The complaints, generally speaking, follow two lines of reasoning.
First, movies were better 25 years ago when, possibly, the person writing the commentary either began going to movies or began getting a salary for going. And second, the gap between movies people want to see like Titanic and movies critics urge them to see like L.A. Confidential or Boogie Nights has never been greater.
This mix of boredom and futility might make you think that movies are on their way to oblivion as an art form. But that's not necessarily the case. What does appear certain is that the barbs directed at Hollywood are written by critics who want to feel young again, who want to revel in the idea of the film art as a living, positive force rather than a stale procession of impossibly expensive, styleless event movies.
It's been quite sobering to watch movies for a living in the 1980s and 1990s, after the bounty of the 1960s and 1970s when old masters like John Ford, William Wyler and John Huston were slowing down and being replaced by a generation that was at least as ambitious and nearly as talented the likes of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, of Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. In fact, the disappointments of the past couple of decades have just enough truth to justify the point of view that moviemaking is in decline.
Still, every year has six or eight or ten good movies. That's true today, and it was true in the past. The difference between then and now is in the vast middle range the movies that are not supposed to win Oscars, but simply play a couple of weeks, help pay for studio overhead, satisfy the national audience to some extent, and go on their way. The reality is that any average James Cagney crime movie of the 1930s and 1940s offered snappier writing, sharper characters and a stronger and leaner narrative than its modern counterpart.
Cinema today has been damaged by the concept of the blockbuster like the recent epic Godzilla which can be defined as a disposable fireworks display, a long and noisy entertainment that completely disappears from the mind as soon as the credits roll at the end. These movies have no character development just scenes that are free to clash or even contradict each other, as long as the cumulative logic of the explosions and car crashes grows ever larger. Writing, in fact, has never been less important to studio moviemaking than it is today. What counts up front is the profit possibility from overseas sales and from such ancillary markets as pay-per-view cable and videocassette release.
For everything that is gained, though, something is lost.
In movies, it's been storytelling and style. As recently as 20 years ago, a Coppola film didn't resemble a Sam Peckinpah film, which didn't look like a Blake Edwards film just as an earlier moviegoing generation could distinguish between the look of a Hitchcock thriller and a Ford western.
Today, most movies are shot in an indistinguishable style. Without the credits, it would be impossible to identify the director. Closeups predominate, because they play well on television, the small screen on which most films find their largest audiences. Contemplative long shots and a smooth, methodical pace have largely disappeared, as filmmakers worry that moviegoers will grow restless. Action has become confused with movement.
Perhaps the most regrettable consequence of the abrasive cleansing action of contemporary U.S. cinema has been the decline of the once-thriving national cinemas of France, Germany, England and Italy. Young European directors used to pride themselves on making strong, idiomatic statements in their own language, gradually achieving maturity as artists.
American movies of the 1950s and 1960s tended towards a narrative stolidity, but the lyrical French films of Francois Truffaut and the elegantly austere essays of Ingmar Bergman served as stylish nudges that infected U.S. cinema for the better. This worldwide aesthetic conversation between filmmakers and their audiences gave everyone's movies a more interesting texture.
Today, more often than not, promising foreign directors seek to become Hollywood directors. As movies from The Fifth Element to Starship Troopers have proven, they often succeed, regrettably so. As a character in Wim Wenders' Kings of the Road once observed, the Yanks have colonized our subconscious.
This seeming decline, of course, could be just a temporary calm, symptomatic of the uneasy, slightly disengaged hammock into which the post-Cold War world has fallen. Look at it as a mental retooling, stemming from the reality that the movie industry as a business has changed more in the last two decades than it had in the previous 80 years.
One-auditorium movie houses have given way to 14-screen multiplexes. As a result, slow release patterns have been replaced by simultaneous 3,000-theater releases. A strong system of producer control has evolved into catch-as-catch-can control by directors, actors and even talent agents. The continuity of the contract system at studios has been displaced by freelancing, with each movie's creative team assembled from scratch. And television particularly cable filmmaking is siphoning off talent and audiences as well.
