Hollywood's blend of art house originality and narrative driveby Toby Mundy / December 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2000 issue of Prospect Magazine
there is a scene in Mike Figgis’ latest movie, Time Code, in which a haughty French actress pitches her next film to a roomful of jaded Hollywood producers. She wants the money to make a movie in which the cinema screen is divided into quarters, each of which follows, individually and in real time, the actions of a specific character. Her pitch comes freighted with a long, vaguely pretentious riff about the fragmented nature of reality and experience. When she finishes, a nervous hush descends on the producers-who are variously warped by cocaine, alcoholism, neurosis and unrequited love-before the head of the company announces that her idea is ludicrous, but that they “will make your shit if you will make ours.” Time Code appears on a screen divided into four parts and follows its characters in exactly the way the actress describes. Thus a movie directed by an Oscar-winning Hollywood director and shot in a highly experimental way contains an extended comic scene in which a box-office-friendly Hollywood director agrees to make an avant-garde film if its bankable foreign star will appear in his mainstream work. The forbidden fruit of underground filmmaking is traded for commercial candy. Beyond the self-referential joke, the scene has much to say about where serious-minded cinema-in the Anglophone world-finds itself today. It reminds us that offbeat films co-exist with blockbusters and that they can be vehicles for the same directors and stars. Taken together, these observations do something to lift the spirits after Mark Le Fanu’s pessimistic account of art house cinema in the November issue of Prospect. Le Fanu contends that the quality of the genre-which he defines variously as foreign language, sexy, talky, serious, bleak, slow, psychological-isn’t what it was. This change, he believes, represents a victory for the Hollywood mainstream over the more angst-ridden European alternative. For Le Fanu, the difference between Hollywood and European cinema “is not only a difference of scale but of kind: they are scarcely even the same art form.” Le Fanu does acknowledge that we have seen in America in the last 15 years “the rise of a small-scale independent cinema” and cites the Coen brothers, David Mamet and Steven Soderbergh. However, his Spenglerian thesis-and narrow definition of art house movies as non-Anglophone-requires him to misrepresent the work of these filmmakers and neglect many others. For example, the latest Coen brothers’ movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, is staged on an epic rather than a small scale and stars George Clooney, one of the world’s leading actors. On the face of it, this implies that the Coens have sold out to Hollywood. But the film is also awash with literary and cinematic allusion and in its aesthetic, tempo, dialogue and plotting is resolutely unmainstream. Similar things could be said of some even more mass market American output in recent years, such as American Beauty, Fight Club or Sleepy Hollow. Although Le Fanu is right to declare that acclaimed auteurs such as Bertolucci and Wenders now aspire to mass appeal, the corollary of this is that the Hollywood mainstream has become more of a medium for art house values than ever before. A new generation of American (or American-based) directors has emerged-Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights), Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich), Christopher Nolan (Memento), David O Russell (Spanking the Monkey), Kevin Smith (Clerks), Todd Solondz (Happiness), and Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez (The Blair Witch Project)-who have the kind of “European” sensibility admired by Le Fanu. Moreover, far from being small in scale, some of these directors work on an immense canvas. Paul Thomas Anderson’s flawed Magnolia joins David O Russell’s Three Kings and the Coen brothers’ latest by telling its story with the kind of panoramic sweep with which Hollywood is comfortable, but which European art house usually eschews. The life-giving centre of the art house aesthetic-formal originality, metaphysical seriousness, wit, conversational and psychological acuity-has been absorbed by American movie makers, blended with their gifts for storytelling, and reinvented. The result is serious, confident and high quality cinema, with real narrative momentum. The combination of arty naturalism and old-fashioned storytelling also serves to mercilessly expose the lack of narrative drive in much European cinema. Current filmgoers are the most sophisticated and cine-literate yet. They are relaxed about blurring genre, alive to the use of pastiche, attentive to clich?s and stereotypes and possess a secular, post-ideological sensibility. They are receptive to novelty and experiment, but retain an insatiable appetite for stories. American cinema isn’t, of course, the last word in movie making and, where they are available, films from countries like Tibet, China and Iran offer exposure to hitherto unheard-of voices. But it is hard to reconcile the fecundity of the new American cineastes with Le Fanu’s lament that the “new orthodoxy” of western cinema “would do away with anything dark or difficult” in favour of work that produces “a recognisable feelgood factor.” FR Leavis expressed a similar anxiety in 1933, when he wrote that cinema requires “surrender, under conditions of hypnotic receptivity, to the cheapest emotional appeals.” Yet even a cursory inspection of the weekend listings shows that the dark and the difficult, the cerebral and the innovative, are everywhere available in today’s cinemas.