Movies Today

Movies Today

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
April 18 1998 3:30 AM

Movies Today

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Dear Alex:

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       I'm beginning to get a little annoyed. You are taking all the good-guy positions while ignoring the most obtrusive actualities that might contradict those positions. I give you anecdotal information, and you tell me the anecdotes are false. How do you know? Well, here is another anecdote. I just received a letter from a distinguished newspaper critic in a Midwestern city who was recently fired for precisely the kind of reason I laid out in my NewYorker piece and in our last exchange--he was too tough on big movies. After all, you and I are very lucky to be writing for publications with a long tradition of critical freedom. By contrast, critics on newspapers with lots of movie ads have become incredibly vulnerable. If they get too sharp-tongued, they are accused of not loving movies, of being out of touch with the audience, etc. Editors live in terror that readers might somehow feel outclassed--a kind of Tocquevillian nightmare of democracy perverted into flattery of the common man and fear of excellence. The notion that a critic might increase enjoyment of a movie by starting arguments over it is now completely foreign to editors. Did you know that in the early '70s the NewYorkTimes Sunday "Arts & Leisure" section used to publish critical pieces, both pro and con, that disagreed with what their regular critics said? It was assumed then that the arts flourished on controversy. The inanition that reigns now (as if Janet Maslin, for all her talent, even made her opinion clear half the time), I believe, has been produced by an extension of corporate power. Corporations don't like controversy; they think it upsets the even flow of commerce. It's embarrassing, cranky, awkward--who needs it? What it comes down to, of course, is the idea that the arts aren't really worth fighting over.
       You accuse me of negativism, as if I wanted movies to be bad in order to prove my point about decline. Are you crazy? I praise whenever I can, and as much as I can. At the moment, I think Neil Jordan's The ButcherBoy is terrific, though I found it hard to write about at any length (perhaps I'll return to it) for a simple reason: My ear for accents isn't very good, and I could hardly penetrate the County Monaghan brogue spoken by the little boy who is the main character. I wish Warner Bros. had had the courage to put subtitles on the movie the way the distributor of Bill Forsyth's Gregory'sGirl did in 1981. Sometimes you have to praise bits and pieces of things--John Seale's hard-edged but sexy cinematography in City of Angels, John Hurt's cagey performance in Love and Death on Long Island. But you can't decline into vapid appreciation without the industry making a patsy out of you. Please tell your fellow Young Ironist that Chateaubriand was a rhapsodist by temperament, so of course he thought the "critique des beautés" was superior to the "critique des défauts." If Chateaubriand were alive now, he would be writing about ... Chateaubriand. That is, he would be writing articles about truffles in very luscious prose for the glossiest of glossy magazines. For a working critic, Chateaubriand's directive is meaningless: Beauties and faults are coiled together, and one has to uncoil them and say what they lend to each other. One can write an appreciation of an artist's overall career (I tried it with Mailer in the current NewYorker; you have done it with composers and conductors), but when a given work is before you, you deal with it as rigorously as you can.
       Of course it's a critic's job to look for new work, to celebrate young artists who break through, and so on. For instance, I have high hopes for the next films made by the indie directors Todd Solondz and Todd Haynes. But serious critics now come under considerable pressure to shill for the independent cinema, simply because it represents a moral corrective to Big Hollywood's impersonality and waste, and that, of course, is not what we should be doing. At the end of last summer, I took a deep breath and panned a little movie that I hated and that I thought had been overpraised, In the Company of Men; I think it's patronizing to pat the indies on the head simply for making a movie cheaply. At the same time, I find it hard to work up much anger over routine Hollywood comedies or the 18thMercuryRising of the year. No one much expects these movies to be good anymore; they are products made essentially for Bangkok or the video store. Studio movies aren't, so to speak, good enough in general to say every week that they are bad in particular. The moral basis for rage--that the audience is being betrayed--is beginning to fade, worn away by sheer repeated mediocrity. I'm sure you know what I mean. When you were at the Times, you could not have taken much pleasure from saying that a routine Kurt Masur performance of a Beethoven symphony with the Philharmonic was ... routine.
