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Wednesday, March 22, 2006

mediawatch

And the Loser Is…

Part 1


To see a great film only on television isn’t to have really seen that film. It’s not only a question of the dimensions of the image: the disparity between a larger-than-you image in the theater and the little image on the box at home. The conditions of paying attention in a domestic space are radically disrespectful of film. Now that a film no longer has a standard size, home screens can be as big as living room or bedroom walls. But you are still in a living room or a bedroom. To be kidnapped, you have to be in a movie theater, seated in the dark among anonymous strangers.
—Susan Sontag, “The Decay of Cinema”

I taught film for six years in the Eighties. As it turned out, it was a critical time in the development of what later came to be known as “film studies” (i.e., the academic appropriation of film by people who had absolutely no grounding in it). It was a strange experience. I felt especially odd because of my own background and intellectual formation.

Newsreel
Nobody has more acutely (or accurately) defined the importance of cinema for an entire generation than Susan Sontag, in an essay she wrote for The New York Times about nine years before she died. In “The Decay of Cinema,” Sontag pointed to “the onset in the last decade [the piece was published in February 1996] of an ignominious, irreversible decline” in film. Ironically, as everybody else was marking the centenary of its birth (officially, December 28, 1895, at the Grand Café on the Boulevard des Capucines in Paris) with the most self-serving (and painfully inane) predictions of many more years of robust health, Sontag was soberly (and astutely) delivering film’s eulogy. More than just burying cinema (in lieu of vacuously praising it), however, Sontag, being an incisive coroner, also delivered a postmortem on its demise. (In a poignant irony, Sontag died on the very day—December 28—that her beloved cinema was born, and was buried in the same City of Light in which the felicitously named August and Louis Lumière had pierced the darkness of the Grand Café 109 years earlier.)

Just as its extraordinary maturity in the twentieth century resulted from its social afterlife, the cinema’s physical death was anticipated by and ineluctably bound to its social redundancy (which is also, by the way, a critical factor in the decline of culture generally in the “developed” world today). I quote Sontag:

Perhaps it is not cinema that has ended but only cinephilia—the name of the very specific kind of love that cinema inspired. Each art breeds its fanatics. The love that cinema inspired, however, was special. It was born of the conviction that cinema was an art unlike any other: quintessentially modern; distinctively accessible; poetic and mysterious and erotic and moral—all at the same time. Cinema had apostles. (It was like religion.) Cinema was a crusade. For cinephiles, the movies encapsulated everything. Cinema was both the book of art and the book of life.

What makes Sontag’s recreation of cinephilia achingly genuine is her description of its almost palpable erotic impulse.

Until the advent of television emptied the movie theaters, it was from a weekly visit to the cinema that you learned (or tried to learn) how to walk, to smoke, to kiss, to fight, to grieve. Movies gave you tips about how to be attractive. Example: It looks good to wear a raincoat even when it isn’t raining. But whatever you took home was only a part of the larger experience of submerging yourself in lives that were not yours. The desire to lose yourself in other people’s lives…faces. This is a larger, more inclusive form of desire embodied in the movie experience. Even more than what you appropriated for yourself was the experience of surrender to, of being transported by, what was on the screen. You wanted to be kidnapped by the movie—and to be kidnapped was to be overwhelmed by the physical presence of the image.

Annette Insdorf begins her biography of Francois Truffaut in the same mode (albeit more explicitly).

Truffaut’s early film-going experiences were flavored by what we might call “sinema”: not only were his excursions into the darkness clandestine, but they were accompanied by a growing awareness of sexuality. A fine example of this conjunction in the boy’s mind (around the age of twelve) is his recollection of lost panties in the 4,500-seat Gaumont-Palace in Paris during the Occupation. He learned from his friend—whose mother worked at the famous theater—that after the last show every Sunday night, at least sixty pairs of panties would be found under the seats: “I hardly need to add that these sixty little weekly panties—we never failed to check the exact number…—made us dream in a direction that had little to do with the art of cinema or the ideas of [André] Bazin.” (Francois Truffaut, p. 15)

Anyone who doesn’t immediately, physically understand what Sontag (or Truffaut) was getting at here has obviously never been in love with the movies. The movies were an initiation, but they were also a consecration, albeit infinitely superior to religion precisely because of their power of sublimation, which means that while they might not have brought you closer to God (although Bergman and Bresson and Dreyer and Olmi and Tarkovsky, among others, thought they could do that, too), if you managed to penetrate their screen, to get inside their world (we would stupidly, sadly, say “discourse” nowadays), you got closer than you ever could to the real world, to the actual men and women surrounding you inside and outside the theater— Sontag’s “anonymous strangers”—that the cinema, however, suddenly made infinitely less anonymous and, so, distinctly less strange.