What does all this mean? Possibly that we're in the midst of a transition in which very few films will have the singular cultural importance of the past. Today, the speedier, snappier television-rooted sensibility is taking the mid-range, mid-budget cultural definition that once was populated by Cagney, Humphrey Bogart and John Wayne. It isn't surprising that the new breed of studio executives, weaned on television in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, have approved for production so many big-screen adaptations of such TV series as Sergeant Bilko, The Addams Family, The Flintstones, The Brady Bunch and Lost In Space. If the picture offered only gloom, though, I and many other people would be going to the movies much less frequently. The fact is that if we've lost skill and brio in some of moviemaking's component parts, we've gained a great deal as well.
Take acting, for instance. As screenwriting has declined, performances have grown measurably richer. Screen acting has never been better, more subtle. There is a wealth of great character acting beginning with Robert Duvall and Gene Hackman and moving younger, demographically, to Kevin Spacey and Frances McDormand. Their work in such movies as The Apostle, Unforgiven, L.A. Confidential, The Usual Suspects and Fargo exemplify this. Younger men and women Sean Penn, Johnny Depp, Gwyneth Paltrow are equally gifted. All consider themselves character actors, not movie stars. And even more are on the way the likes of Christina Ricci and Elijah Wood who have not yet become identifiable screen figures.
Even such stars in the classic mode as Brad Pitt, and this year's screen sensation, Leonardo Di Caprio (Titanic) make choices of assignments that sometimes tend to be more interesting in their ambition than in their execution. Still, they get points for trying. So, too, does Tom Cruise, who seems to have left mediocre selections behind.
Another bright spot is animation. It's better, more successful, and more widespread than ever. Disney is still on hand, creating films as it has for decades. Mulan is the latest, exploring Chinese legend from a female perspective. But Disney no longer is the only game in town. Twentieth-Century Fox has become a player, with Anastasia, its 1997 take on Czarist history. Fox recently opened a new animation facility in Arizona, evidence of the seriousness with which the studio is approaching this genre. Other major studios are expanding their animation horizons as well.
Most impressively, there is probably more variety in contemporary U.S. filmmaking than at any previous period. African-American filmmakers are far more numerous, not to mention more gifted, than ever before. The fact that Spike Lee, the Hughes brothers and John Singleton, among others, can coexist comfortably and not be dependent on the success of every single film in effect, having as much right to fail as anyone else is significant proof that situations have evolved. African-American directors also have enough credibility these days to leave parochial confines. Forrest Whittaker, for example, who previously shot the black-oriented film Waiting to Exhale, has just directed Hope Floats, a mainstream drama centered on a young white woman, estranged from her husband, who must reintegrate herself into her Texas family.
FILM DIRECTOR VICTOR NUŅEZ: TRULY INDEPENDENT
Independent filmmaking is all the rage these days in U.S. movies. But for most promising talents at the helm, it merely represents a means to a lucrative end -- a studio contract.
Ed Burns spends a modest sum to shoot The Brothers McMullen in his parents' kitchen and on his neighborhood streets, with his siblings and friends in the cast. The result: terrific reviews and a multimillion-dollar two-picture deal. Robert Rodriguez films El Mariachi at a cost of $7,000, and is rewarded by receiving considerable attention from several major Hollywood studios.
Victor Nuņez will have none of that. This director has resolved to follow the path of the lower budget in order to keep control and freedom within his hands.
His projects -- the latest of which, Ulee's Gold, was widely acclaimed upon its release in 1997 -- are decidedly "non-Hollywood." They are not shaped by production schedules or budgets. They are generally quiet stories, mood pieces, character studies, tales set on the landscape of northern Florida. They reflect the director's enthusiasm for "the admittedly wonderful process of making a film," and less for the content itself.
"It's an amazing process to be part of," Nuņez, 52, of Peruvian extraction, said recently of his penchant for selecting a theme that moves him, then writing a script that develops the theme. "You just want to be out there doing it." And he does it in Florida, where he grew up. In fact, he shot Ulee's Gold, in a series of towns not far from the capital city, Tallahassee, where Nuņez has lived since his pre-teens.
"I love this area. I discovered film and Southern literature at the same time. I decided to become a Southern filmmaker."
Ulee's Gold starred Peter Fonda in an Academy Award-nominated portrayal of a solitary, bitter third-generation rural beekeeper, a Vietnam veteran who finds himself thrust into dire family circumstances that impel him to re-examine his life's choices. It was Nuņez's fourth well-received "small" movie -- after Gal Young 'Un, A Flash of Green, and Ruby in Paradise -- a modest output, admittedly, for an 18-year period.
