We’d just put our two-year-old son to bed and were ready for our ritual Thursday-night viewing of French news on TV5 (to which we subscribe, my wife being French). We turned on the television and caught the tail end of a French short about a young Black man in the banlieue of Paris; his mother, an émigrée from Cameroon, was on the warpath because he was being called into the high school principal’s office.
Stay with me. There really is a point to this.
Certain that criminal behavior was afoot, she chased her son to the high school parking lot, where she confronted him and his would-be accomplice—reveal his English teacher, congratulating him for a journalism award for a blog he had written about his family life with his mother, who, with O’Henry-like irony, does not know how to read. The moment of his small victory, and the touching, gorgeous humanity of his mother’s inability to access her son’s skill, left me, I will admit, in tears.
Wedged between the main attraction and the news, this small French gem prompted another question: what the hell happened to American movies? It’s no surprise to hear that the U.S. movie industry is largely owned and managed by large corporations that crunch numbers and sift market research to make films that are potential revenue streams, with specific wide-swath “four-quadrant films” (note: our Monday morning news did not always include the weekend grosses).
As someone who has worked in the entertainment industry for over three decades, I’m reminded of an older colleague, with a rueful laugh, reacting, “Well, at least we were around before, and know what it used to be like.” I, too, was there Before, and During, and After. During: the first takeover, when SONY bought the MGM studio. It was my first studio feature film; on a Friday night, we were making decisions about the casting of the lead roles, even as the boxes were being packed for a move off the studio lot. And there were exactly FOUR people in the room—the studio president, one vice president, the director and myself. Around the same time, the president of SONY gave a press conference in which he stated that the day-to-day operations of the studio (Columbia Pictures) would not change.
And here is After: my last studio feature, back in 2006, was XMEN 3. There were 19 producers, 12 studio execs, 5 Vice Presidents of casting, and a studio chief whom I never saw once during the process. Since then, I’ve sworn off studio films. And I’m certain they have sworn off me. I’m probably too much trouble for them. Recalling what it used to be like, I tend to feel disillusioned by the process. And for the most part, the content leaves me numb. I’ve now opened a truckload of worms in the debate. What gives my opinion any more validity than any other nutjob with pen and paper? Okay, I thought about the possibilities: 1. I’ve been working in my industry too long and am just jaded; 2. I’m just too damn old, brought up in a different era, and unable to empathize with the new generation’s issues; 3. I’m becoming French, who hate everything; 4. I’m an intellectual snob. All possible. Except: I cried. I saw a film that made me cry. And I cannot recall the last time a contemporary American film raised a tear from me.
Andre Gregory, in Louis Malle’s 1981 classic, MY DINNER WITH ANDRE (watch here) presents a very pessimistic view of what was going on (now over 30 years ago!) when he predicts a future where “all these robots walking around feeling nothing, thinking nothing, and there’ll be nobody left almost to remind them that there was a species called human beings, with feelings and thoughts…history and human memory [are] being erased.”
In the past two decades, most studio films provide little more than the adrenaline of the amusement park rides that inspire them. We substitute hipness for insight. We replace sentiment with Disney sentimentality. We substitute cruelty for wit. Mostly, we find new faces to fill the familiar formula: THE FUTURE OF THE PLANET/GALAXY/UNIVERSE IS AT STAKE, AND ONLY ONE MAN/WOMAN/TEAM OF STRANGELY-COSTUMED SUPERHEROES CAN SAVE US FROM TOTAL ANNIHILATION! Watching them reminds me of the rumored MacDonalds’ legend: researchers started with a real hamburger and proceeded to extract every potentially offensive taste; what was left became the Big Mac. (Recent research has confirmed that popularity doesn’t equate with nourishment, or health.)
Even most U.S. indies suffer from the limits of formula, self-conscious hipness, and political, cultural or social correctness. Usually, they are star-packaged, Sundance-ready “journeys to manhood/womanhood/fill in your own subculture.” When I find myself disappointed by the contrast between American ”product” and recent foreign films such as LOCKE, GARE DU NORD, and so many others, I ask myself, why should it matter?
