In The Trouble With Films That Try To Think, her recent document of the shortcomings of Hollywood films that take on political themes, The New York Times‘ Caryn James writes:
“The studios (and their artier specialty divisions) back [films that think] for the same reason celebrities double as political pundits: producers and studio heads like to be taken seriously, too. What’s whispered, yet rarely said out loud, is that Hollywood producers know that most of what they churn out is junk, and they are happy to seize an opportunity – especially if it’s cost-efficient and Oscar-ready – to prove they are people who think… What results is a genre of timid films with portentous-sounding themes, works that offer prepackaged schoolroom lessons or canned debates. Hollywood may be drawn to Big Ideas, but it is always more comfortable with sound-bite-size thoughts.”
Never one to take such a thing lying down, my fellow blogger The Reeler takes issue with James’ piece when he writes:
“When James flogs films like Good Night, and Good Luck or even A History of Violence for being Ideology Lite—stylized, dogmatic self-indulgences—I wonder what she would recommend as an alternative. Using Caché and Manderlay (and The Squid and the Whale to a token degree) as fodder, James’ colleague Tony Scott recently deconstructed the class themes overriding this year’s New York Film Festival; are these examples of the films she thinks Hollywood should be making? Or would their depths threaten James’ didacticism—her own “schoolroom lessons” that prove irrelevant when applied in the specific context her targets deserve? In other words, do Hollywood “junk” producers—with their market, history and money—really have anything to prove to anyone, and if so, what would James recommend?“
It seems to me, these two agree; Whereas James is taking exception with what she considers the shortcomings of the Hollywood ‘Idea’ film, The Reeler seems to be asking her what she expects– Of course these films are not good enough. Not much of an argument there.
I take a different exception to James’ article; I don’t think these films are about ideas at all, but about ideology. That is to say, I never have found films about political issues to be more than statements of personal belief shrouded in dramatized (albeit, in the case of many of these films, based on actual events) narrative context. What is so exceptional, and exceptionally wrong, about stating political ideas in Hollywood films? It seems to me that James is holding artists to a higher standard than the country holds it own political leaders; we don’t expect nuanced debate anymore, and we certainly have become cynical when it comes to having our political questions answered in a truthful, meaningful way. Talking about ideology is talking about half-truth to begin with; as soon as an artist adopts a political stance, and especially in the context of a fictionalized dramatic structure, he sacrifices the perspective of presenting a nuanced, balanced, two-sided argument. Instead, narrative structure demands that we have protagonists and antagonists, and while a film like Good Night, and Good Luck doesn’t present a nuanced view of American opinion during the red scare, I don’t think of that as a limitation. Did All The President’s Men present a ‘fair and balanced’ view of the Nixon Administration’s case for its actions? Did it present a complex view of a nation divided by Viet Nam and Nixon’s policies? Did that stop it from being a terrific movie? James commits another great sin in her piece by blaming historical context as somehow inadequate to describe current political equivalences. Where as All The President’s Men was set in the recent past (and apparantly therefore politically legitimate in its exclusions) , Brokeback Mountain (Focus Features) is derided for being set in the past and therefore “timid” in its exclusion of “a lifetime in the history of sexual equality.” I suggest she try telling that to Shakespeare. Or try and show me how The Crucible, which I discussed in my own piece about Good Night, and Good Luck, was an inadequate artistic response to the McCarthy era itself. What does James propose that history can teach us about the present? Nothing but truly unequivocal lessons? That was then, this is now? And if you dare make a documentary lambasting the current political climate, everyone calls you a loud-mouth. Seems like you can’t talk about politics and win. That’s because no political speech is taken seriously in this country; with our reliance on experts and ideologically charged pundits to make our news channels interesting, Americans have no forum in which to have their own political ideas heard. Movie stars, probably our most privileged (and envied) citizens, are mocked for bothering to discuss politics; just keep it on the screen, you liberal pretty boy.
Liberal ass-kisser or movie with ideas?: George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck
But the greatest shortcoming in James’ piece, and where I agree with The Reeler, is the limitation of the ‘Big Idea’ film to the realm of the political; What about films that are actually about ideas, especially aesthetic ideas? That is to say, why isn’t Hollywood actually talking about ideas and not ideology? An inadequately oppositional press, sexual harassment, CIA operatives destabilizing oil producers, manipulative governors; sure, these themes speak directly to our current political climate. But as I mentioned in my last post, the American art film has, in many cases, become a careerist calling card, devoid of aesthetics and just as dependent on genre and convention as its Hollywood peer. Interestingly, it is the “non-affiliated” distributors who have taken up the mantle of films like Caché (Sony Pictures Classics) and Manderlay (IFC Films); companies without studio backing doing good work by releasing important films. But there are a million other films about ideas, ideas that are not centrally political, that are out there. I look back on this year and see films like Arnaud Desplechin’s Kings and Queen, Nobuhiro Suwa’s Un Couple Parfait, Tsai Ming-liang’s The Wayward Cloud, Michael Winterbottom’s Tristram Shandy, Philip Groening’s Into Great Silence, and Werner Herzog’s almost perfect trifecta of The White Diamond, Wheel of Time and Grizzly Man and I find plenty of successful films that are bursting with the Big Idea, many of which have seen or will see distribution, and all of which should be seen by a larger audience. So, the trouble is not with films that think, it is with a culture that is distrustful of public thinking about politics, of intellectual approaches to story telling, for whom aesthetic pleasures are less important than adherence to convention. Of course corporations will play to those prejudices, but when they do release sturdy, well-crafted and ideologically fueled stories (which are clearly a cut above the usual bullshit the studios release), why not take a moment to find what is interesting about these films instead of dismissing them en masse as the vainglorious products of condescending executives? Is the only difference between The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Good Night, and Good Luck really just subject matter? Beyond those films, there are several films “that try to think” that represent the best of cinema as an art form. The only problem is that there are nowhere near enough of them.