As a writer and filmmaker, I have, for as long as I can remember, felt strongly about storytelling. I was also lucky enough to have grown into adulthood during the second golden age of cinema (the 1970’s). Therefore, my most cherished form of storytelling has been through movies. It is the medium that most speaks to me, the language I most thoroughly embrace that best articulates, for me, what it means to be human. So it seems I take the current state of cinema far more seriously than do certain others for whom films are a mere distraction or, at best, a simple pleasure.
Which leads my desire to draw your attention to an interesting article by Mark Harris in GQ magazine. It’s called THE DAY THE MOVIES DIED and it’s about Hollywood today and the state of films and filmmaking. I think Mark makes some terrific points and observations and they are in keeping with my feelings about the industry and the art form. That said, I think there are areas that are even more complex than Mr. Harris spells them out to be. Though he does an excellent job of offering some very appealing conversation starters. I would also state, as a criticism, that I wish Mr. Harris had offered up some more detailed information regarding his sources as they would have added even more credibility to his stories and insights (e.g. his stated industry reaction to INCEPTION). But all in all, it’s an article worth reading and it paints a picture that, in my opinion, has more truth to it than not. Which saddens me.
I would also turn attention to a book by Columbia professor Tim Wu titled THE MASTER SWITCH: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires. Here, too, you will find answers to why we are where we are, why the film industry is what it is, and where we might be heading. The book will also place those questions, answers and concepts onto a much larger stage. It’ll certainly equip you to handle just about any conversation on the subject that might arise and then some.
Here is David Siegfried’s Booklist review of MASTER SWITCH:
A veteran of Silicon Valley and professor at Columbia University, Wu is an author and policy advocate best known for coining the term net neutrality. Although the Internet has created a world of openness and access unprecedented in human history, Wu is quick to point out that the early phases of telephony, film, and radio offered similar opportunities for the hobbyist, inventor, and creative individual, only to be centralized and controlled by corporate interests, monopolized, broken into smaller entities, and then reconsolidated. Wu calls this the Cycle, and nowhere is it more exemplary than in the telecommunications industry. The question Wu raises is whether the Internet is different, or whether we are merely in the early open phase of a technology that is to be usurped and controlled by profiteering interests. Central in the power struggle is the difference between the way Apple Computer and Google treat content, with Apple attempting to control the user experience with slick products while Google endeavors to democratize content, giving the user choice and openness. This is an essential look at the directions that personal computing could be headed depending on which policies and worldviews come to dominate control over the Internet.
Bear with me now as I take you down a seemingly random path that, I assure you, will lead back to the overriding themes at hand. I once knew a man for whom the idea of eating food was nothing more than a means of attaining nourishment and proteins. So much so that after a workout, he would take a beautiful prime cut of beef and toss it headlong into a microwave. The fate of that particular portion of cow was to become a grey, rubbery slab of flavorless meat, with not so much as a sprinkle of pepper or salt to provide some modicum of dignity to the poor deceased beast.
As one who genuinely loves and appreciates a great meal, watching this nightly parade of food abomination was distressing to me, to say the least. So, if you’re like me and you truly love a great meal, imagine what your food world would look like if most available meals were manufactured by McDonalds. Sure, the occasional restaurant might pop up here and there offering something lovingly concocted by a real chef, someone with a deep love of food and food preparation, but that establishment wouldn’t last long enough to build up much of a customer base. No, I’m afraid most of your dining options would be, well, off the McD’s menu. Now, by comparison, an occasional meal at the Olive Garden would suddenly seem downright luxurious, downright masterful in both its preparation and combination of flavors. Olive Garden might even become the Holy Grail of good cooking in the hearts and minds of many. But in truth, we’d be salivating over a plate of supreme mediocrity. To me, Hollywood is the McDonald’s of filmmaking. And occasionally something comes out of the system (usually as a result of a big favor owed) that wows people. And that, my friends, is a meal at the Olive Garden. If you were a chef, you would not want to ply your craft at either McD’s or “The Garden.” They are not designed for you to do what it is you love. And the people who would most appreciate your work, your passion, your gift, would not frequent these places looking for what you have to offer. Anyone who knew what a good Italian meal was –or a good burger, for that matter– would mourn the loss of something exquisite, something great. They would shake their heads in collective misery at the loss of such an elegant art, the loss of that cherished human capacity to create and recognize something that embodies both complex and simple flavors, something which excites the taste buds and satisfies in such a gloriously primal way.
And so we return to my feelings about the current American film industry.
The state of Hollywood today is not good for films, filmmakers or audiences. And it hasn’t been for a long time. We’ve been in a steady decline for many years. And that’s more than just sour grapes or being a curmudgeon. Film is an art, a language, a beautiful and complex animal that mirrors the human condition. But Hollywood today is far from being a place to nourish such desires or, worse, to even dream of them. Perhaps with the way technology has changed, there will be no need for Hollywood anymore. Or maybe there will be a resurgence of filmmakers who truly love film and want to push the boundaries of the medium once again. To explore, to grow, to seek, to touch. But for every one of those, there are still thousands of others whose final destination is Hollywood. And that will yield nothing but mediocrity at its best. I wish it were otherwise. But in a town inundated with accountants and frat boys at the helm, we must look elsewhere for the fruits of the medium. But all of this is in keeping sync with the state of the union, not just the state of Hollywood. The Tea-Party, hard-core conservatism, rabid anti-intellectualism, money over people. It’s why Netflix is becoming the new Blockbuster and corporate interests override human/customer interest or loyalty. It’s why universal health care is demonized and Workers Unions the enemy. All of these things are reflected in one another. Reagan fueled the fire and it’s been snowballing ever since. Not just in politics or the economy, but in every corner of our collective consciousness. Our own Capitalist sensibilities have turned around and bitten us square in the ass and we’re only now starting to comprehend that those are our own teeth embedded there.
Nothing reflects the moods and tone of a nation better than its art. Our priorities as a nation and our ability to fight to accept as little as possible has been a deepening, festering wound. We will either heal it or die from it. I’m rooting for the former myself. But in the meantime, one of the repercussions is that our artists must look elsewhere to create their art, while businessmen and women parade around as filmmakers. And as caring politicians. All of whom would very much like you to try that bold new Angus Burger at McDonalds. Really, you’ll love it.