Better than Ever

Jim Schembri, the film critic for the EG section in The Age, published an interesting piece in that paper on Friday about Hollywood films. After apparently having an exceptionally unpleasant time with Mr & Mrs Smith – a movie I chose not to inflict on myself – he was moved to write a long piece on how Hollywood films really suck these days. (For the next few days it will be available here, although registration may be required.) The basic argument is that big “event” movies like Mr & Mrs Smith don’t actually need to be good: they open to enormous business based upon saturation marketing, and turn a profit before word gets out that they suck. The marketing media machine is, essentially, making quality irrelevant and thus making both Hollywood movies and their audiences dumber:

The intent is to blitz the eyes, rattle the ears and provide plenty of close-ups of those big, expensive stars. Pummel the audience with the package. Overwhelm them with starpower and firepower.

That’s what audiences are being sold now – not films, but deals.

This dumbing down of movies – it’s still very hard to believe that Miss Congeniality 2 actually does exist – has been accompanied by a dumbing down of audiences.

This argument probably sounds familiar even if you haven’t read Schembri’s article, because it gets trotted out a lot. Professional film critics, who unlike amateurs such as myself have to see pretty much everything that comes out, often seem to break down under the drudgery and announce the death of cinema. The name I’ve dubbed for this condition over the years of seeing it in action is “MAWTUT-B Syndrome” – an acronym for “Movies Aren’t What They Used To Be.” (I didn’t say it was a good name).

Schembri is at least in good company: even the best critics seem to succumb after a while. Not coincidentally, they invariably suggest movies went downhill sometime after they started reviewing (ie, when they lost the ability pick and choose what they watch). The famed New Yorker critic Pauline Kael wrote her definitive MAWTUT-B piece, “Why Are Movies So Bad? or, The Numbers,” back in 1980. (You can find it in her books Taking it All In and For Keeps). While Kael’s explanation differs slightly from Schembri’s (she’s talking about the corporatisation of Hollywood and the packaging of movies for TV), the sentiment is much the same. Indeed, the opening sentences of that essay could be grafted directly into Schembri’s article:

The movies have been so rank the last couple of years that when I see people lining up to buy tickets I sometimes think that the movies aren’t drawing an audience – they’re inheriting an audience. People just want to go to a movie. They’re stung repeatedly, yet their desire for a good movie – for any movie – is so strong that all over the country they keep lining up.

Such articles aren’t entirely without basis: Schembri’s description of the mechanics of blockbusters is generally valid, and Kael was accurately diagnosing a profound shift in the structure of Hollywood. Yet I think such articles start to falter when they talk of movies getting worse or audiences getting dumber. (If audiences have been getting progressively dumber since 1980, it’s a wonder we can still buy our tickets). When Kael decried the audience’s desire for “noisy thrills and dumb jokes and images that move along in an undemanding way,” the example of the empty blockbuster she chose was Alien, a film we now tend to think of as a classic.

There are a few interrelated problems at work here. Firstly, as I’ve suggested, critics tend to get worn down by the sheer number of poor-to-average movies they have to sit through for each good one. It’s easy to see why they get nostalgic for the movies of their youth, and the days before watching films became a chore. Secondly, there is the related issue of selection: we tend only to see the good films from previous eras, but we see a much wider sample of the films coming out today. It is easy to forget just how many really bad movies have been made and forgotten in previous decades. Good films are hard to make: they have always been, and will always remain, the minority.

Also, just like the rest of us, critics like certain genres or filmmaking movements more than others, and when their favorite type of film goes into inevitable decline, filmgoing is never the same for them. So Bill Collins grew up with the classical Hollywood studio pictures, and has spent the rest of his life mourning their passing. Peter Biskind, like Kael, loved the work of American directors in the 1970s, and wrote Easy Riders, Raging Bulls about how their era – “the last Golden Age of movies” – passed. Again, there are legitimate cycles and trends being identified here, but they don’t amount to the death of cinema.

