America Can Make Great Movies - But We Fall on Our Faces When We Try to Make Snobby 'Art' Films
I’ve just seen the worst American film of my recent experience, called Escape From Tomorrow, and no one should be surprised when I say it’s an independent art film full of “meaning.” It was shot guerilla-style at Disneyland, Disneyworld, and Epcot Center, using hand-held digital cameras, and this bold theft of Disney locations is the obvious reason such a rotten incompetent film got any kind of a release at all. You can build a whole PR campaign on that alone, and they have. The poster features a clever Disney-style image of the iconic Mickey Mouse arm and hand, that familiar black rubber-hose limb topped by a puffy white glove, here half-clenched into a contorted, blood-dripping, four-fingered Glove of Horror.
Such lurid sacrilege is all the film has going for it. We all know you don’t mess with Disney. It’s part of our cultural heritage, being aware that the Walt Disney Company sells cute, sentimental pop utopianism while functioning as a big, sinister, authoritarian, madly litigious zillion-dollar corporation. Disney Jail awaits you if you commit the slightest infraction at Disneyland or Disneyworld, and Disney lawyers will destroy you for the least infringement on Disney holdings. I once knew a financially struggling woman who’d been reduced to selling her hand-knitted Mickey, Goofy, and Pluto finger-puppets from a table she’d set up on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, and she got a threatening Cease & Desist letter from the legal arm of Disney Co., with a scowling Mickey Mouse logo on top.
So it does seem marvelous that someone would have the nerve to shoot a whole movie on Walt Disney’s Hallowed Ground, without permission. Not that you’d ever get permission anyway, if you asked.
But any marveling over the Escape From Tomorrow ends there. It stinks to high heaven.
And it didn’t have to stink to high heaven, because the premise is pretty good. It’s about a representative, repulsive American Man (Roy Abramsohn) vacationing with his equally representative, repulsive family at Disneyworld, who is informed over the phone that he’s been fired from his job, but he feels compelled to get through the rest of the day there without telling the wife and kids. Nicely dramatic situation, perfect for our era of American desperation and decline. Miserable unemployed guy at the ridiculously expensive “Happiest Place on Earth,” surrounded by grinning faces, many of them human, many more of them manufactured, painted on, robotized. You can see how it would play out pretty effectively if you just trusted in the basic power of the premise.
But the filmmaker doesn’t. Writer-director Randy Moore overdoes everything. This is signaled in an early scene taking place on the “It’s a Small World” ride, which is already so well-known for its maddening qualities that it’s a terrible clichÃ© to make this the scene of the man’s first apparent break with reality. As everyone knows, just sitting through the ride listening to the relentlessly repeated chorus of the song, watching the rows and rows of smiling, spinning dolls in their native costumes, is plenty to convey the menacing blandness and forced cheer of American culture, But Moore can’t leave it alone. He’s had minor CGI done on the dolls, so that their bland smiles, from the man’s point of view, turn fanged and demonic. And then his wife turns to him and says, apropos of nothing, “I hate you” and that’s when you know you’re not in Kansas anymore. Only, of course, you never were in Kansas in the first place in this film—you’re always in Disneyland—and Disneyland is already a thoroughly crazy place. Throwing more gratuitous crazy at it is Dopey and Goofy and made me extremely Grumpy.
But see, Randy Moore has got an art film to make. And that means you automatically tart up the scenario with ostentatious formal choices like black-and-white cinematography and weird camera angles and surreally distorting fisheye lens shots. You explore the subjectivity of the protagonist in tricky ways that entangle us in his rapidly blurring levels of reality, including hallucinations, fantasies, dream states, drunkenness, blackouts. You introduce grotesque minor characters in tangential, episodic interludes that challenge the typical linear, causal narrative structure of commercial films. You marshal a whole array of charged, reflexive, symbolic motifs and parade them around, such as the “princesses” and “evil queens” that turn up all over the place to obsess and torment the man and his family. You end ambiguously on the man’s “escape,” into a Disney-imagineered alternate universe, or his own mundane erotic fantasy, or whatever—it’s up to you to figure out what it all means or why you should give a damn.
It’s textbook art film stuff. You could literally take scholar David Bordwell’s essay “The Art Cinema as a Mode of Film Practice,” and use it as a checklist to track every rote, silly thing this film is doing.