Memoir (of only a few, but true, pieces)
I’ve always said that I was socialized by the movies; I’ve always been absolutely convinced that, after a certain point, which I can readily identify, the movies changed my life more than anything else, including my ethnic identity (whose formation was, to a very real extent, an accident of birth) and the religion in which I was raised (but about which, as a child, I had no say). My devotion to the movies, on the other hand, was my choice, an allegiance founded on my will, which is why it confirmed me in—and often led me to—my politics, my social understanding (and whatever social vision arose from it), my existential self-awareness, which includes any personal esthetic I ever developed, and, to echo Sontag, my perception of desire and, most of all, sense of love.

It is, of course, ludicrous even to imagine anyone today making a comparable statement based on the films of the last 20 years. Sontag spoke of a “reduction” of film that “has produced a disincarnated, lightweight cinema that doesn’t demand anyone’s full attention”—and, in fact, couldn’t even if it wanted to. There are many causes for this, social and esthetic (although the social, in an art form that exemplified “mass culture” for so many decades, and was a central, intimate part of “common” people’s lives during that time, is critical in this case). Some of it, however, has to do with simple, old-fashioned laziness, which, as our parents used to warn us, invariably leads to mental and existential sloth. If you love movies—if you love anything in life, another human being most of all—laziness inevitably compromises and confounds and corrupts that love. When I was an undergraduate in the late Sixties, there were scattered courses in film (literally, one here, one there), but certainly no curricula of any intellectual rigor, let alone departments, with the obvious exception of NYU’s program, which, however, was looked down upon as vocational education more than anything else, and those at USC and UCLA, which were considered, again, to be industrial trade-schools feeding Hollywood’s need for hacks. (As the universities in Babylon’s backyard were also keenly aware of the movie industry’s deep pockets, intellectual flattery was a strategy for financial support; it’s a shame Brecht never wrote a play about American academe.) Consequently, when I went off to graduate school in 1972, I followed a traditional path although, like so many of my generation, I’d been obsessed—intellectually, socially, morally, and, most of all, existentially—with cinema for many years.

Which is why I went back to school a few years after dropping out from doctoral studies in political science (on September 11, 1973, but that’s another story) and focused entirely on cinema the second time around. I’d taken the easy way out the first time; I needed to get it right this time. So, I went back to Columbia, as opposed to NYU’s (in)famous cinema studies department (academic factory of Third World, meta-Marxian, proto-postcolonial, “independent film”-pandering; semiofeminist, unreconstructed deconstructionist textuality; and theoretical “reading”). At the time, outmoded, outdated convention—indeed, almost unapologetic reaction—held (partial) sway over Columbia’s doctoral program, if for no other reason than the intellectual lightning rod hovering over the head of the consciously curmudgeonly Andrew Sarris.

I plead guilty to the fact that I am now, have been for roughly 35 years, and will always be a Sarrisian fundamentalist. Future cultural historians who look back upon the critical shards and intellectual fragments of “film studies” in this country in the last third of the twentieth century will be able to confirm the obvious: that Sarris’s critical intelligence was definitive although his enemies and, by definition, intellectual inferiors all won out in the end. No need to name names. What is important is that a profound sense of film history, represented not only by Sarris but by Kevin Brownlow and Richard Koszarski and the late William Everson and Jay Leyda (the latter two among the original pillars of NYU’s film program), was defeated by a ubiquitous notion of theory or “critical reading” based upon a grotesque ignorance of film. This phenomenon, of course, is true of the humanities as a whole; history, regardless of disciplinary qualification or “discursive” form, has been replaced by theory. What is even more inexcusable is that this has often occurred in the name of a “leftism” that is not so much infantile as it is protozoan.

