Tuesday, June 21, 2005

70s Cinema, Box Office Economics and Auteur Filmmaking

So, after watching The Dreamers yesterday, a film about cinema and societal changes in the 1960s, today I watched Midnight Cowboy, a film that is actually from the 1960s, and is a prime example of the social changes that were happening then. This is a film that was rated X, but still won the best picture Oscar. Admittedly, it's definitely an R by today's standards, but still, the fact that the traditionally conservative academy rewarded this film demonstrates the sort of bold social change that was happening in the cinema.

First, a bit about the film. I loved it, it still feels very relevant, and at the same time is such a great document of 60s lifestyle. It's in line with most of the characteristic of 1960s indie/art cinema, the quick cut montages of Buck's memories/dreams reminded me of the acid trip sequence in Easy Rider, and the minimal narrative and outsider heroes are also 1960s trademarks. I think those dream/memory sequences work brilliantly, giving us a hint of what's in Joe Buck's past. We know how he feels about it, even if we don't know exactly what happened, and that's enough. I'm glad there wasn't some big reveal at the end, clarifying his past. Those scenes add psychological complexity to what could have been a caricature.

This movie avoided the art film trap of being so non-narrative you stop caring about what's happening. When Buck gets swindled, first by the woman and then by Rizzo, I really felt for him, I was really behind this guy and wanted him to succeed. The film is admirably economical in its narrative. Huge chunks of time pass, and one image, like the frozen faucet, can tell us everything we need to know.

One of the coolest scenes was the party, really visually interesting and great editing was used to show us things from both Joe and Rizzo's perspective. Throughout the film, there were a bunch of Six Feet Under style imagined scenes which are then punctured by a cut back to reality. I love the device and, particularly in a film where time is short, they give us much needed insight into how the characters think.

It's interesting how the film makes us so concerned with this guy's quest to pimp himself out to middle aged women. When he finally does acheive his 'dream,' it's a really triumphant moment and the music at that moment really drives this home. The ending is rather ambiguous, but you get the sense that Buck has really moved on, he ditches the cowboy stuff and when asked, says he is from New York City. He's reinvented himself, he isn't that boy from Texas anymore, which means he acheived what he set out to do.

So, this was a top notch movie, but perhaps more important than the film itself is the context that allowed the film to be made. In the late 1960s, the Hollywood studio system was falling apart, and the films that used to be successful, like big budget musicals and costume epics, just weren't working anymore. With the box office in decline, films like Easy Rider changed the idea of what film could do. Easy Rider, and Midnight Cowboy, draw a lot on the techniques of the French New Wave, the jump cuts, strong ambiguity in the narrative and location shooting for maximum realism. This is all chronicled in the excellent book, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, which discusses the era.

It's commonly held that these films paved the way for the 'Golden Age' of American cinema in the 1970s. I'm of two minds about this. I don't love that many 70s movies, and until recently, I'd always held that this idea of cinema's golden age was overstated. I would consider the late 90s, post Pulp Fiction, era of American cinema to be its high point. Directors like Tarantino, PT Anderson, Soderbergh, Jonze and others created a new template of what indie film could be in the same way that people in the 70s did. But, much of this was done in conscious homage to that 70s era, so examining those films is really a must to see why we ended up where we are now.

Obviously, I'm going on stuff I've read and deduced here, since I wasn't around in the 70s, but it seems like at that time, there really was a vibrancy in film culture and that's understandable because the medium was for the first time liberated from the very strict standards of the Hollywood studio system. I'd compare it to the shock of seeing The Sopranos for the first time, and understanding what TV could do without restrictions on content and style. There are great movies made under the studio system, but they have a layer of artifice that The Sopranos, or the films of the 70s movement don't have.

The commonly held idea is that there was a director-driven utopian era of cinema when challenging, adult-targetted films dominated the marketplace, and this was destroyed with two major events, one was the disasters filming Heaven's Gate and the other was the release of Star Wars. Heaven's Gate was a film by director Michael Cimino, who made The Deer Hunter. It was an arty Western that went way over budget and destroyed United Artists studio. The film was seen as an example of director excess, and it led to more studio involvement at all levels of the creative process, to ensure that out of control directors were not allowed to go over budget like Cimino did.

If you read a lot of arty film writing, you'll notice a high level of antipathy towards Star Wars, because of the commonly held belief that it destroyed that utopian film culture of the 70s and led to the current blockbuster based film marketplace. It created a division between art film and popular film and this is a bad thing. But, I think blaming the film for the marketplace that followed it is completely off base. First, Jaws was actually responsible for creating the blockbuster template that Star Wars is generally blamed for. That was the first movie to make more than $100 million dollars, and it caused a reassessment of how much money it was possible to make through film. However, Star Wars went way beyond that in terms of box office gross and probably is partially responsible for the box office culture we have now, but I find it disturbing that a personal, auteur film would be blamed for reviving tight studio control over movies.

