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June 24, 2010

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Don Fabrizio

I thought the movies died when Joel Schumacher gave up costume design for directing...

lipranzer

Don Fabrizio - heh.

Seriously, though, while I agree with your point, Glenn (brought up more forcefully in a column in the Onion's AV Club which argues we're actually in a cultural golden age, and disdains the very idea of nostalgia), can you blame the nostalgia crowd that much. Agreed, great movies are around if you look for them, and don't have the idea they all have to come from here, is it wrong-headed to wish more of them actually were coming from here these days? And no, I don't blame Spielberg or Lucas (for starters, I maintain PSYCHO inspired more rip-offs, content and technique wise, then JAWS or STAR WARS combined), any more than I blame Nirvana for all the grunge clones that came in their wake, as it's always the studios who, when they see what they think is a hot thing, want to copy it without regards what made it a hot thing in the first place.

Adam Zanzie

I applaud you for not jumping on this very tired bandwagon. If you ask me, Jaws is very much on the same level of human art as either The Godfather or Chinatown, since it's not so much about the shark as it is about the 3 three-dimensional characters struggling to put their heads together in order to kill it. Star Wars probably isn't quite as complex, but it's still got moments of human art in it.

But The Exorcist inferior to Mean Streets!?? I love both of those movies. I still don't understand why Friedkin was so ostracized by Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg, De Palma, Lucas and that whole "Movie Brats" group.

Paul Johnson

Beyond nostalgia, there's also the dynamic by which plain and simple bad movies accrue a certain poignancy as they age, and mediocrities turn out to have captured the habits and compulsions of their eras in ways that make them belatedly compelling. As a result, today's crap inevitably look even crappier than yesterday's crap.

I'm sympathetic to anti-old fartism and the truism that we're doomed to always think we're living in the worst of all possible times (Agee was complaining about how much movies sucked back in 1945), but I'm also cognizant of the notion that there are genuinely fallow periods in film history - early sound melodramas really are tough going most the time, quality popular moviemaking from the studios all but disappeared in the mid-60s, and Italian cinema hasn't produced a decent horror movie not directed by Michele Soavi since 1987. If you should be so unlucky as to find yourself in one such fallow period (and certainly it's looking a little like 1965 as far as popular American filmmaking goes right now), scapegoating is certainly easier, and sometimes more fun, than doing the work of finding out where exactly great filmmaking is going on, since it probably is going on somewhere. After all, most sound dramas from 28-30 may be tough going, but the cartoons of that period are masterpieces of mercenary modernism; the American avant-garde was alive and well and gnawing away at Old Hollywood's corpse in the mid-60s; and horror movie connoisseurs need only to have shifted their attentions eastward in subsequent years to find entire national industries seemingly making ends meet by churning out sturdy genre fare.

Paul Johnson

And of course rock & roll moved to Nashville, melted its brains with meth, committed a couple bloody home invasions, took the assumed name of Contemporary Country, changed its party affiliation, and is apparently still doing fairly well as a cultural force.

Account Deleted

My two cents:

1. Star Wars didn't kill the movies that were so beloved by Coppola, Friedkin, Scorsese, Bogdanovich etc. They did it themselves, by blowing away their talent on a series of increasingly bloated and pretentious vanity projects. One from the Heart, New York, New York, Sorceror, At Long Last Love - those were the movies that really killed the 70s auteurs.

2. "These are very hard movies to make. You have to be extremely talented to make Jaws or Star Wars. It's not George and Steven's fault that the people who imitated them weren't talented." - Lawrence Kasdan 1999

A Galaxy Not So Far Away: Writers And Artists on Twenty-Five Years Of 'Star Wars,' may be the only Star Wars book to lose money, but it's also one of the best books on Star Wars. Todd Hanson's 'A Big Dumb Movie About Space Wizards: Trying to Cope With The Phantom Menace”' is essential reading, in fact it so took me back to my Star Wars-obsessed childhood that i'm tearing up right now just thinking about it.

