I’ve been hard on America lately, it’s true. But with people like Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh and Dick Cheney and Lou Dobbs and Joe The Plumber and… Well, the list goes on. With these folks popping up every few minutes to force some other piece of dimensionless drivel down the throats of Americans, many of whom are waiting patiently with mouths open like hungry fledgelings, one has to wonder if this country is made up of nothing more than infants intent on not developing their god-given brains.
But maybe that’s not really the case. I mean, Obama won the election, not McCain/Palin. And though there are a lot of crazies out there spouting lies to an audience eager to carry on those deceptions to their friends and neighbors, there are also massive groups of individuals who speak out in protest, call these liars out in public, and demand more responsible, adult behavior. Come to think of it, maybe it’s really just the people yelling and screaming and spreading these lies who think their audience is far stupider than they actually are.
While there certainly are a lot of people out there who either don’t want to think or have been trained not to, there are perhaps far more who are eager to think. Some may even be doing it as we speak. Which brings us to the point of this little essay. Cinema has always been a reflection of our society. Despite previous political administrations who showed their disdain for the arts with outrageous funding cuts, film is nonetheless of social, communal, moral, and evolutionary importance.
So why has the film industry been in steady decline since the early eighties? Well, part of the reason is probably due to the odd circumstances that lead to a revitalization of film culture that coincided with both political and social upheavals in the sixties and seventies. For a while there, the “inmates” were running the asylum. And it was wonderful. A little out of control and, at times, misguided, but wonderful. But what should have been a springboard has now become a sad basis for comparison. No growth happens without risk and mistakes. None. And we’ve been growing less and less ever since.
Film critic A.O Scott in his recent article OPEN WIDE: SPOON-FED CINEMA in the New York Times commented on all the excuses used for the making and promoting of thoughtless films over thoughtful ones:
…those reliable axioms about the taste and expectations of the mass movie audience are not so much laws of nature as artifacts of corporate strategy. And the lessons derived from them conveniently serve to strengthen a status quo that increasingly marginalizes risk, originality and intelligence.
I grew up dreaming of making films at the studios. And why not? As a kid, the studios were still making films. Sure, they also had strong commercial interests, that’s always been a huge piece of the puzzle, but it seemed for a while there, smart sold. People were open to and seeking adult fare. But now it seems the studios are being run by folks who altogether missed that era and, none too bright themselves, believe their audience is even dumber.
I’ve watched some of the best films of our current generation, films that would have garnered awards and inspired lines around the block years ago, fade into obscurity and be publicly proclaimed, not just as financial failures, but artistic failures as well. Ang Lee’s masterful film LUST, CAUTION was all but ignored by legions of American critics and fans alike. Even after the commercial and critical success of BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, this cinematic haven for smart, subtle, nuanced, adult filmmaking was pushed aside. Or Stanley Kubrick’s swan song EYES WIDE SHUT, a true cinematic undertaking tackling adult subject matter with more artistry than most of the films of its year put together, was battered senseless by film-ignorant critics and studio execs who declared it a failure despite the fact that it was Kubrick’s greatest financial success… So what happened? Have audiences just gotten dumber? Or does it just appear that way?
Well, in my experience working in this town called Hollywood, where people travel from far and wide to glimpse that magical sign on the hill, I’ve come to believe that many of the folks working in Hollywood at the studio level are among the most childish and spoiled I’ve ever had the displeasure of working beside. Not all, mind you, but certainly most. And they, like most children, think they know it all. They certainly think their audience is far dumber than they are. The studios are to film what Sarah Palin is to politics.