       Why do you and your fellow Young Ironists fight so angrily against the idea of decline? You just can't bear it, can you? It goes against the grain of everything in the media atmosphere. Emotionally, you need to believe that nothing has changed, that you are living in the best of all media worlds. I find this very odd. After all, art forms decline all the time--you know this better than anyone. I'm not much on the sociology of art, but can't we admit the possibility that art forms attain a kind of producer-consumer equilibrium that allows them to flourish? And further, that that equilibrium can't last forever? Let us say that for periods, even extended periods, the financial resources of producers (whether patrons or entrepreneurs), the expressive capabilities of artists, the needs and the willingness of audiences all come together in balance, and the art form flourishes--the novel and the opera in the 19th century; painting and dance in New York in the '50s and '60s; rock in England in the '60s; subway graffiti in the '70s, etc. I'm not sure this amounts to much more than a tautology--art forms flourish because they flourish--but perhaps we can agree that when one of the three parties (producers, artists, audiences) changes or needs something else, the art form becomes unstable and perhaps goes into decline. This does not mean that good things absolutely cease being produced (there may be wonderful works that overstrain the medium, such as Lady Macbeth of Mtesnk or Lulu); it means the easy, happy relationship among the three parties has been so strained that fewer good things are produced, and further, that each good thing is a special case. That's where we are now in movies. The system discourages art in every way. It wasn't always true.
       You mention Welles. Yes, the studio philistines of the '40s were glad to pull him down. He was rebellious and flamboyant, and he didn't respect them, and he made big bowwow noises as an artist. But two things to say about Welles. One: He did make Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, and later Touch of Evil, all in Hollywood. And two: The cannily silent "I'm-just-trying-to-tell-a-good-story" directors such as Ford, Hawks, Huston, and Hitchcock did extraordinary work at the same time under the same kind of masters. Welles had many chances to pull himself together later on--in Europe, say--and with the exception of Chimes at Midnight, he really couldn't do it. But Hitchcock and Ford and Huston just went rolling on and on.
       Yes, of course, capitalism has always controlled Hollywood. But in the studio days, prior to the 1948 Consent Decree, the studios owned the theaters, radio was the only competition, 70 million or 80 million people attended movies every week, and with certain exceptions such as Gone With the Wind, the movies weren't flogged so hard or pitched so maniacally to grab your attention. Most movies now originate as packages in agents' or producers' offices. No one can simply be ordered to participate, so everything is up for grabs, everyone asks for as much as he can get, and the asking price of even a midlevel star is often granted because without that star it's impossible to attract the other necessary elements (co-star, director, cinematographer, etc.) to the package; and so everyone's price, following the same logic, goes up, and that is one reason a routine comedy costs $60 million or $70 million and the people, half the time, seem hardly to belong in the same picture. And, of course, once that budget has been set, the chances of the picture doing much that's original, unless the director is very strong-willed or perverse, grows increasingly dim.
       In the studio days, everyone was on contract, the picture was shot on studio soundstages and back lots, and though there was much repetition and routine, there was also a higher possibility that the elements would come together in a way that made sense. At Warner Bros., a single producer, Hal B. Wallis, put together more entertaining movies with his own unit than all of Hollywood has in the 1990s. (Casablanca was only the most famous.) Wallis matched the actors to the script, the backgrounds to the story--his movies flow along brilliantly, even when the ideas are second-rate. In those days the system demanded that a story parse, and that characters have certain drives and vulnerabilities that held the audience's interest; and that is one reason I can watch almost any movie from the '30s or '40s and be held by the narrative elements. In the '90s, the system (packaging of projects, the international market, the competition from other media) requires something very different--a kind of continuous flow of sensation to lure people to the theater. And that is why I am exhausted and bored at so many of these movies. They do not pull me in. The hectic, restless, yet impersonal spectacle throws me out. And I wonder about the people they do pull in--or the people who don't care to be pulled in. Irony, I suppose, is one response to the lack of emotional involvement. But it isn't healthy. OK? Got it? I mean, when do you guys begin to rebel? I find it hilarious that you study Marx and Foucault in college, and then you simply accept the movies as if they were an inevitable part of the atmosphere and not the result of a particular set of power relations. That's my beef. You've been licked: Irony has become the sound of your resignation.
       Your comparison of today's love of bad movies and the old camp taste doesn't make sense to me. Camp is not just a taste for badness. It's a taste for a particular kind of flamboyant badness--the too-female femaleness of Rita Hayworth, say. Camp was about the oversaturation of the material with emotion. Today's movies are about undersaturation. What we are getting today is not camp but remorseless and meaningless parody and pastiche. Your remark that it doesn't matter that Fellini is unknown to kids because his style has been taken over by a beer commercial gives the whole show away. This makes you happy? It makes me sick. "Style" is just exported into a totally alien context where it tones up the pitch. MTV and commercials have become the graveyard of style.

As ever,
David

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.