to be drawn. You single out Seven--which, according to my Leonard Maltin, should be spelled Se7en. Here is another taste abyss. Seven did open with much chic grisliness, but what struck me was what it made of that material, where it went from a dubious starting point. As it progressed, its violence became less explicit, until, by the end, one saw, famously, nothing but a box. Call me a formalist, but I found this structure hypnotic and original. (Was "the box" a reference to Barton Fink, which was a reference to Kiss Me Deadly? Perhaps, but unlike previous "boxes," this one had a precise narrative function.) I liked Seven for the way it ascended, reel by reel. I like films that finish an arc. I don't like films that immerse themselves in challenging material and flounder. I certainly didn't like Pulp Fiction, which seemed to me exactly the parade of disgust that you saw in Seven. What was the narrative, aesthetic, or moral point of the scene in which the kid has his head accidentally blown off in the car? That and the sniggering presentation of male-on-male rape gave me as strong an urge as I've ever felt to run from a theater. Which I've never done: I have my own weak style of movie love.
       We seem to agree that good films are still somewhere, somehow being made, but we can't seem to agree on which ones they are. I wonder if that's a bad thing.

This dialogue grows out of an article in the April 6 issue of The New Yorker deploring the state of movies today. Denby argues that studios prefer cheap irony to real emotion and that young moviegoers don't care about seeing good movies--they prefer mass-market schlock to complex films such as L.A. Confidential. Alex Ross demurs.