I have to assume Disney Company decided not to bother suing Randy Moore, since nobody will ever watch his film again after it blows through theaters playing to near-empty houses. There were six other people in the theater where I saw it, and I was amazed they all stayed to the end. They were restless, and sighed a good deal, but they stayed. Personally, if I hadn’t agreed to review the damn thing, I’d have left in under thirty minutes.
But I understood better why the six might’ve stayed, after the film ended and we filed out. I overheard the young man running the concession stand ask two departing patrons how the movie was. Their uneasy, polite replies were, “Well, it’s INTERESTING,” and “It makes you think.”
Ah, the familiar phrases of cowed, suffering audience members at indie art films, who have no idea what the hell they’re watching because it’s incoherent nonsense, but they assume the fault must lie with them! I spent years in the independent film world, and I know these audiences so well. So eager, so anxious to appear fascinated by this junk! After all, the film was in black-and-white, and it’s playing at an art-house theater, and you gotta respect cinematic artistry!
Only you don’t, you know. It’s a free country—sort of—anyway, free enough that you don’t have to pretend to like or understand or care about this kind of spurious indie-art crap. The tendency of American filmmakers to overvalue “art” in its most spurious forms, and undervalue the demanding craft of making excellent entertainment—which, ironically, will get you to art faster than most approaches—is one I’ve ranted about on many occasions when trying to explain how and why American cinema is going straight to hell.
To quote my own book Filmsuck USA: …I am not one of those jackass critics who blames the decline and fall of American cinema on its commercialism. Because that position is stupid, and always has been stupid. Yet every generation of jackass critics trots out the same platitudes about how films designed to make money by attracting mass audiences are insufficiently heartfelt, artistic, risk-taking, and personal, and are, therefore, bad. That critical party line has been consistent for a century now, and wrong for a century. Wrong, because the majority of great American films have emerged from the crucible of commercial entertainment, from the harrowing process of trying to make something effective and mass-marketable, on time and under budget.
That jackass-critic line of argument is an example of what ejjicated types call a “false dichotomy.” That’s when somebody claims there are just two options, only one of which is any good. It’s a fallacy that’s heavily featured in discussions of what ails American cinema, the suggestion that you can have either an art film or a popular commercial movie, but not both on the same reel (or in the same digital encoding), because the two categories are mutually exclusive. This position requires ignoring the most compelling part of American film history, the part where we wound up getting both art and commercial entertainment on the same reel so often.
Look, we’ve got plenty of museum arts already—ballet, opera, painting, “legitimate” theater, classical music. They were hot stuff in their day, but now nobody pays much attention to them except small, devoted bands of connoisseurs. Plus whatever ordinary citizens can be prodded into paying dutiful obeisance to moribund high-culture forms, such as herds of resentful schoolchildren on forced field trips.
Is it too much to ask that we keep film off the museum-art list? That we maintain a few really “lively arts” for ourselves—we, the people?
Art As Entertainment
Here's Joel Coen, half of the Coen Brothers, the greatest American filmmakers alive, offering an intelligent comment on the ruinous distinction between film as art and film as mass entertainment:
That's a distinction that I've never understood. If somebody goes out to make a movie that isn't designed primarily to entertain people, then I don't understand what the fuck they're doing. I can't understand it. It doesn't make sense to me. What's the Raymond Chandler line? 'All good art is entertainment and anyone who says differently is a stuffed shirt and juvenile at the art of living.'
Well put, especially by a director who started as a truly independent filmmaker, corralling dentists into investing money in Blood Simple, the first Coen film. Joel and Ethan Coen were founding members of the big independent film movement of the 1980s - '90s that was supposedly offering an alternative to crass, commercial Hollywood fare. Fortunately, the Coens never signed any purity pledges that would hold them aloof from creating supposedly vulgar popular amusements. They always intended even their most aesthetically ambitious films to play as commercial entertainment.
