This Summer, Hollywood takes the easy way out…
A few months ago I sat in the pub opposite the British Museum where Karl Marx retreated after writing sessions. I was in the company of some friends from journalism and the anarchist squat scene in London. This was in early March, in the midst of protests against government cuts to public spending; before Mubarak had fallen, or Facebook had played its role in persuading advertisers to pull out of News International in protest at the hacking scandal.
The conversation grew animated around the potential of Social Media – particularly the instant nature of Twitter – to transform news coverage and the way politics is done. The point was well made that, for our grandparents or great grandparents, the medium that seemed to offer the equivalent potential to transform the world was the talking motion picture.
While totalitarian states found uses for film makers, Liberal, radical and non-conformist political traditions in the English-speaking world didn’t produce movies in the early decades of talkies with the impact and ambition to transform hearts and minds. The three great utopianists of English literature in the thirties and forties – Wells, Huxley and Orwell – were either not interested in, or never made a successful leap into, screen writing. For both Huxley – who tried to make it in Hollywood but ended up disenchanted like many a literary giant parodied in Waugh’s ‘The Loved One’ – and Wells, who enjoyed limited success in the medium, this may have been down to the same factor that hampered Wells’s namesake with an “e”, Orson, throughout his career. What was required was showmanship, not genius.
From a British perspective, it was left to people from the music halls – notably Hitchcock, Noël Coward and James Whale, director of ‘Bride of Frankenstein’ – to make popular films that portrayed a kind of social reality, but in a psychological and dramatic sense, rather than as part of a manifesto or argument enacted by characters.
As film became the most popular art form in the world, sparks of Liberal sentiment in the thirties failed to start a blaze of revolutionary films across the cinema screens of Allied powers in the forties. Instead, with a wink, a chuckle and the extensive involvement of the Wartime propaganda departments of the British and American governments, Tommy Trinder and Betty Grable kept people’s peckers up but left the social order at home otherwise undisturbed. They call it show business, not show art, after all.
[Here’s a clip from ‘Hits of the Blitz’ – Paul Morley’s Radio 4 documentary on music of the war years – about Trinder’s 1940 song ‘All Over The Place’, which celebrates the Navy and tattooed gadabouts].
In the post-war period, cinema became the diversion of disappointed revolutionaries, in the downtime between failed uprisings, rather than one of their weapons. As the swain of Northampton, Alan Moore, has bemoaned:
I think the film medium is flawed from its inception. That’s not to say there haven’t been some wonderful films made, but they are very, very much the exceptions that prove the rule, and I think that the big flaw from the inception is that film has always been technologically intensive as a medium, which means it has also been cash intensive […] There’s plenty of bad comics and there’s plenty of bad books and there’s plenty of bad record albums, but the reason I think I hate the movie industry is that if I make a bad comic, it does not cost a hundred million dollars, which is the budget of an emergent small third world African nation.
And this is money that could have gone to alleviating some of the immense suffering in this world but has instead gone to giving bored, apathetic, lazy, indifferent Western teenage boys, largely, another way of killing ninety minutes of the interminable and seemingly pointless lives.
(Moore’s toxic relationship with the film adaptations of his densely imaginative works – ‘Watchmen’, ‘V for Vendetta’, ‘The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’ and ‘From Hell’ – is the stuff of legend).
In the twentieth century, motion pictures acted as an escape for the masses rather than as a political or artistic vanguard mass medium. The escape was from crappy realities: one stock market crash, war and recession after another, leading to successive waves of musicals, space operas and gritty urban thrillers. But what was it an escape to?
Whenever I hear the word cinema, I can’t help thinking hall rather than film.
Roland Barthes, 1986 ‘Leaving the movie theatre’ in ‘The Rustle of Language’ Blackwell, London, p. 345.