I’d even question the hypothesis that Hollywood movies are getting worse. Schembri mentions Roland Emmerich’s 1996 film Independence Day as one of the points where the rot set in, but as bad as it is (and I’m no Emmerich fan, as I’ve made clear elsewhere), I think it would be hard to sustain an argument that it is worse than the equally jingoistic Top Gun, from ten years before, or Irwin Allen disaster movies from the 1970s. He also mentions Jaws, which despite its justifiably solid critical reputation is a popular candidate as the film that killed quality moviemaking in Hollywood. The argument is that Jaws, along with Star Wars, pioneered the model of returning to simple genre narratives, filling them with action, and opening them widely in a blaze of publicity. Which is true, to a point.

But Hollywood always made films like Jaws and Star Wars and even ones like Mr & Mrs Smith. It’s just that they weren’t the big prestige pictures. The blockbusters of the late 1970s inverted the Hollywood idea of what was a big movie, so that disreputable genres (science fiction, horror, thrillers) became the high profile movies. Essentially, what had in old Hollywood been B-movies became blockbusters, while many of the previously most popular genres (such as musicals and melodramas) went into decline. But just because the most hyped movies are what used to be B-movies doesn’t mean that there are more actual bad movies being made.

Even the idea that a movie doesn’t need to be good because hype can get it across the line is a bit overstated. It’s certainly true that movie companies rely on a big publicity campaign and a fast return on investment to reduce the risk associated with expensive productions, but that’s not the same as not needing films to be any good. Schembri talks in somewhat conflicted terms about the importance of movies performing well after the first weekend:

Nobody ever hangs out hoping for great second-weekend figures, because by then the film’s fate has been well and truly sealed. Big films can’t afford the luxury of growing or finding audiences.

In fact, the vigour of a blockbuster’s performance over its theatrical run is calculated by the rate of the audience decline – or “drop-off” – over successive weekends.

Which, despite Schembri’s assertion that the fate of a film is “sealed” after the first week, means quality does matter. Just because modern movie-making loads the box-office towards the “front-end”of its run doesn’t mean subsequent weeks can be disregarded. While it’s true that blockbusters will almost never grow an audience after their opening, holding one is highly desirable. That’s why Titanic made so much money – it got a lot of return business and kept the “drop-off” in later weeks as small as possible. Studios can, to a certain degree, buy that opening weekend, but it’s the subsequent weeks that make for a really big hit.

Indeed, if we look beyond the most brainless of mega-budget blockbusters, I think its arguable that movies (including Hollywood movies) are getting better, not worse. I’m not sure I entirely believe this – I said it was arguable, remember – but when there are still Hollywood movies like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Incredibles and Return of the King and Kill Bill Volume 2 and Sideways out there rubbing shoulders with Catwoman and Godzilla, then I feel someone has to say that maybe movie culture as we know it isn’t about to die a horrible death. So while there’s a whiff of devil’s advocate about my argument, I think it at least needs to be made.

Look at this way: cinema is a young medium. It’s barely over one hundred years old, and cinema with sound is less than eighty. Many of the film classics we know are developmental works, famous because they were the first to utilise a particular technique. The technical capabilities of cinema continue to expand, and as they do so the artistic boundaries expand concurrently. Filmmakers are still exploring the limits of the medium, which is part of what makes filmgoing so fun. This means that more recent films are at least potentially able to draw on a richer heritage of filmmaking experience. Think of it like a language: as the language matures, the vocabulary available to its speakers increases.

Which is not to say that any older film is inferior to a more recent film: few films (old or new) make use of the full possibilities the medium presents, and the form was mature enough by about the forties that good filmmakers could achieve results that still look exceptional today. (Citizen Kane, for example, is still astonishing as both a technical and artistic achievement). Yet if you believe that something was added to cinema by the French New Wave, or the “New Hollywood” of the seventies, or the Hong Kong Cinema of the eighties and nineties, or any of the other important filmmaking movements of the last fifty years, then don’t you have to believe that the artistic possibilities open to a filmmaker today are richer?