Though, of course, there are great films made independently outside of the commercial system that could never have been made within it—David Lynch's Eraserhead, for example—but those really are exceptions. Most independent films made in America are not wondrously bold, unique visions that challenge our understandings of film and art and ourselves and our world. They’re terrible, and derivatively terrible at that. They’re often calling cards by people trying to get into “the system” as fast as they can. But they tend to be treated more reverently by critics, because films made outside “the system” are regarded as heartfelt, artistic, risk-taking, and personal, whether they actually are or not. There's a presumption of auteurist quality, of innate preciousness, applied to independent/art film. But there are just as many rote, formula independent/art films as there are rote, formula commercial films. You discover that quickly if you attend many film festivals or watch the Independent Film Channel, God help you.
This is not to say that there's no such thing as film genius, or that unique films shouldn't be made. It's just that we're not very good at recognizing real auteurs, the very few people who have some sort of genuine personal vision that ought to be on film. You watch Charles Laughton's Night of the Hunter—a crazy, beautiful Gothic fairy tale that bombed at the box office in 1955, sending Laughton back to his successful career of enjoyably hammy character-acting—and you say, Now there's someone who saw something amazing in his mind's eye and was capable of getting it on film. When a Laughton comes along, you should let him direct whatever he wants and eat the cost. But a Laughton comes along very rarely.
Because we’re not very good at recognizing unique talent—which figures—unique talent is generally surprising and hard to categorize when first encountered—we tend to rely on stupid premises like Art Film = Good Film. And when I say “we” I mean “you”: I swing exactly the other way, being far more inclined to regard with suspicion any film selling heavy doses of “artistry,” which generally involves a set of conventions as recognizable as any genre film conventions, and is so often the cover for hollow flimflam of the worst kind.
However, because so many people—and critics are people too, I guess—preserve their stupid high-culture prejudices long after the clearly-marked expiration date, we in America continue to misidentify the problem with our cinema. We think it's not artistic enough, i.e. not high-toned and “significant” enough. There's constant pressure applied to make Meaningful Films, and that generally translates into a few clichÃ©d sub-types, such as:
Holocaust and Holocaust-Substitute Films (lots of harrowing stuff like incestuous abuse tales can substitute, but as everyone knows, the Holocaust is still the surefire bet)
Sensitive Coming-of-Age Weepers
Aestheticized Porn (often made in Europe, or if in America, NC-17-rated films with “mature themes”
High-minded Historical Plods
Identity Politics Gut-wrenchers, the “Very Special Episodes” of Film
But-the-Cinematography-Was-Beautiful Exercises in Ennui
Po-mo Reflexivity Mind-Fucks
Setting out to make a Meaningful Film is a huge mistake, probably for anyone, but certainly for Americans. Europeans seem comfortable with exercises in strenuous profundity, but we Americans have a long and honorable tradition of queasiness about artistic pretention. “Craft” is the right endeavor for us. It suggests working-class construction, deft ability, professionalism, and a certain mental sharpness—slyness, even.
It was a dark day when American entertainment figures started allowing themselves to be called artists, and an even darker day when they started calling themselves artists. Artistry by stealth—by accident, even—that's our preferred style. Sneaky art. It should be a seemingly unintended byproduct of the main thing we're trying to do, which is get laughs with a comedy, say, or scare people with a horror film, or wow people with spectacle. Those things are very hard to do well. But if you're excellent at your craft, you might inadvertently commit art.
The Genius of the System is Genre
In American cinema, our genius is genre film. Always has been. In the 1950s, Cahiers du cinema editor Andre Bazin (a French critic, but not a jackass) reminded hotheaded auteur critic-prodigies working for him—Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer, and that crowd—that they ought to consider “the genius of the system,” i.e. the Hollywood studio system, which, though it ground out a lot of crap, also produced many highly effective films that could by no stretch of the imagination be considered “art” made by “auteurs,” director/author figures with unique, personal, visionary oeuvres. Bazin's example of an effective non-auteur was Michael Curtiz, a Hungarian-born transplant who worked on assignment at Warner Brothers for many years and made an awful lot of fantastically memorable films in all sorts of genres: The Adventures of Robin Hood, Angels with Dirty Faces, Captain Blood, Casablanca, Mildred Pierce, White Christmas. Vivid, lively movies, no directorial “signature” style, propelled by the narrative drive of genre.
