New York, NY, August 16, 2009 -- For over a month now I've been pondering a New York Times article about the state of cinema that was published forty years ago. I've read the January 1969 Richard Schickel piece over and over since downloading it from their archive last month. "Don't Go to the Movies to Escape," proclaimed the headline, "The Movies are Now High Art." A recent Times profile of veteran film critic Andrew Sarris made a passing reference to the Schickel piece with such an intriguing title.
Try to imagine a time when film critics feared that mainstream movies were becoming too artsy and elitist, losing touch with the everyday filmgoer. When movies were becoming, "the central art of our time."
Moviegoing dropped significantly after the widespread emergence of television in the 1950s, and by the 1960s, Hollywood was in a funk. Anti-heroes supplanting movie stardom in Hollywood was, according to Schickel, a "cause for alarm." With Hollywood aiming at college-aged and older moviegoers, American kids might lose movies as a central experience, Schickel feared. He cited movies such as Noel Black's "Pretty Poison," Richard Lester's "Petulia," Paul Newman's "Rachel, Rachel," John Cassavetes' "Faces" as just some of the films that were aimed at an elite "New Class." Not to mention the many French auteurs that dominated New Class interest. Forty years ago Schickel imagined film as being halfway towards its own bleak future. Mirroring, "poetry, prose fiction, the graphic arts, music and dance," Schickel compared artforms that went from mainstream appreciation to near extinction as they were embraced solely by elites. By 1994, he essentially forceast, it would all be over for mainstream moviegoing.
"It is also possible that over a longish period of time an interation between the underground and the above-ground moviemakers will produce a style of film-making so radically different from any we have known up to now that none of what we have been discussing will be germane," he cautioned, "That, however, seems unlikely."
What a difference four decades makes.
So, it's mid August and time to start seriously anticipating this year's crop of serious movies. The ones that will likely dominate critics lists in December. This year, the autumn can't come soon enough, because forty years after Richard Schickel worried that artfulness would kill Hollywood, we're seeing mainstream movies dying from artlessness (or at the very least, originality).
A trio of film festivals await me in a few weeks -- Telluride, Toronto and then New York -- events that typically restore (some of) a movie lover's faith in film after a long summer of studio stuff. Festivals are a crucial intersection of filmmakers, audiences, critics and industry, the place where the movies that matter today get their start and garner the attention and awareness crucial to their survival. This year, I'm desperate for that fall fest circuit. A small selection of old and new movies in Telluride, hundreds of options in Toronto, and then a carefully curated showcase in New York. For me, the increasing emphasis on sequels and comic book movies, not to mention endless news of remakes and re-boots, drains the life out of movies and moviegoing. I used to get excited for summer Friday trips to a Manhattan multiplex for a big popcorn movie from Hollywood. Lately, not so much. This summer, Film Forum was a better escape, into the Hollywood movies of another era, namely the work of Nicholas Ray. His 1950 film, "In a Lonely Place," was so popular that it will be back this week for another run.
In recent weeks, nostalgia for a better mainstream cinema has been underscored by voices bemoaning the fate of Hollyood. The industry is on track to see a larger box office than ever, yet mainstream movies are uninspiring.
On her new blog the other day, Anne Thompson made the case that moviegoers should support this weekend's opening of "District 9." Cast your vote for Hollywood originality, she advocated. "I shouldn’t be as excited by this movie," she said, "We want 'District 9' to score because right now the studio system is in grave danger. Execs are scared into risk-averse behavior like I’ve never seen before. I’ve been watching Hollywood a long time, and it has never been this bad. Trouble is, Hollywood is doubling down on the very behavior that is the most likely to turn out badly."
Last week in the Times, A.O. Scott bemoaned the current "festival of the known", also sounding a warning. "The studios, housed in large and beleaguered media conglomerates, have grown more cautious as the economy has faltered, releasing fewer movies and concentrating resources on dependable formulas. Nearly every big hit so far has been part of a franchise built on an established cultural brand."
And, earlier this month, Roger Ebert wrote this piece about "a gathering dark age" for movies, where he suggests younger moviegoers don't care about reviews (citing "Transformers 2" and "G.I. Joe," specifically).
Will the tremendous success of unoriginal films this year mean more and more of the same for years to come from Hollywood?
This weekend I finally started reading Mark Harris' "Pictures At a Revolution." It considers the five best picture nominees from 1967 ("Bonnie and Clyde", "Doctor Dolittle", "The Graduate", "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," "In The Heat of the Night") and how those films signaled the birth of a new Hollywood. Mainstream moviemaking rebounded bigtime. The '70s was a great decade for American film. It was just two years ago that we thought we might be on the cusp of another such moment. The best picture nominations of "There Will Be Blood," "No Country for Old Men," "Michael Clayton," "Atonement" and even "Juno," seemed to signal something new.
When the dust settled, however, it became clear that the economics of marketing arty movies to the mainstream was a risky proposition. Studios retreated.
Sure, it would be great to see Hollywood regain some glory, especially if it would make more movies as original as "There Will Be Blood," one of the best films of this decade. But, this weekend I didn't vote for the studio system by buying a ticket to "District 9." I guess I was too busy thinking about the 60s, looking to the fall, and anticipating what I'll see in Telluride, Toronto and New York.
Fortunately, today elitist moviegoers can look to international filmmakers to fill the huge void left by Hollywood. The film festivals are where it starts for special movies. It's where the dialogue around new cinema begins. Over the course of September, new films as well as those from fests like Cannes and Berlin, will make a mark and spark a deeper dialogue. International fests are where new work takes root, paving the way for access to these films by wider audiences once they are acquired or booked by buyers and programmers. Via festivals, art houses, Netflix, repertory theaters, VOD, museums and the Internet, cinema can survive (and thrive) if we refuse to give up on it.
Meanwhile, we can also dream about the embarassment of riches that Richard Schickel wrote about in 1969. When movies were, as he wrote, emerging as "the central art of our time."