Pinback

I've never understood the hostility directed at Star Wars. It's not as though it had any elements of a typical mid-seventies blockbuster; Fox executives assumed it had no commercial potential. It was as much of a personal film for Lucas as any of the work of more highly-regarded seventies filmmakers. Whatever else you can say about it, the original was not calculated or cynical in any way.

Bryce Wilson

Am I the only one who thinks its a little harsh to lump a visceral little handgrenade like The Exorcist in with bloated dinosaurs like The Towering Inferno, Airport and Fucking (Glenn's spirit moved me) Earthquake?

Just saying...

Glenn Kenny

@ Bryce and company: Yes, as I was typing in Tom's quote it occurred to me that the mention of "The Exorcist" in that company was a bit of a contrarian fillip, given the conventional (or Biskindian) wisdom that holds Friedkin as a cinematic maverick of sorts. This is an interesting topic for debate, to be sure, as is the topic of "The Exorcist"'s genuine worth as a film. (For my money, without taking its ideological underpinnings into consideration, it's pretty damn good, that is, effective, engaging, and so on.) But it is reasonably certain that, sensational subject matter and content aside, the picture was, from a business angle, a pretty conventional commercial proposition—that is, Warner wanted to make a relatively faithful screen adaptation of a best-selling novel. This was also an era, remember, in which the correlation between the [popular] book-reading public and the movie-going public was arguably somewhat clearer than it is today. Which isn't to say such a correlation no longer exists at all; how else would one explain the otherwise inexplicable success of worse-than-lackluster pictures such as "The DaVinci Code" and "Angels and Demons?" Of course the fame of the film of "The Exorcist" has outlasted that of the book (although the book appears to still be in print), which will most assuredly not be the case with the Dan Brown adaptations...

bill

Yeah, Glenn, tell this "Tom Carson" character, whoever he is, that he's on my list now. It would seem to me that THE EXORCIST would be held up, along with THE GODFATHER, as one of the prime examples of the wonders the 1970s had to offer. Both were big studio money-making enterprises, from conception, based on best-selling novels, and yet look how wonderful, how artful and provocative and just plain terrific they both are. Even when they had dollars signs in its eyes, the 1970s simply couldn't help but make great art!

So yes, I agree with everything else you and Tom have to say on this subject, but THE EXORCIST is a near-perfect film, as far as I'm concerned. Friedkin could have made nothing but THE GUARDIANs and JADEs after that, and his reputation would be secure.

Keith Uhlich

If I'd been drinking, I would have done a spit-take over "Chunky Reese Witherspoon." A whole new world has opened up. Gracias, Kenny.

And yes, "Star Wars," "Jaws," movies, dead. Tiresome. Let's live, people.

Chris O.

"I think we're completely on the same page in our determination not just to explore and and interpret cinema's past, but to try to maintain a similarly exploratory attitude towards the present"

Exactly. Wouldn't it be far more productive to spend one's energy on a list of suggestions on how to start, say, a film society in one's town? I know with Netflix, et al, it may seem like a futile idea, but there are more libraries across the country than MoMAs or Film Forums and it may be a better way to preserve/explore the past than the same tired arguments. There are, after all, a crazy amount film festivals across the U.S. to showcase the present (though many are disorganized, political and/or flailing).

Chris H

Can you expand a bit on your and Richard's differences regarding contemporary cinema?

Chris O.

@Paul Johnson re: rock & Nashville, etc. Here's a pic you may find interesting:
http://media.sawfnews.com/images/Entertainment/Taylor_Swift_Judy_Collins_Leonard_Cohen_18Jun.JPG

Glenn Kenny

@ Chris H.: Where to begin? If you scroll down a bit, you'll find my review of "Cyrus," which engages some of the things I found objectionable about the picture; Richard certainly doesn't agree with my objections. I certainly differ from Richard in my estimation of Arnaud Desplechin's work, on Assayas' "Summer Hours" (although I do thank Richard for never having been so crass and so dumb as to use the term "boujie" in characterizing that work, ugh), on Resnais' "Wild Grass," and so on. And I'm certainly not nearly as widely embracing of what some might characterize as a cadre of young American directors working with microbudgets as Richard is. So there's that.