And Bazin had no need to remind them of Hollywood’s visionary genre-filmmakers who tended to insist on their professional craftsmanship rather than their own artistry, though later they would all be called “auteurs.” American directors such as John Ford, Howard Hawks, Frank Capra, and Preston Sturges, as well as transplants who made their greatest films in Hollywood, such as Ernst Lubitsch, Fritz Lang, and Alfred Hitchcock.
But when it comes to our particular genius, we could never see it ourselves—it was the French who kept telling us about it. An occasional American film critic would rave about our domestic cinema (Otis Ferguson, James Agee, Manny Farber) but the public at large never really bought the idea that we were, in our commercially driven, unpretentious way, truly aesthetically great. To this day, we still don't get it, making me wonder if we aren't congenital idiot savants in this way.
The curse of the American cinema has always been the strange contempt so many Americans have for our own cinema. For all our “We’re Number One” posturing, we’ve always been at least half-convinced the Europeans did it better.
Yet our slapstick comedy of the 1920s out-surrealized anything the Paris-based Surrealists were doing in film, and they worshipped our stuff. Decades later when idolizing French cineastes tried to tell Buster Keaton about how brilliantly he'd captured Freudian dream states and the workings of the unconscious mind, he said blankly, “I was just trying to get laughs.”
In the 1940s and '50s our furious, crazy, death-driven crime films made the French Existentialist pity-party look wan and weak. The French helpfully named the genre “film noir” for us, and told us how magnifique it was. We ignored them and didn't adopt the term till the late 1960s - early '70s, when we acquired out first crop of Euro-obsessed film school-trained filmmakers like Francis Coppola and Martin Scorsese and Terence Malick. They joined up with the television-trained renegades (Arthur Penn, Hal Ashby, Sidney Lumet) to have an “American New Wave” in cinema, after the French New Wave had stolen our thunder. Fortunately, these guys loved American genre film at least as much as the Euro stuff, so we still got some fine cinema out of it during what some now call the “American Renaissance” in film: Mean Streets and Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, The Conversation and The Godfather and Apocalypse Now, Badlands, Dog Day Afternoon, Harold and Maude...
Of course, we got endless amounts of pompous junk, too.
When popular genre entertainment made a big comeback in the late-'70s and '80s, it was in an increasingly degraded “kiddie” form courtesy of the rampant success of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg's Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises. That's when we wound up with the schism that we still suffer with today. Popular genre stuff is generally shoved to one end of the spectrum and independent/art film to the other, impoverishing both forms.
The result? Increasingly, genre film is debased, carelessly recycled formula product marketed to the stupidest teenagers. Art and independent film is equally debased, carelessly recycled “meaningful” clichÃ©s and empty formal exercises marketed to the most ossified critics and other pompous gits.
The ambitious genre projects that could engage adults emerged in television, where creative work could still being done with genres like the Western (Deadwood, Justified), science-fiction (Fringe, Eureka), fantasy (Game of Thrones, Torchwood, Lost), horror (True Blood, The Walking Dead), drama (The Sopranos, The Wire, House, Breaking Bad), and melodrama (Mad Men). An exodus of major film directors to television is now well documented: Martin Scorsese's Boardwalk Empire is just the highest-profile example. Steven Spielberg, Michael Mann, Gus Van Sant, Philip Noyce, Neil Jordan, Frank Darabont, Curtis Hanson, Greg Mottola, Kathryn Bigelow, Bill Condon, all have developed projects for TV or are actively pitching them. This is largely due to insane risk-aversion on the part of Hollywood studio executives and producers working in an inherently risky business, who are reluctant to fund even the interesting projects of reliable genre film directors. When the Coen Brothers have a TV show in the works (HarveKarbo), you know there's been a sea change.
Only a few American filmmakers still try to carry on the old Hollywood tradition of serious achievement through genre filmmaking, using the constraints of genre to enable invention and insight, thereby drawing together the alienated audience demographics of entertainment-seekers and art-lovers. There's a brave little band of directors battling the tide of stupidity in order to Save Our Cinema—this movement to be known hereafter as SOC(K)!—that includes the Coen Brothers, Quentin Tarantino, and Gore Verbinski. There are others, too, of course; but these filmmakers best exemplify a certain tendency toward beautiful craft combined with intense worker-energy and an almost reckless buoyancy in their genre films, the qualities that get rarer and rarer in American films of the 21st century.