In the event, when I returned to Columbia to enter its film program, some people who knew me were surprised. By that point (1979), I’d done some writing and had published a few things in “respected” film journals, mostly left-wing (in those days, the notion of a conservative film culture was oxymoronic), and it was assumed that somebody “like me” should be at NYU, queuing for the anointed-grad-student-graced-to-write-for-October line. But I thought that NYU had nothing to teach me (I’d already read Marx, and would continue to read him with or without NYU, or graduate school, for that matter). I thought that education should be an engagement. That, even though I’d seen a lot of movies by the time I was in my late twenties, I had this nagging feeling that I hadn’t seen enough—and that, even if I had, I hadn’t seen them properly, under the scrutiny of those who could (con)test my knowledge and understanding and assumptions. Andrew Sarris might have been a legendary anti-Marxist (although I always thought that anyone with his intellectual penchant for hermeneutical oppositions was a classic example of a dialectical thinker), but nobody could deny that he had seen a lot of movies in his life. More to the point, because he had, because the more you saw, the more you knew (and yet, paradoxically, the more you needed to see)—as Sarris told all his students, in cinema as in life, wisdom is a cumulative virtue—he understood their context(s): individual, collective, esthetic, social, artistic, industrial, historical, analytical. The irony in all this, of course, is that it took the self-described “bourgeois” Sarris to teach a self-described Marxist the meaning, and importance, of historical context in cultural analysis—and I suspect I wasn’t the only one.

***

“One can’t live without Rossellini,” declares a character in Bertolucci’s Before the Revolution (1964)—and means it.
—Susan Sontag, “The Decay of Cinema”

This year’s Academy Award nominees for Best Picture were Brokeback Mountain, Capote, Good Night, and Good Luck, Munich, and, of course, the film that ended up winning the prize, Crash. New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis began her piece on the Awards as follows: “Tonight, an expected 41 million Americans will tune into the seventy-eighth annual Academy Awards to watch a spectacle largely honoring films they have not seen and may never get around to watching” (“Hollywood’s Crowd Control Problem,” March 5, 2006). For the record, the ratings came in at 38.8 million, down eight percent from last year. In any case, as of five days before the awards were announced (February 28), the top ten films at the box office in the US were, in descending order, Star Wars: Episode III, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, The Chronicles of Narnia, War of the Worlds, King Kong, Wedding Crashers, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Batman Begins, Madagascar (an animated feature), and Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Star Wars: Episode III brought in $380 million while Mr. and Mrs. Smith (the notorious vehicle—no relation to the 1941 Hitchcock comedy—that brought Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie together in every way) grossed over $186 million at Number 10.

Of the five nominees for Best Picture, the most money was made by Brokeback Mountain, at number 29, with $75.4 million; followed by winner Crash (number 49), with $53.4 million; Steven Spielberg’s Munich, at number 63, with just over $46 million (as opposed to his Number 4 War of the Worlds, which grossed over $234 million); Good Night, and Good Luck at Number 89, with $30.3 million; and Capote (Number 103), with $23.4 million. There are many ways to look at these figures. Here are two: the biggest moneymaker of the five nominated movies, Brokeback Mountain, made just under one-fifth of the total of the biggest moneymaker overall, Star Wars: Episode III; or, Star Wars: Episode III made a little over sixteen times what the worst moneymaker of the five movies contending for the Academy Award, Capote, made. Any way you slice it, it more or less comes out baloney for the notion that the vast majority of the American television audience watching the Academy Awards this year actually had any connection whatsoever to the movies that had been honored by nominations. (While this is an admittedly arbitrary calculation, I find it instructive that if we multiply those 38.8 million by $6.40, the average price of a movie ticket in the US last year, the result is $248.3 million: more than three times the gross for Brokeback Mountain and over 10 times that for Capote—but still over $131 million less than Star Wars: Episode III earned.)

