Movies Today

Movies Today

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
April 14 1998 3:30 AM

Movies Today

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Dear Alex:

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       You seem to have taken my New Yorker article a little personally. But that, I suppose, is my fault--the result of indulging in generational typing. I played the generational card not because I was trying to get your goat--or anyone's goat--but only because I kept having the same experience over and over. I would be talking to someone around 30, complaining about the thinness and mediocrity of the movie scene in the '90s, and I would be overcome by the sense that the other person had no idea what I was referring to. As I ranted, or mourned, or just mildly and softly groaned, my friend would grin at me as if I had turned into a fossil before his very eyes--not exactly the most pleasant experience, I can tell you. The attitude was: What's the point of complaining about movies--that is, movies in general? Movies just ... are, they are what they are, an industrial art form that turns out a lot of entertaining junk and a great many films that are neither art nor nonart but just movement and spectacle--and what's wrong with it? Have movies ever been any different?
       Well, to my eyes, you guys are living inside a new consciousness about movies, a view so pervasive that it could almost be called an ideology. What Marx meant by ideology, I believe, is a view determined by the power formations of the time that strikes its adherents as the unquestioned nature of things, as reality itself. Look, for about six or seven decades many people thought of the movies as the great art form of the 20th century. This belief stretched from Leninists to Surrealists to poets and aesthetes contributing to such little magazines of the '20s and '30s as The Dial and Hound & Horn; it included earnest liberals hoping to use movies as an instrument of social change, and it included the furrier/glove manufacturer philistines in charge of Hollywood--manipulative, hypocritical men of no personal culture who nevertheless took their cultural responsibilities very seriously. They thought they were obliged to bring the best to mass audiences--that was their entry ticket to American respectability. Their notion of the best may have been Nelson Eddy half the time, but it was also touchingly sincere, and these guys--Cohn, Mayer, Goldwyn, Thalberg, the brothers Warner, etc.--were willing to pay for talent. That plus the sunshine is one of the reasons Los Angeles became a home to so many writers and composers in the '30s and '40s.
       After the war, the excitement over movies as an art form started up again when the Italian Neorealists were exported, and then came the French New Wave and the Eastern Europeans, the Germans, and all the rest, as well as the American '70s, which we agree was a very exciting period. Well, virtually all that excitement--all that idealism about what movies might be, might accomplish--is gone. No one outside of the universities talks about the "art of the film" anymore. Such talk sounds naive, snobbish, out of it--immensely tiresome, a way of exalting oneself at the expense of other people. In brief, it strikes people as absurd--and that, I think, is a change in consciousness brought about by the movie companies, who have so saturated the media with the selling of movies and the romance of movie commerce that any other view has been defined out of existence. At a certain point, people stopped fighting it: The corporation, after all, values selling not confrontation, and group accommodation not individualism. The result is that aesthetic conversation has been largely replaced by a business conversation, for the general assumption, even among intellectuals, is that the business conversation is hip, witty, detailed, vivacious; while the aesthetic conversation is dreary, square, respectable, and dead. There are even critics who unconsciously reproduce these notions--say, James Wolcott in Vanity Fair, ridiculing Mean Streets and Nashville in one issue and writing captions for glamour photos in the next, captions that sound like the copy in the ads surrounding Wolcott's text.
       The vertically integrated companies like Disney, Time Warner, and Fox control magazines and TV stations, and the ones they don't control compete for the same stories about the same movies and stars, and all together they create such a genial yet insistent pressure that virtually the entire film press has been brought into line. Critics outside of the few magazines that value toughness come under constant assault by their bosses; they are told "not to get too far away from the audience," not to "write about film for an audience that just wants to go to movies." These are coded expressions meaning "Don't pan big movies and praise little ones." The penalty for ignoring this advice on a newspaper is that you lose your job, or you get the ground cut out from under you--your space cut, your column surrounded by photographs of smiling readers with their opinions of recent movies printed under the photos.
       Most of the movies that big Hollywood makes are not even intended for American audiences. As foreign box office has shifted from 40 percent to 50 percent to even 60 percent of the total gross for certain kinds of films, the aesthetics have shifted away from an emphasis on character and atmosphere and local flavor toward action and spectacle--stuff that plays better in Bangkok than Bangor. Many of these movies--I suppose Mercury Rising is the latest example--may fail in the theaters in the States, but the ancillary markets save them. In other words, the system not only cushions, it encourages mediocrity, and while people can question this movie or that movie, no one much criticizes the system anymore.
       By contrast, the '70s renaissance occurred because the studios didn't know how to sell their product--that is, they overestimated the size of the leftist and countercultural youth audience, and since they couldn't imagine how to please the kids, they temporarily gave the power to such directors as Coppola, De Palma, and Spielberg, who they thought did understand the youth audience.
       You are certainly right when you say an audience can't will art into being, but at least it can support the art that gets made, and the sad truth about the American independent cinema is that, with some exceptions, it isn't happening commercially. These movies play to euphoric audiences in Sundance, and then they open and gross $600,000 or $1 million--and that is surely the fault of college kids and young audiences in general, because these movies are certainly aimed at them. Yet the young audience doesn't respond to the appeal of these movies as it does to the crassly merchandised spectacles--somehow the spectacles are more hip, even though most of them have become entirely impersonal. Despite all the journalism about it, the independent film isn't quite a scene; it isn't quite a culture. It needs a smart magazine devoted to it; it needs a few arrogant texts; it needs theaters that become places for kids to hang out.
       Sure, you and your friends have sought out classic movies, and a few other people have done the same thing, with considerable effort, but you are talking about tiny enclaves, and I repeat my notion from the New Yorker piece that most kids take their sense of the movie culture from the malls, where they ingest the quick turnover attitude toward merchandise that mall life imposes on everyone. Despite all the movies on cable stations and the old movies in video stores, the movie past is very rapidly dropping out of sight. Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese recently complained in the Times that the college kids they speak to don't have any idea who Truffaut or Fellini is, and I received a letter last week from a man who teaches a film class at Harvard who insists that not a single student in his class, male or female, knows who Katharine Hepburn is. This may seem incredible, but it's happening.
       As for foreign films, there is actually a rather talented generation of young French directors working at the moment--Carax, Assayas, Klapisch, etc.--and I have praised some of their films in New York magazine, but I can't get anyone but a few people actually to see these movies. This may be my failing, but I did not fail in the same way 15 years ago. The will to see these movies just isn't there anymore, not even in New York. Most people don't want to be associated with these pictures, with these losers, and that is a mood created by media pressure. The nature of capitalism as it runs the movie business now has changed our attitude about virtually everything. We can argue about individual movies if you like, but I wanted to create what I think is the framework for any disagreement.

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.