But as long as we keep cool heads on our shoulders, which I think Richard is likely a little better at than myself, we're pretty good at agreeing to disagree.

Chris H

Thanks. I'm a great admirer of Richard's writing and thinking, and his Godard book was fabulous (although I remain no less baffled by late Godard than prior to reading it). He has also helped me to explore many films and directors I would not have otherwise as well as made me engage with the movies from a different perspective. Having said that, there are plenty of movies he appreciates that I just don't get. Two wildly different examples are Gentleman Broncos and Salo. Jared Hess is a real talent but Broncos was barely watchable, and I found very little to be profound about Salo. Also, some of criticisms do strike me as a bit odd. I haven't seen Everybody Else, wondering what book someone is reading doesn't strike me as a crucial plot point.

Finally, I should add that the benefits I've taken away from reading Richard apply equally (if not always in the same way) to you.

Tom Carson

If anyone's curious, I included THE EXORCIST just because it was no critics' darling at the time. Back then, mentioning it in the same breath as MEAN STREETS would have gotten you drummed out of the Pauline Kael Chowder and Marching Society even faster than saying a good word for Clint Eastwood. Friedkin was held in disdain compared to his movie-brat peers because he was perceived as being more interested in box office than art, and so on. But in hindsight, I'd definitely rather revisit THE EXORCIST than sit through MEAN STREETS again, partly because of that very rich stew of "ideological underpinnings" Glenn mentions. There, am I back in your good graces, bill?

Zach

When men begin to speak of good and evil, the Tao is lost.

By which I mean I agree. But I do feel the impish need to remark: if it's a waste of time and energy to grouse over the the current state of Cinema, Rock & Roll, etc. - what does that make grousing over those who grouse?

Fuzzy Bastard

What's changed, I think, isn't the quality of movies but the quality of audiences. And that really is significant.

Reading all the pieces about Godard that have come out recently, I'm still gobsmacked every time I come across reference to the tremendous commercial success of BREATHLESS. Ebert reminisces about the days when the new Antonioni film was a Major Event, and when every undergraduate felt obligated to at least have an opinion about WEEK END. Yes, he's nostalgically recalling his youth, but he's also accurately recalling an era when some really challenging, interesting movies were commercially successful.

Good movies are made now, and bad movies were made then (lots of 'em!). And good movies were ignored then, and bad movies were hits. But I just can't imagine ZABRISKIE POINT doing bang-up business today, and that makes for a real change in the industry.

Stephen Whitty

Interesting points, Glenn, as always.

I think the villain here, as usual, aren't the filmmakers but the numbers crunchers -- who decided these films provided a new business model.

Previously, a "huge" movie like "The Godfather" only opened in 300-400 theaters, if I remember my Bob Evans anecdotage. Now openings are easily ten times that -- a size which encourages pre-sold titles and baby-simple concepts, requires an enormous investment in advertising, and creates a desperate make-or-break first weekend.

Previously, a picture's merchandizing and sequel rights were afterthoughts -- one reason Fox so cavalierly gave them away to Lucas. Now they often seems to be the driving force, right from the start, which is why we now have movies based on toys, or stretched out like taffy with ad infinitum sequels.

Previously, people went to see a movie once in the theater, and were happy with that. Now, you had the phenomenon of teenage fans going to see a film multiple times with different groups of friends, as if they were buying tickets to the Dragon Coaster at Rye Playland -- another development which led studios to chase after kids and that amusement-park ride experience.

So yes, there are plenty of folks to blame to what's happened to the studio business. But I'd start with the studio business-people.