2. Okay. Why should it matter?
I have a young son. I don’t want him to grow up exposed exclusively to an American aesthetic that generates superficial messages of omnipotence and perfection (or worse, “quirky but charming” imperfections that are equally one-dimensional). Because whether we like it or not, the screen has taken over from the book as the primary means by which our children inhale their culture. Movies, TV and video games are becoming the primary delivery systems for our children’s educations. These forms have a major impact on how our children turn out later in life.
Art is not the same as consumption. Popularity does not equate to nourishment or health. We can’t rely on art as just entertainment; it needs to have some enlightening effect on its audience as well. But…money is how we move through the world. That’s not only true for business; even artists need money to live, theaters need money to pay for lights, filmmakers need money to pay their crews, artists need to pay for their paints and canvasses. Naturally, entrepreneurs expect that their money should create something lasting, empirically quantifiable—a return on their investment. But when art becomes too dependent upon corporations, whose charters require the pursuit of maximum profit, then the form and content begin to morph around certain formulas to ensure that profit.
Hence, the studio film. The one-hour procedural TV episode. The low-budget horror film. The romantic comedy with Amy Poehler, Melissa McCarthy or Tina Fey. The men-acting-like-kids films with Channing Tatum, Will Ferrell, or Adam Sandler. By themselves, they are innocuous entertainments that are “fun” if unimaginative diversions for the average moviegoer. The problem is that, like planting a Costco or a Wal-Mart in your community, they swamp the boats of smaller, more independent forms of entertainment; they drive up the price of distribution, exhibition, promotion; they push theater owners toward the fastest, most assured profits (big studio films); and they marginalize the smaller independent films whose style, subject matter, or cast members can’t possibly match the revenues of larger studio films.
I know how much money issues affected my own professional and creative life. In my 20’s, I tried, unsuccessfully, to write a doctoral dissertation while teaching four courses a semester at three different colleges, financially barely above water. Besides the money stress, I had become disillusioned with the academic world; the core purpose of teaching literature had gotten lost (at least for me) in a maze of inconsequential factors that distracted from the essential one: the joy of reading, and understanding, the human drama of life as expressed by great playwrights. And so I gravitated, through a series of fortunate accidents, into the world of casting theater, film and television, which turned out to be a way of making a decent living and having fun. In the back of my mind, though, I kept hoping that my efforts would nudge the ball of intellectual, creative, cultural fur forward a few inches.
Years later, I am beginning to see that ball of fur as something we all need to keep nudging forward. Why should it matter? Why is it our problem? After all, many of my fellow industry workers are happy with the way things are. They make a good living, and have fun; they consider themselves artists, craftsmen. For me, though, I’ve begun to see all of us, far too often, as insouciant entrepreneurs gleefully dumping toxic waste into the brains of our youngsters.
Which brings me back to that small French short film on TV5. And the dozens of smartly-made foreign films I’ve seen lately (don’t miss two great French films that I have recently seen: GARE DU NORD, and POURQUOI TU PLEURES?). Which doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the great world cinema that goes unwatched so often. Which is why we need curators, for our children, our brothers, sisters, parents, friends. So that we don’t have to face, yet again, the ULTIMATE ANNIHILATION OF THE PLANET—or of our collective brains, and the culture that we have left. It should matter if we lose our history, especially for those of us old enough to recall its vanishing richness.
The solution is not simple, but it is clear: it’s absurd to expect our schools to shoulder the bulk of educating our youth, when the media’s influence is so overwhelmingly powerful. We’re still learning its potential for affecting the human brain; we may do well to acknowledge its ability to do far more, and far better. As for what’s already in the media universe, those who care about cultural literacy could create partnerships with one another, using social media like RIKAROO, to preserve and expand it. Films that not only entertain, but also enlighten, delight; films that heighten our awareness of the emotionally complexity and richness of life. Films we’d want our children to see.