Living without Rossellini (or Norma Desmond)
Hooray for Hollywood anyway? Not exactly: it’s called Tinseltown for a reason. What you see is hardly ever what you get (especially with “hard numbers,” which is also why accountants have a term for the genuinely weird science of addition and subtraction in US moviemaking: they actually call it “Hollywood accounting”). Let’s look at the top-grossing movie for 2005 again, which is also Number 7 among the 10 top-grossing films of all time. Star Wars: Episode III did make $380 million dollars, but that was on a total of 59.2 million tickets sold. (If you multiply that last figure by the $6.40 average price of a movie ticket in the US last year, you get $378.9 million, almost precisely the amount that the movie is credited as making.) Indeed, if we take the top 10 films of all time, not by cash pulled in—which obviously skews the data to more recent productions because of an entire century’s inflationary spiral (according to the MPAA, the average ticket price in 1910 was seven cents)—but by the number of tickets sold, the winner is…Gone With the Wind, with 206.4 million.

From that statistical thread hangs the entire tale of the cultural calamity that dares not speak its name. Gone With the Wind has actually been Number 1 on the list of top 10 films for decades. Moreover, that particular list has only one movie from the Nineties, Titanic, and one from the Eighties, E. T. Still, despite its re-releases, the latter film has sold 56 million less tickets than David O. Selznick’s tearjerker for the ages, while the Titanic tearjerker for the moment has sold 83 million less (the notion of re-launching that painfully waterlogged excuse for a movie sinks the heart).

Now, let’s look at GWTW a bit more closely. Like Crash in 2006, GWTW won the Oscar in 1940 for Best Picture of the previous year. Unlike Crash, however, which about eight million people have seen to date, 25 million people had seen GWTW a year after its release (the movie actually premiered in Atlanta at the very end of 1939, just 10 days before Christmas). Just to keep the context for those audiences, that’s 25 million in a population of about 132 million in 1940 (or 18.9 percent), as opposed to eight million in a current population of roughly 298 million (or 2.7 percent). But there’s more.

The average ticket price was 23 cents in 1939 and 24 cents in 1940, according, once again, to the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America, Hollywood’s official trade group). However, Gone With the Wind was an event in 1939-1940—a real Hollywood event, which is to say a national cultural (that is, social) experience, not the pathetic media simulacrum that passes as cultural occasion nowadays and lasts for the functional social equivalent of a nanosecond. Consequently, although the average ticket price for movies at the end of the Great Depression was about a quarter, it cost 75 cents to catch a morning or afternoon performance of GWTW and a whole dollar for evening performances. Nonetheless, although MGM (with which Selznick had made the distribution deal) and the theater-owners were charging, respectively, more than three and four times average prices, the crowds overran the moviehouses. So much so, in fact, that within a year, roughly 8,100 theaters had booked the movie—as opposed to the 1,905 theaters that have played Crash until today. Finally, the $14 million dollars brought in by GWTW the first year of its release would be worth approximately $184 million today. However, once again, if we factor in population, it would actually be worth about $415 million, which, of course, is not only almost eight times Crash’s gross, but (yes, Virginia, there once was a world before George Lucas) some $35 million more than top-grossing Star Wars: Episode III.

That was popular culture. In the finest, deepest, most socially expansive but also most psychologically intimate sense of the term. And we shall never see its likes again. For very many reasons, but, fundamentally, in the end, because, once upon a time in Hollywood, American filmmakers believed, not in the collective unconscious (or any other theoretical imposition on, or appropriation of, the movies), but in the collective conscious.

Much has been made over the last couple of decades of the “grittier”—or, at least, more “sophisticated”—quality of American movies in this period compared to the allegedly predictable “crowd-pleasers” and intellectually and psychologically “simplistic” films of Hollywood’s earlier years. After all, Hollywood’s contemporary cheerleaders argue, how can one seriously compare a film like Crash to a movie like, say, Grand Hotel, which won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1931-1932 (for the first six years from 1927 to 1933, the annual awards covered the film “season”). Personally, I can think of any number of ways, but, for the sake of argument, I’ll grant that Crash is “manifestly” a more complex film than Grand Hotel. The problem is selective memory. Following are the Best Picture winners for the last quarter of a century: Ordinary People (1980); Chariots of Fire (1981); Gandhi (1982); Terms of Endearment (1983); Amadeus (1984); Out of Africa (1985); Platoon (1986); The Last Emperor (1987); Rain Man (1988); Driving Miss Daisy (1989); Dances With Wolves (1990); The Silence of the Lambs (1991); Unforgiven (1992); Schindler’s List (1993); Forrest Gump (1994); Braveheart (1995); The English Patient (1996); Titanic (1997); Shakespeare in Love (1998); American Beauty (1999); Gladiator (2000); A Beautiful Mind (2001); Chicago (2002); The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003); Million Dollar Baby (2004); and, now, Crash.