Glenn Kenny

@ Stephen: Your analysis is pretty astute, and I think it points to circumstances that call Fuzzy's intuition that people as a whole were smarter back then into question. As an extremely old person, I can point to personal experience in asserting that people were NOT smarter back then, nor more passionately cinephilic for that matter. "Zabriskie Point" did not do bang-up business in the U.S. on release; in fact, it was an unmitigated commercial disaster. What DID do bang-up business in the U.S. was "Blow Up," a few years earlier. And the reason "Blow Up" did such bang-up business wasn't because the United States was crawling with cinephiles; it was because of a lot of things, and one of the biggest was that it was the first major studio release to feature full frontal nudity. It was, like so many best-selling John Updike and Philip Roth books of the era, more of a succés de scandale than anything else. And by the time "Zabriskie Point" turned up, the "innovations" of the earlier Antonioni film were old hat.

Of course, the "people were smarter then" theme is a convenient favorite of nostalgists of all stripes. I dunno what possessed me to watch this episode of the National Review online video series "Uncommon Knowledge":

http://tv.nationalreview.com/uncommonknowledge/post/?q=Mzg0OWQ3NTUwMjA0ZjRhMjk3MWVlMTkxY2I2MTZjZGE=

...aside from maybe some morbid desire to witness three overfed clots falling over each other to see who can be the first to deliver a to-completion fellating of the undead Ronald Reagan, but there is one interesting point where host Peter Robinson muses, apropos Reagan's election, "Wonderful...the country has learned," and then mourns the nation's subsequent retrograde actions.

bill

@Tom - Oh, I suppose so! You know, it never occurred to me that you might have meant something less obvious than I thought, because for some reason I forgot your, erm, ambivalence towards Scorsese. You'd think I would have recalled that.

Stephen Whitty

Thanks Glenn, and as another member of the Film Critic Class of '59, I'm getting to be an oldster myself.

Or, at least, old enough to, whenever people talk about the wasteland of network TV, be able to point back to those golden days of "Me and the Chimp" and "My Mother the Car."

As the man said, nostalgia ain't what it used to be.

LondonLee

You know what's depressing? Talking to a 20-something who only listens to The Beatles/The Doors/Led Zep etc. etc. and tells you "music was so much better back then."

@Fuzzy - I really doubt that WEEKEND did much business in Kansas. Or course everyone Ebert knew was going to the latest hot new arthouse movie, he's a movie critic! I don't know anyone who voted for George Bush either.

Sonny Bunch

"Hollywood redundancies will keep the film rudimentary and lacking in social, philosophic and aesthetic meaning. A new mind is needed to work upon the rudiments and extend them. Hollywood will not supply that new mind. Hollywood is vested interest. Hollywood is uninspired competence–at its best. Hollywood is empty facility."

--Harry Alan Potamkin, 1929 (!) (via 'American Film Critics'). Same as it ever was, etc.

Keith Uhlich

A comment on Brody's piece leads me to wonder: To what extent has there been, or appeared to be, a thriving cinephile culture outside of the big coastal cities (and a few others like Chicago, I guess)? Rosenbaum addressed this somewhat, as I recall, in a few of his essay collections when talking about his family's chain of theaters. Certainly the corporatized multiplex has ground many of the more personal-stamp chains underfoot. But that in itself is mutating with the increased amount of Internet access to films (through channels official and unofficial), which I gather helps to put a dent in the multiplex-going revenue and raises the perceived demand for overpriced spectacle and gimmick.

I'd be very interested, Glenn (and anyone else who cares to), if you could speak from your own experience about those areas of the country where a dearth of film choices was/is the norm. Were there more in the past? More now? Same as it ever was, maybe just always in motion so you can never quite fully grasp the implications? It's easy to take the place where we are as representative of the world at large, but that can be easily myopic.

The real lesson here might be that we shouldn't reduce an art form to all-encompassing platitudes (pro or con), but always engage, as long, I suppose, as our curiosity and passion stay strong. It seems that there's a force of habit to a lot of these "killed the movies" jeremiads—it's the expected thing to do, rather than being truly connected to spirit and substance.

