Identity Crisis

American movies once enthralled the world with their exuberance and clarity. What happened in the 1990s?

VI. The False Hope of Indie-Land
Of course, "independent" film companies have done such a sterling PR job that many art-minded consumers consider them a burgeoning alternative to the studios. Unfortunately, the hottest "indies" are in reality attached to the studios. The most notorious example is Miramax, an autonomous subsidiary of Disney that has begun to act like Disney -- dumping iffy commercial propositions (like Charles Burnett's The Glass Shield) in favor of sure things, building empires with its own "genre" subsidiary (Dimension Films) and publishing imprint (Miramax Books), achieving market domination through force of numbers. In addition, Miramax has become an aesthetic fat farm for Hollywood stars, rescuing John Travolta from oblivion in Pulp Fiction, helping Bruce Willis retain his credibility in the same film, and, with the pedestrian Cop Land, manufacturing a "comeback" for Sylvester Stallone by having him gain weight and play a lonesome, woebegone sheriff -- a cross between Gary Cooper in High Noon and Ernest Borgnine in Marty.

In cities like New York and San Francisco, Miramax specials like Shall We Dance? win enormous coverage and review space, get adopted by the chattering classes, and settle in for long runs. But in the rest of America, including Eastern cities like Hartford or Philadelphia, these movies occupy the same marginal niche as A&E and Bravo do in broadcasting. (Fox Searchlight's shameless crowd-pleaser The Full Monty seems to be the exception, a breakout hit.) Even with the commercialization of the art house and indie market, financially successful indie films generally penetrate the tiniest portion of the potential American viewership. Apart from the star-laden, heavily promoted Cop Land and the horror movie Mimic, the reigning indie hit of 1997 is Chasing Amy, which grossed all of $12 million. Speed 2, a notorious studio flop, grossed four times as much.

Artistically, the indie world has generated its own tired reflexes. The homey regionalism of Victor Nunez's Ulee's Gold may provide momentary relief from studio blandness, but it rapidly comes to seem a pretty wan end in itself. And I don't know what's worse -- the "You'll laugh, you'll cry" come-on of studio films from Ghost to Jerry Maguire or the "You'll fidget, you'll snicker" guarantee of indie hits from Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction to Fargo and Neil Labute's In the Company of Men. Studio filmmakers sell schmaltz and jolts or wisecracks; indie filmmakers sell attitude and jolts or wisecracks. And the very biggest indie hits (The English Patient, The Crying Game) combine poetic ambition with old-fashioned sap.

VII. A Commodity Culture
As we approach the season when the studios start unveiling their "serious" efforts, it's good to remember that back-to-school and winter-holiday films are just the Oscar-decorated frosting on Hollywood's annual Christmas fruitcake. For three-quarters of the year, the pursuit of box office success dignifies everything, whether the making of sequels, or movies derived from TV series, or sequels of movies derived from TV series.

If the studios' emphasis on blockbusters escalates in the summer, it's rife in the media year-round. The industry segments of shows like Entertainment Tonight and CNN's Showbiz Today and magazines like Premiere and Entertainment Weekly try to persuade fans that the manufacturing of blockbusters is good sport, even if the one thing it shares with competitive sports is definable losers and winners. That's why it galvanizes journalists, producers, and editors with no artistic judgment or curiosity. This quantitative approach to movies -- according to weekly grosses, and average take by theater, and ratio of rentals to budget, and all the other value-free categories we've grown to assimilate over the last 15 years -- appeals to executives who have no other resource to measure worthiness.

It's become fashionable for non-movie pundits to sneer at filmmakers and film critics for decrying Hollywood's treatment of movies as "product." The latest is Slate columnist James Surowiecki, who blithely trundles out the tired analysis that "the glory days of classic Hollywood cinema were precisely the days when the studios were most run like factories churning out a product." The original moguls were formidable catalysts because they understood their studios' output both as product and as mass entertainment. Surowiecki uses vintage series like the Andy Hardy pictures and Abbott and Costello comedies as analogies to $100 million Batman sequels. That, of course, is insane. Not only were those old movies unpretentious and inexpensive, they also did their bit to answer the audience's need to see defining images of America, whether small-town or metropolitan. They weren't just promotional films for gift-shop mementos of themselves, and they didn't serve as sleek advertising backdrops for other products from Ray-Ban sunglasses to McDonald's.

Moviemaking has always been a matter of putting twists on formulas. (Critics refer to old formulas as "genres.") But in better times, moviegoers did get variations instead of recapitulations. At no period has it been less of a deal to guess what an "adventure" or a "comedy" or a "fantasy" will look like. Marketing in the '90s does more than pave the way for movies -- it turns them into pieces of a Pavlovian purchasing system.

Unless filmmakers and moviegoers revolt, the image Americans will project to each other and the world will continue to be that of a bloated consumer. The quote at the beginning of this article was actually an answer to a question: It's from an essay called "What Is an American?" With wholehearted optimism, De Crevecoeur dubbed us, "The western pilgrims, who are carrying along with them that great mass of arts, sciences, vigour, and industry which began long since in the east; they will finish the great circle." In the 21st century "the great circle" may turn out to be Flat City: an endlessly restocked mall stretching all the way to the horizon.

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