It seems to me that the most radical, and perhaps the most interesting, aspect of cinema over the last hundred years hasn’t been the films or film makers, so much as their audiences. Or rather it was a symbiosis between the two: films attracted an audience, and film makers created work that was intended to appeal to particular audiences and sensibilities.
The mainstream and underground have benefited from a symbiotic relationship too: major studios robbed ideas and talent from the avant garde, freely. (‘Easy Rider’, ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ and ‘Midnight Cowboy’ borrowed from Roger Corman and exploitation films that had – up till that point – existed outside Hollywood’s strictly policed self-censorship system). Conversely, experimental film makers outside the system often depend on mainstream studios for work and an income. (Crispin Glover comes to mind, immediately).
Overlapping anniversaries this year in the history of ‘cult’ cinema underscore the dwindling diversity of mainstream film culture. This long-standing symbiosis seems to be out of sync.
This should focus the minds of book and magazine publishers, as eBook readers and tablet computing become more common. Amazing things are being done off in the world of socially networked media, but little of it keeps baby in shoes. A brief overview of best sellers for the iPad reveals a depressing picture of regurgitated airport novels, New Age self-help and management manuals.
By depending on novel technological gimmickry, reselling old content in new formats rather than developing original products, major film studios in 2011 face flat-lining growth, and greater artistic desertification. Comparatively, the competition – particularly television – is embracing digital delivery of new programmes, and finding new, dedicated audiences.
Thirty years ago, Danny Peary’s formative list of one hundred ‘Cult Movies’ was published. It’s now hard to imagine a world where ‘Aguirre, the Wrath of God’, ‘Night of the Living Dead’, ‘Witchfinder General’ and ‘Eraserhead’ were underrated films. Peary’s 1981 book did much to elevate them from American art house obscurity to a wider, international circle of cinema cognoscenti.
In the same year, London’s Scala Film Club opened its doors at the former King’s Cross Gaumont. The picture house had a deliberately eclectic repertoire “where you could laugh at Buñuel, weep at Sirk and scream at George Romero” according to one of its founders, Stephen Woolley. The Scala went on to influence the films shown and produced by Channel Four, and the direction of British cinema over the next two decades. The Scala’s lasting legacy to British film is being celebrated all summer through a collaboration between rep cinemas in the capital.
The Scala and the idea of ‘cult movies’ owed much to the midnight movie trend of a decade earlier. Forty years ago Ben Barenholtz, manager of the Elgin cinema in Chelsea, New York, showed Alejandro Jodorowsky’s surrealist western ‘El Topo’ at midnight. It was an instant, unexpected hit, running seven nights a week till the end of June 1971. Despite almost no publicity, word of mouth turned ‘El Topo’ into an overnight phenomenon and soon the idea of midnight showings spread to other New York theatres, across the USA and around the world. Ten years later the establishment of the Scala and the publication of Peary’s book were in some ways reflective meditations on both the canon of movies established in the wake of the commercial success of ‘El Topo’, and also on the sense that cult cinema attracted a loyal congregation that was more than a mere audience.
Reflect on the diversity of films made in 1981 that have found dedicated followers – ‘My Dinner With Andre’, ‘An American Werewolf in London’, ‘Time Bandits’, ‘The Evil Dead’, ‘Das Boot’, ‘On Golden Pond’, ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark, ‘Polyester’, ‘Escape From New York’, ‘Chariots of Fire’, ‘Arthur’ – and compare it with the state of mainstream cinema now.
In 2011, the film industry and other media that trade in original narratives find themselves at an impasse: a rush for short-term profits made possible by new technology has led to a dearth of new content and ideas, and declining DVD sales. This is a perfect storm for Hollywood: a recession that has hit production, and causes consumers to view the value of purchases critically. At the same time, a new race is on to establish brands for digital delivery of content.