George Lucas is actually the only person to achieve the dream of creating wholly independent films, free from studio influence. He put his own money on the line to pay for the Star Wars sequels and as a result, he was able to maintain tight control, and make the movies he wants, without concession to the marketplace.

In looking at Star Wars, it's crucial to consider the fact that this was a low budget movie virtually every studio passed on before one guy at Fox agreed to finance it. It wasn't a project people wanted to make, and yet, it became the biggest box office hit of all time. The tragedy of Star Wars is that studios didn't see this as a sign that the process of auteur driven films was working. Lucas was left to do his own thing and it led to a hugely successful movie. He did the same thing on the sequel and it led to an even better movie that was also a huge success.

However, the success of Star Wars, Spielberg's movies and others, put the studios on better financial footing, so the era of experimentation was over. It's widely held that big corporations are going to take the most creative risks when they're not doing well financially, just look at ABC in this past TV season for an example of this, and then they retreat to conservatism when they become successful. So, the success of Star Wars is just one small piece of the move towards financial success that ultimately doomed risky auteur filmmaking. The major thing it did was make the studio aware of the kid audience, and as a result, they began to make movies that targetted the whole family instead of just adults, as most of the major 70s films did.

Generally speaking, I'm more a fan of adult targetted movies, but I think Star Wars is a great example of the sort of film that can show younger people the power of cinema. It's not a kids movie, it doesn't talk down to the audience, but it is accessible to people of all ages, and I know in my case and for many other people, it was the gateway to a lifelong love of cinema. Look at the films in the 90s indie film renaissance, they're full of references to Star Wars, in really strong films like Clerks, Swingers and Boogie Nights. So, the film that 'destroyed' 70s auteur cinema ultimately inspired the generation that would resurect it.

But, the 90s indie film movement was quite different in that those films were never really popular. American Beauty cleared 100 million dollars, but some of the best films ever made, like Magnolia, were financial failures, and even though American Beauty won best picture, the academy generally still favored more traditional movies, like Gladiator or Titanic. I don't think those films had the huge cultural impact that The Godfather or even Easy Rider did. Those films were on the forefront of a cultural revolution, but in the late 90s, they were basically just there, and more people were talking about Godzilla than about Magnolia. So, great films were still being made, they just weren't as culturally important as they were in the 70s.

The reason this is on my mind is because of all the articles about the record box office slump that's going on right now. There's all kinds of articles about how the films that are supposed to be blockbusters just aren't performing like they should, and I think this summer's going to represent the end of the old paradigm of what works at the box office. There's such a need to presell movies that we have essentially no original films in the summer movie season. Last week was Batman Begins, a film that did get good critical notices, but is a 're-imagining' of a movie that came out in 1989, just sixteen years ago. Next week is Bewitched and Herbie: Fully Loaded, two sixties retreads. In July we've got films from two of my favorite directors, but they're both remakes of seventies movies. These films will probably have big opening weekends, but they're not going to get repeat business, because there's not going to be good word of mouth. You don't need to get word out on Herbie: Fully Loaded because everything about it is right there, whereas a film that isn't presold is going to get more repeat business as word about it gets out.

So, perhaps this summer will represent a nadir of creativity and studios will realize that perhaps audiences would be more receptive to original stories in their blockbusters. In the 90s, even though movies like Independence Day may not have been the greatest cinema, at least they were original stories, not just remakes of existing properties. But, the combination of audience apathy and the increased prominence of DVD will hopefully create a revolution in the movie business, and lead to a new Golden Age, like the 70s.


Keith G said...

I just have to point and stare when you say the story for "Independence Day" is original. It isn't. It's War of the Worlds. And when it's not WotW, it's some scene or other lifted from a dozen other films. But basically it's WotW with a computer virus instead of a real one.

I think bemoaning the fact that Summer is filled with remakes and franchise films and old properties being recycled is fruitless. It's been that way for 30 years now and before that it existed in a different form.

And, ironically, this is the year that "War of the Worlds" is actually remade - in a way that justifies making remakes. Spielberg creates a thoroughly modern version without losing the essence of the story. And it comments on 2005 as much as the original novel commented on the turn of the 19th century.

Patrick said...

Yeah, Independence Day isn't an original film at all, but at least it isn't an adaptation of something else. Practically every major film that's out this summer is a remake of a movie or TV show that came before, and no matter how original they are, that still indicates such a lack of confidence in either the ability of filmmakers to develop original stories, or studios to market concepts that aren't presold.

War of the Worlds is actually one of the more original movies out this summer, because they basically take the title and premise of the book then do something different. But, it's the fact that it's in amongst so much weak retreaded material that caused me to insult it there. I hadn't seen the movie then, but after seeing it, I would call it a pretty much ideal summer movie.

I guess the point isn't that the movies are significatly less original, it's that a movie can't even just steal from another movie anymore, as in the case of say Speed from Die Hard, it's got to be an out and out remake.