Granted, a routine Hollywood popcorn flick such as Mr & Mrs Smith is not taking full advantage of that legacy. But some films do, and I think as a result we do expect more of our films today. Would a film such as Jean Renoir’s La Regle du Jour (The Rules of the Game) be so acclaimed if it were released today? Or would people observe that perhaps the much-praised rabbit hunt sequence labored its point somewhat? This might seem insensitive to the qualities of that film, but my point is that the blend of comedy and tragedy in that film, which seemed so noteworthy to postwar critics, is something that we would expect of any arthouse movie released today with similar subject matter.

This is not to degrade Renoir, but to note how filmmakers since have drawn on and expanded upon his artistic approach. Another to ponder: would anyone get away with Last Year at Marienbad today? When you have films that play with the narrative reality in the assured way that Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind does, who would have the patience for a film that deconstructed the artifice of film but which failed to make any other coherent point?

Those are both arthouse films, but I think the argument becomes even stronger when you turn to Hollywood films. There are a lot of bad Hollywood films about (as there always were), but if you look at the general level of craftsmanship that we expect from a run-of-the-mill film, it has only gotten better. When we harken back for the golden age of Hollywood, I think what we usually mean is that we miss particular genres that have gone into decline, like musicals, or comedies of the type produced in the silent era. But there are things we have now that we didn’t have then. We even have a whole new form that has appeared in the last fifteen years (computer animation) which is having its golden age right now.

Because of the way film genres rise and fall, it’s very hard finding equivalent films from different eras to compare. But as an example, take a film like Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. A great film, yes. But consider Harold Ramis’ Groundhog Day, which is structured around the same basic premise of some kind of magical intervention forcing a man to rethink his life. Because Ramis’ film builds on Capra’s, it can move beyond the quite simple Christmas Carol-esque device Capra uses and get into much more complex metaphysical territory, while still remaining a light and funny film. I honestly think that considered objectively it is the better film (even with Andie MacDowell), but this is a hard conclusion to draw because of the attendant mystique that is attached to the earlier film. And this is the problem: when we compare current films to old films, the new ones lack the accompanying cultural associations and haze of nostalgia.

For another example, consider The Matrix. We have never had a Hollywood science fiction film that so successfully blended cinematic action with the kind of scientific and philosophical speculation that is found in literary sci-fi. It is, I think, a better science fiction film than any that has come before. If you compare The Matrix to Blade Runner, its immediate predecessor as holder of the title Hollywood’s smartest science fiction film, you’ll see how much more advanced the newer film is. Blade Runner is now recognised as a classic, but underneath its wonderful visual look it’s a very simple film, with simple ideas. And they only get simpler as you go back further in time: even 2001, which I love, is not a terribly intellectually sophisticated film. 2001 and Blade Runner are both important films, but other movies since have built on their legacy, upping the ante for the kind of material cinematic science fiction can tackle.

It’s always difficult to stand up and say that film from the last few years is a future classic: it can seem silly and presumptuous. If I say this about Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, for example, you’d probably tell me it was a good film, but that I was a little ahead of myself. But that’s what people would have said if you’d said the same about The Matrix in 1999, or Blade Runner in 1982, or Taxi Driver in 1976, or 2001 in 1968, or The Searchers in 1956, or It’s a Wonderful Life in 1946. Which doesn’t mean I’m right: I’m just trying to point out that the classics of tomorrow are always sitting underneath our noses, enjoyed but not revered at the time they’re released.

Critics can never spot these films with certainty, but I think it should be a part of their role to try. Apart from anything else, doing so is the best way to look past the myriad poor-to-indifferent movies in cinemas at any given time, and to retain some faith in the art form.

Update, 20/6/05: I sent an email to Jim Schembri to alert him of this piece, and he was nice enough to respond with the following comments:

Your essay is interesting, though film fatigue is not a factor, as my reviews of Eternal Sunshine and the Lord of the Rings films attest. My praise for the combination of intelligence and spectacle in the LOTR trilogy, in fact, has been comprehensive. I’m hoping they set a benchmark for the new century.

You also generalise comments from the piece to include all film, when it is clear the story is about huge-budget, mass-market popcorn movies, not films such as Sideways or Sunshine.

Which may be a fair point: while I was using Schembri’s article as a starting-off point, and deliberately broadening the argument, I could perhaps have been fairer in how I did so.

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