While directing my first feature THE PLAGUE, I had the unfortunate opportunity to work with a series of folks whose knowledge of film was pre-adolescent at best. They would throw around the occasional classic or foreign film title, usually something extremely obvious, like a movie version of a hit song, only in this case it was CASABLANCA or 8 1/2 or THE SEVENTH SEAL. Jorge Saralegui was one of these guys. Once an exec at Fox, this guy’s knowledge of film could be contained comfortably on the head of a pin. And yet he wielded the kind of power that would ultimately decide the fate of any film he oversaw. And this was a man who spoke few words of kindness about anyone he’d ever known and moved about with an open disdain for those around him. I’ve written previously about his nasty and endlessly negative comments about directors like John Woo and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, both of whom he’d worked with. And his list of credits is like a who’s who of artistic (and quite often commercial) failures. My film included. In working closely with this man, I got an insider’s view of how a film intended for adult audiences can be reduced to strained peaches on the end of a small spoon. And who is he trying to feed? Us. And there are those, like Saralegui, who will gladly eat from that spoon themselves. Just like there are those who will drink from the Sarah Palin well and proclaim “Yummy” afterwards.
But Saralegui is just one of thousands of men and women projecting their ignorance into the mouths of babes eager to consume whatever mindless drivel they are handed. Even if the original intent of the creative filmmakers behind those films were grander and more daring than the final products ultimately revealed. Just look at the glut of quality studio films out there now. Sure, it’s summer, the time of “escapist” cinema, but even before summer hit, the best films were already being coined failures while the most mindless of the batch were being lauded as successes. And if you repeat the mantra that any film that isn’t a total financial blockbuster opening weekend is a “failure” while the artistically devoid TRANSFORMERS is a success, many people will listen. Just like when we tell people that Obama isn’t really an American.
A.O. Scott again:
Commercial success may represent the public’s embrace of a piece of creative work, or it may just represent the vindication of a marketing strategy. In bottom-line terms, this is a distinction without a difference. A movie that people will go and see, almost as if they had no choice, is a safer business proposition than one they may have to bother thinking about. In this respect “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” is exemplary. It brilliantly stymies reflection, thwarts argument, arrests intelligent response. The most interesting thing about the movie — apart from Megan Fox’s outfits, I suppose — is that it has made nearly $400 million domestically.
…The studios, housed in large and beleaguered media conglomerates, have grown more cautious as the economy has faltered, releasing fewer movies and concentrating resources on dependable formulas. Nearly every big hit so far has been part of a franchise built on an established cultural brand.
…What kind of person constantly demands something new and yet always wants the same thing? A child of course. From toddlerhood we are fluent in the pop-cultural consumerist idiom: Again! More! Another one! …Children are ceaselessly demanding, it’s true; but they are also easily satisfied, and this combination of appetite and docility makes the child an ideal moviegoer. But since there are a finite number of literal children out there, with limited disposable income and short attention spans, Hollywood has to make or find new ones. And so the studios have, with increasing vigor and intensity, carried out a program of mass infantilization.
So when people ask me why I’m still fighting four years later for the release of my cut of THE PLAGUE, it’s not because I think it’s god’s gift to cinema or the holy grail of intelligent movies, but because it was meant for an adult audience and, at every step of the way, was chipped away at by its producers and ultimately the studio that distributed it until it was indistinguishable from all the other pablum out there. It’s a film that never reached its audience because its audience was never given a chance to see it. And this is just a $3.5 million thriller, mind you. Not a big-budget studio flick. I know what the film is and I know what it isn’t. But I’ll be damned if I’m gonna sit back and have any film of mine turned into drivel without fighting tooth and nail for its life. Part of it is that I abhor the thought of my name being listed as the creative entity behind something as mindless and offensive as the producers cut of that film. The other part is that if people don’t start demanding something better now, then we should just accept Sarah Palin and stop looking any further. Let’s just put on our bibs and ask for more, please.
The conventional wisdom within the industry is to accept what has happened and to move on. We’ve been doing that for almost 30 years and I’m yearning for film and filmmakers to take back the art form, to allow the audience to have both its escapist fun AND its intelligence, its creativity, its originality, and its ability to ask some hard questions, to challenge, to assume its audience is smart with a hunger to grow. If I can’t fight for that within my own world, with my own film, then I have no right to ask more from anyone else. Not even the studios.