"Nothing sinister or spectacular, Nuņez's dramatic selections are extraordinary only because the emotional themes are so commonplace," Steve Persall wrote in the St. Petersburg (Florida) Times in mid-1997. "Dignity is more important than dazzle."
Gal Young 'Un (1979), which Nuņez based on a story by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, focuses on a lonely widow in Prohibition-era (1920s) rural Florida who is victimized by a fast-talking younger man. A Flash of Green (1984), which he adapted from a novel by mystery writer John D. MacDonald, deals with political scheming and environmental peril against the backdrop of a contemporary real estate boom. Ruby In Paradise (1993), an original Nuņez script, is a mood piece centered on a young woman who, passing through a small Florida beach community in flight from a bleak past, yearns to realize elusive dreams.
Sought after ever since Ulee's Gold made a handsome profit on its $2.4 million costs, Nuņez most likely will continue going his own way in the future. Not that he doesn t ponder the path so many of his independent colleagues have taken.
"You can't be a filmmaker in America and not consider the option of making big-budget films," he says. "The bad thing about not having much money is that there are things you can't do. The good thing is that the cast and crew are there because they believe in the picture. It's very clear this work is not some kind of gold mine, but it is rewarding."
As for independent filmmaking as a trend, the director brushes it off as simply something the critics invent every few years. "The truth is there will always be people who want to make independent movies and succeed. It's not a trend. It happens one film at a time."
-- Michael J. Bandler
There has been a growing presence of women directors and producers in recent years among them Jodie Foster, Barbra Streisand and Randa Haines. What's more, women today are moving into seemingly uncommon genres. Mimi Leder, who distinguished herself as a television director on E.R., has made two unrelenting action films The Peacemaker and Deep Impact to inaugurate her career as a movie director. And Betty Thomas, an actress who was well-regarded as a gritty presence on the dramatic TV series Hill Street Blues, has become a director of such mainstream comedies as The Brady Bunch Movie, Private Parts and the mid-1998 release, Doctor Doolittle.
One of the most vigorous sectors of the current film scene is that of independent films. This is the fertile ground out of which future directors and actors will emerge. Just in the past three or four years, new names like Quentin Tarantino, Parker Posey, Ben Stiller, Hope Davis, Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott have come to the fore. The low-budget films they create and star in are first seen, typically, at Sundance and other film festivals, where talent scouts for the major studios have become a ubiquitous presence. As a result, the cream of the crop of independent movies these days usually finds a conduit to mass audiences.
The movie industry has been flexible enough, too, to allow access to people like Canadian director Atom Egoyan and David Cronenberg, and the homegrown Ethan and Joel Coen gifted if inconsistent, with dark, mordant sensibilities that have brought a particularly valued lunacy to movie screens.
All this suggests that the old verities are dead, and no one really knows where the next wave of hits is coming from. The industry has to be open to all sorts of possibilities, however remote.
A case in point:
Twenty years ago, Terence Malick made a gorgeous, hushed masterpiece, Days of Heaven. He spent the intervening years contemplating his possibilities and writing a few scripts that didn't see the light of day. This year, though, he'll be represented onscreen with a $50 million adaptation of James Jones's World War II combat novel, The Thin Red Line.
This kind of expensive comeback from a director with only two art-house films to his credit both of them commercial failures would have been impossible in the more monolithic industry of a quarter-century or more ago, in which a legendary filmmaker like Orson Welles was regarded with suspicion and mistrust and had to finance his movies on a pay-as-you-go basis.
So the good news is that because Hollywood's dominance in the global marketplace has created so much demand, it has necessarily been ready, willing and able to take chances. With the added revenue streams deriving from video and multichannel cable, there is a constant demand for more product. The result is that practically everybody gets their chance.
If the first century of film possessed more energy and innovation in its middle years than in its dotage, well, life is like that. But it's also true that the next century promises great leaps.
If there's room for Terence Malick, anything is possible.
Scott Eyman, critic for The Palm Beach Post, is the author of The Speed of Sound: Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution; Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise; and Mary Pickford: America's Sweetheart. He is currently writing the authorized biography of U.S. director John Ford.
U.S. Society &
USIA Electronic Journal, Vol. 3, No. 1, June 1998