Rob

I think Paul Johnson's opening point was very astute: "Beyond nostalgia, there's also the dynamic by which plain and simple bad movies accrue a certain poignancy as they age, and mediocrities turn out to have captured the habits and compulsions of their eras in ways that make them belatedly compelling."

I've seen this dynamic at work in myself; to the point where movies I would never have sat through in, say, the mid-90s now have 15 years of accumulated nostalgic appeal/historic interest. For me at least, there's a subconscious warm reminiscing going on when confronted with the color palette, hair and costume choices, special effects, younger versions of actors still working or forgotten never-weres, etc. of older films. Even encountering some repellent, lowest-common-denominator sitcom in the present, I sometimes remind myself that if I see this again in 15 years, I'll likely get a kick out the hairstyles.

Fuzzy Bastard

I think Stephen's certainly right about changes in the business model, but he cruises past *why* any of those changes happened, which is a bit like saying the war in the Pacific ended when a bunch of people in Nagasaki and Hiroshima just up and died for some reason.

Certainly I don't think people were actually smarter then. How could they be, when they didn't have Nintendo Brain Training! But I do think there was a cultural imperative to seem smarter than you are, as opposed to today, where the imperative is to seem dumber. One look at the talk shows of the late 60s versus the talk shows of today makes that quite clear---Jack Paar was once considered the very edge of acceptable yahoo-ism, but today he'd be considered stuck-up, while David Susskind, once firmly middlebrow, would be a fancy-pants academic with no place on television.

The biggest cultural change was on colleges, which is what leads me to thinking about Week End, and Blow Up. Once, one was expected to have a certain level of pretension to highbrow taste and experimental art. Now, that's just no longer the case. Our popular experimenters are guys like Tarantino, who are slavishly devoted to providing all the satisfactions of traditional narrative and restricting their experimentation to doodling in the margins. Yes, Zabriskie Point was no hit, but can you imagine a movie that weird getting a fifth the coverage and attention today? Yes, Week End probably didn't do much business in Kansas, but these days, it isn't going to do much business in New York either! To read about Godard as a hitmaker---which for much of the 60s, he was---is to read about a vanished world, and to argue that nothing has changed seems as blinkered as arguing that everything's different. Maybe more so.

I do think Glenn makes a good point about boobs (this is my new favorite sentence). One could argue that things collapsed, not with Star Wars, but with Vixen---once you no longer needed to sit through European artistry to see naked girls, the market for European artistry collapsed pretty fast. I'd also add a note on the disappearance of dubbing---while subtitles may be truer (in some ways) to the original film, they're far less audience-friendly, and it's worth remembering that the heyday of foreign cinema in the U.S. was an era when most films were shown dubbed.

Again, that's not to say there aren't lots and lots of great movies being made today. Or lots of terrible movies being made (and seen) then. But the world where Breathless could be a career-making commercial success doesn't exist, and I think it's naive to blame the bean-counters for giving audiences what they seem to want.

Chris O.

@KeithUhlich - "To what extent has there been, or appeared to be, a thriving cinephile culture outside of the big coastal cities (and a few others like Chicago, I guess)?"

Define "thriving cinephile culture." You're asking about the past, but even today I'd say most university towns, I think, have art house theaters and film societies (your post goes back to my earlier point somewhat), or, at least, the ones I've visited seem to.

bp

i'm still stuck on Brody using 'exhilarating' and 'funny people' in the same sentence.

big flashes and glossy sheens will always attract an audience, no matter the era or the perceived collective intelligence of those in the era. generally speaking people are led by animal instincts not by intelligence, the blow-up example being a perfect illustration. it's the nudity, not the mimes. star was was a perfect film in many ways, putrefied retroactively by one bloated lucas error after another.

to the bigger point, yes. enough.

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