Gritty? Sophisticated? Gandhi? Out of Africa? Driving Miss Daisy? While, admittedly, the Eighties look particularly egregious now (although these films looked just as bad when they were released), with only Platoon, and possibly Amadeus, breaking up the unrelenting unremarkability of this quintessentially meretricious “product” (as Hollywood likes to call it), the next 15 years don’t look much better. Indeed, with the singular exception of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby, the decade-plus run from The Silence of the Lambs to The Lord of the Rings is downright demoralizing for what it tells us about the apparent senility of the American cinema. Let’s now go back to 2005’s top 10: Star Wars: Episode III, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, The Chronicles of Narnia, War of the Worlds, King Kong, Wedding Crashers, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Batman Begins, Madagascar, and Mr. and Mrs. Smith. What strikes one immediately, of course, is the almost universally (innately?) juvenile nature of their subject matter. Looked at in that chronological context, Crash is, in fact, one of the better films to win the Oscar in the last 25 years.

Now, let’s go back. I won’t bore the reader with a year-by-year recount of the Best Picture Oscar before 1980, but it is illuminating to reconsider some of the films honored in the 52 years from 1927 to 1979. Splitting that period into two 26-year cycles, here’s what I came up with.

1927-1952 (not including Gone With the Wind)
All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-1930); It Happened One Night (1934); You Can’t Take It With You (1938); Rebecca (1940); How Green Was My Valley (1941); Mrs. Miniver (1942); Casablanca (1943); Going My Way (1944); The Lost Weekend (1945); The Best Years of Our Lives (1946); Gentleman’s Agreement (1947); All About Eve (1950); and An American in Paris (1952).

And that doesn’t include a peculiar “split” during Oscar’s birth year. It is well-known that Wings won the first Academy Award for Best Picture in 1927-1928; it is hardly known that, during its first three years, the “Best Picture” award was called the “Best Production” award and that, although Wings won it in that first year, an award was also given (for the first and last time) for “unique and artistic production.” That prize went to Sunrise, Murnau’s classic and arguably—for many cinephiles, including me, undoubtedly—one of the finest works in the history of the cinema. Those “illiterate” movie moguls back then obviously knew a thing or two about “sophistication” themselves. Now, on to the postwar, post-television period.

1953-1979
On the Waterfront (1954); The Apartment (1960); Lawrence of Arabia (1962); Midnight Cowboy (1969); The Godfather (1972); The Godfather, Part II (1974); One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975); Annie Hall (1977); and The Deer Hunter (1978).

Both lists are obviously very subjective assessments of two eras in American cinema. Nevertheless, I suspect that regarding the first period, which essentially encompasses the classic age of American film, deviations and/or dissent from my evaluation would be minor. (The Broadway Melody instead of All Quiet on the Western Front? Perhaps. Cimarron instead of You Can’t Take It With You? Why not?) If anything, one could edit the first list much more severely than I have. Still, what I find most relevant here is the clear declension of genuinely noteworthy movies from the first to the last (contemporary) period, as the numbers go from 14 (including Gone With the Wind) to nine to five (at best) today. In any case, even the most austere critic of the allegedly soft-focus past—or booster for today’s “hard edge”—would have to agree that that run of Best Pictures beginning in 1940 with Hitchcock (Rebecca) and ending in 1947 with Elia Kazan (Gentleman’s Agreement) is an astounding confirmation of “the genius of the system” that once ruled Hollywood.

To be continued

Peter Pappas is co-founder of greekworks.com.
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