This replicates many aspects of the VHS vs. Betamax contest in the early eighties to be the dominant video cassette format. In Britain, the BBC iPlayer has set the standard. In North America, Netflix streams directly to your Xbox or PVR, a cartel of TV content producers stream to the Hulu player, with Apple TV / iTunes, Walmart’s Vudu and Amazon’s VoD players as competition. Film studios are late to this race. Plans by Warner Bros, Sony, Fox and Universal for Premium Video on Demand distribution sixty days after a film’s theatrical release have caused friction with exhibitors and film makers, used to a more comfortable window of ninety to one hundred and twenty days.
Hollywood has attempted to turn a potential crisis into an opportunity. Wider availability of high-speed broadband, combined with digital peer-to-peer technology, was poised to create a ‘Napster moment’ for the movie business like the one that decimated the music industry from 2000. Then James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ appeared like a blue CGI messiah offering technological salvation. (It also seemed to rescue News Corporation: Murdoch employees have often credited the $2.8 billion profits from Cameron’s 2009 film about smug alien eco-terrorists with keeping the Digger’s business afloat).
The 3D release of ‘Avatar’ grossed $760 million in the US alone, providing the impetus for theatre distributors to invest in new projectors and equipment (also allowing them to lay off most of their in-house craftspeople skilled at projection, now at risk of becoming a dying art). 3D, it was argued, allowed exhibitors to provide audiences with a unique “event” like ‘Avatar’, an experience that couldn’t be recaptured on a giant plasma screen or laptop at home. Home distribution for viewing on 3D screens required Blu-ray discs, harder to decode and producing bigger digital files than conventional DVDs (and, therefore, taking longer to rip off).
It also allowed studios and distributors to charge between $2 – 3 extra per ticket for the 3D version of a film, plus $5 – 6 for the glasses (policies that seem to have been abandoned this summer). This has buoyed up major studios during a recession, but has led to a paucity of original content. If ‘Avatar’ was the film industry’s Jesus, then this Summer behold Papa Smurf: the blue CGI Anti-Christ.
The recent roster of 3D films has performed poorly at the box office: four of the past five 3D big Summer films—‘Pirates of the Caribbean’, ‘Green Lantern’, ‘Kung Fu Panda 2’ and ‘Harry Potter’ – made more money in their 2D incarnations in their opening weekends. Audiences now seem sensitised to discern between films that have been retro-fitted for 3D – like ‘Thor’ – and others that have been intentionally designed with 3D in mind.
Dreamworks Animation chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg told a Fortune magazine seminar in Colorado this July, berating his industry for its short sightedness and the overall quality of 2011’s movies:
They suck. It’s unbelievable how bad movies have been […] I think Hollywood has managed to grasp defeat from the jaws of victory here […] There were, unfortunately, a number of people who thought that they could capitalize on what was a great, genuine excitement by movie goers for a new premium experience, and thought they could just deliver a kind of low-end crappy version of it, and people wouldn’t care, or wouldn’t know the difference.
(Dreamworks stock lost 2.5% in a day’s trading in June after Barclays Capital expressed concern to shareholders about the slowing momentum for 3D).
Werner Herzog’s ‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams’ about the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave in southern France could well be the most profitable 3D movie this year, a film made out of passion for the subject matter more than business acumen. When he began the project Herzog was a sceptic about 3D, but was persuaded that specialist cameras – some of which were assembled inside the cave after the crew’s descent – could capture the contours of the cave, and the experience of the space that the painters had thirty thousand years earlier.
The second part of this aticle dicusses the salutary lesson for the film business provided by the most profitable 3D movie of all time, produced by one of the most influential media empires of the last fifty years, Record profits couldn’t prevent its mogul’s fortunes from making a slow, one-way descent to sleaze city, Arizona.
The film in question isn’t ‘Avatar’ and the conglomerate wasn’t News Corporation. Forgotten sexploitation smash, ‘The Stewardesses’ is a warning from history to the corporate might of Hollywood, Seventies –style!…
Tim Concannon writes about midnight movies and old cinemas at blackmassmovies.com