Movies Today

Movies Today

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
April 16 1998 3:30 AM

Movies Today

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Dear David,

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       Your diagnosis of younger filmgoers is still too dire. I simply don't buy some of your anecdotes--the notion that no one in a Harvard film class has heard of Katharine Hepburn, or Scorsese's idea that college kids haven't heard of Fellini. What's going to happen if a professor stands up in front of a college class and asks, "Do you know who Katharine Hepburn is?" There will be an embarrassed, amused, "ironic" silence, even if everyone in the room knows exactly who Hepburn is. And everyone does. As for Fellini, I'm willing to believe that his name-recognition quotient has slipped some, but the style of Fellini is visible in commercial filmmaking and indeed on commercials. For example, there's that beer commercial in which a regular beer-drinking guy is forced to watch a Felliniesque film by his girlfriend. (All right, you caught me, I'm emptily ironizing.) I'm skeptical for different reasons of your denunciation of "quick turnover" in youth culture. True enough--but whose legacy is that? As several distinguished historians of my generation have argued, it was the marketing of the counterculture in the '60s that made it necessary for every age group to have its own pseudo-radical culture. I wish we could leave all talk of generations behind. It kills art, or cuts it short.
       I'll accept at least part of your argument about an ideology of viewing. Relatively few younger people will embrace the idea that film is the new, great, high art form of the 20th century. They do consume it mostly as entertainment. But where's the news? Was there ever a time when capitalist pressures did not reign supreme in the movie business? As you say, the '70s renaissance came about because of a miscalculation--an exaggerated notion among studio executives of the size of the countercultural audience. That was a capitalist calculation. And the early studio heads were just as fearfully obsessed by audience reaction as the heads of today. It's just that the technology of audience testing was more primitive and did not lead to the diversification, atomization, and randomization of narrative that audience testing produces today. (Yet look at what was done to The Magnificent Ambersons. The whole fiasco of Welles' Hollywood career was a great exhibition of same-as-it-ever-was. Cinéastes who idealize the past take refuge in the eminently disprovable notion that Welles was a spendthrift, a man doomed to failure. They cannot accept the fact that capitalism of a cruel and stupid kind overhung the Golden Age of Casablanca and Notorious.) So the question is not whether capitalism has suddenly taken hold of Hollywood but what kind of capitalism is at play and what it does to the art.
       What's ceased to be possible, apparently, is auteur film. A traumatic experience in my own filmgoing history was seeing The Godfather: Part III. I'd seen the first two Godfathers dozens of times. Part III sparked a unique reaction in me: Not only did I wish I hadn't seen it, I wished it had never been made; I wished I could destroy it. It tainted the two great movies that preceded it. Francis Coppola, as an artist, had disappeared. Soulless forces of money, megalomania, and malheur seem to destroy even the strongest-willed filmmakers in the long run. Yet they can't prevent periodic breakthroughs by fresh talents who haven't yet been beaten down. I won't abandon my bedrock assumption that modern Hollywood, for all its banalities, still permits the creation of temporary greatnesses. The obverse of the Godfather III experience was, for me, Terry Gilliam's visionary Brazil. Coming from a classical-music-saturated European bias, I couldn't believe that something so dazzling and complex had come out of the West Coast film factory. Of course it really hadn't; it was an English-American hybrid and a freak accident. Gilliam has not been able to repeat it. But it did happen once, and other filmmakers have managed to make something like it happen again. Thinking over the past year's films, I can think of scattered examples of individual, semi-auteuristic vitality: The Ice Storm, the script for The Devil's Advocate, about every other scene in Austin Powers, the last hour of Titanic, and the whole continuous being of Al Pacino.
       But all this is not even the point of our disagreement--because your relative pessimism about modern Hollywood has not stopped you from waxing enthusiastic about commercial pictures (as you did eloquently with Titanic). The point of disagreement is about all the other pictures, the mediocre actioners and the snickering teen comedies and the failed dramas. Here I plead guilty to sometimes vacant enjoyment. I've written about movies for Slate, but I am not a film critic by trade. I look at movies more casually. I can sit through, say, I Know What You Did Last Summer and not have to deliver an opinion on whether or not it is a Good Thing. I have, however, been on the other side of the fence as a music critic: I know the frustration of arguing musical aesthetics with those who go to concerts for absent-minded pleasure and do not want to be challenged by unusual repertory or contemporary music or any of the off-center phenomena that make my day as a critic. They, the after-work listeners, want to go hear a Beethoven symphony or arias sung by Pavarotti. The universal quantity "music"--or "movies"--turns out to mean quite different things to different people. This is perhaps a banal discovery, but it's one I always try to keep somewhere in mind as a critic.
       May I suggest that what appears to you to be an ideological disparity between generations is really a disparity in viewing positions, in taste formations. My attempts to write about a couple of different types of music have taught me the dangers of assuming that there is such a thing as Music. Particular musical passions run deep. Can't we admit a diversity of movie passions as well? And can't we admit a style of movie-love in which both the great and the not-so-great are savored? (By the way, it's hard to argue that the love of bad movies is a new generational ideology when the thing called Camp has been around for decades.) There's a decadent joy in appreciating the one good aspect of a bad movie--for example, Morgan Freeman's performances in Chain Reaction and Kiss the Girls. As an ironist of my acquaintance, an avid fan of Mercury Rising, wrote me in an e-mail on the subject of our exchange: "Chateaubriand, in his Génie du christianisme, drew the contrast between critique des défauts and critique des beautés, and urged the merits of the second (which centered on the appreciation of a work's good points, rather than an assessment of its defects). How can movie-love thrive if the critic insists on a You're-No-John-Kennedy (or Scorsese, as the case may be) approach toward moviegoing?"

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.