Culture Wars: Hollywood's fringe benefits
'The complaint that 'films aren't as good as they used to be' is common to every generation. But over the past two decades, cinema has been given unprecedented room to expand and experiment.
When examining previous eras of cinema, films whose existence was owing to a quirk of circumstance are often assumed to have been masterpieces in the making. A strange little film called Citizen Kane, starring unknown theatre actors and featuring bizarre camerawork, has long since been hailed as the greatest film ever made. Film historians trace the origins of cinema horror back to such works as Nosferatu: Eine Symphonie des Grauens, despite the fact it was considered in its time to be a scandalous copy (not adaptation) of the novel Dracula. Formulae that were exploited exhaustively for decades, in genres like the Western or film noir, now present themselves to us only through their exemplars. The Western? We can digest its history as a straight progression from Stagecoach to The Wild Bunch to Unforgiven. Film noir? Think Double Indemnity and stop. But there were a hundred hack-jobs for every one of these, and those we remember are more derivative than we would like to think.
Once Easy Rider made it a serious possibility for hippies with high aspirations to make films, the making of 'classics', in the modern sense, gradually became more premeditated. From the stately magnificence of Coppola's epic Godfather to the harrowing insanity of Coppola's epic Apocalypse Now, films seemed to want to address the whole of life between their opening and their closing credits. Even George Lucas began his career with the outstanding science fiction film THX-1138, made under the auspices of Coppola's Zoetrope Studios.
Fast forward to recent years. Determined cinematic visionaries of the past succeeded in bringing their efforts to the public, but tales of suffering for one's art were legion. Recently, the opportunity to make a bold film lies more often than not within the major studios. The rebellious films seem to have gone to more narrow extremes than 1970s controversies such as A Clockwork Orange or Last Tango In Paris. David Fincher's Fight Club blasphemes against the pieties of its age, while South Park: bigger, longer and uncut promotes straightforward profanity and parodies censorship. And yet Fight Club and South Park are produced and distributed not by the long-defunct Zoetrope, but by Fox and by a partnership between Warner and Paramount respectively.
Of course, major studios do not spend their whole time subsidising subversion. Their job still consists largely of peddling fare like Notting Hill. But in a climate of moral uncertainty, it makes sense to apportion finances to experimental or morally ambiguous work: because there is no moral or financial risk in doing so. In 1999 alone, a number of films of substantial ambition and integrity were made under a commercial umbrella - Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, the final effort from a director of established vision, was accompanied by American Beauty, Fight Club, Being John Malkovich, The Sixth Sense and Magnolia. Even action blockbuster The Matrix centred around cod-philosophical concepts and literary references; and although a freak occurrence, The Blair Witch Project was noteworthy for circumventing the studio system through alternative promotion.
The making of a great film was once the equivalent of storming a crowded podium and eliciting a passionate response from the audience. Storming the podium is no longer the hurdle it once was. But capturing the imagination of the audience is no less of a challenge.
Reproduced from LM issue 127, February 2000