Aug 4, 2012

America's disappearing act

My piece for Slate:
So Spiderman is a Brit and Batman is Welsh. Woody Allen sends postcards home from Paris, Madrid, London. After collecting hosannahs on the international festival circuit, Wes Anderson recently made his first film set on American soil in ten years; next he shoots a “Euro movie” inspired by his love of Europe; for his last movie, even Scorsese came over all Parisien. James Cameron is looking to shoot Avatars 2 and 3 with Chinese money. Oh the French cleaned up at the Oscars last year.  
America is having a moment at the movies — an absent moment, a Scarlet Pimpernel moment, a rain check. It used to be one of the great advantages of being filmmaker working in North America: North America. As a setting and a subject, a material source and myth bank, America was in a class of her own. John Ford made 7 films in Monument Valley over 25 years, so much that the 30,000-acre stretch of the Utah-Arizona border became known as John Ford Country. Hitchcock used to bill studios for his vacations, so certain was he of turning up new locations and first thought of dangling a man from Lincoln’s nose on vacation in 1951, almost a decade before he finally came up with the plot of North By Northwest.  
 By that time the Western had picked up a nasty cough, and we had all moved to the suburbs to sink in front of our TV sets. The filmmakers staked out claims in the big cities like prospectors in the Calfornian panhandle: Kazan’s waterfront, Scorsese’s Little Italy, Woody Allen’s Manhattan, Spike Lee’s Brooklyn, Michael Mann’s downtown Los Angeles, mapped out as mythically in Heat and Collateral as Ford’s wild country. Who can match that level of imbededness today? Nobody talks of David Fincher’s Colorado, or Spike Jonze’s Maryland. Quentin Tarantino made three movies set in L.A. —his three best, as it happens: Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown — then jetted off into the movie-verse to make Kill Bill and Inglorious Basterds. Today’s hip young auteurs are not neighbourhood boys. Alexander Payne and Jason Reitman take pot shots at flyover country from the ironist’s Mile High Club. Darren Aronofsky couldn’t wait to get out of Brighton Beach, after his portrayal of the place as the seventh circle of hell in Requiem for a Dream. In truth, he and Fincher still feel holed up in their bedrooms, downloading hardcore, or staring into the abyss like Christopher Walken in Annie Hall: venture up there alone and there is a high chance they will be there a week from now, a polite smile on your face as they show you their dictionary of flesh wounds.  
Amongst their generation, maybe only the Coens are out there taking soil samples, dirtying their mud-flaps with Mississippi in the 1930s (Oh Brother Where Art Thou?), Arkansas in the 1880s (True Grit), Los Angeles in the 1940s (Barton Fink), Minnesota in the 1960s (A Serious Man),Texas in the 1980s (Blood Simple, No Country For Old Men), and — in their latest — the Greenwich village folk scene of the 1960s (Inside Lewellyn Davis). It’s quite a patchwork quilt they’ve stitched together, reliant for its charm on the brothers’ unique ear for vernacular, their eye for local exotica, and their staunch refusal to feel anywhere at home. They are strangers in a strange land, viewing their homeland through the alienated squint of the outsider — one reason why their work is such a hit overseas.
 But the backyard movie — the one made in a filmmaker’s backyard, using every last crumb of personal autobiography, every last neighbourhood character and piece of local apocrypha, the film which says: here I am, this is where I come from, look — that is a dying breed. Lena Dunham made Tiny Furniture and was immediately snapped by HBO, which has largely stepped into the breach. TV is our national chronicler now. Americans used to go to movie theatres to see themselves on screen — in national epics like Once Upon a Time in America, The Godfather, Do The Right Thing, even Forrest Gump, Lord help us — but these days, anyone hungry for any view of New York that doesn’t consist of seeing it smashed to smithereens by superheroes, must watch Mad Men or Boardwalk Empire. Nobody’s complaining exactly, but amongst today’s filmmakers, maybe only James Gray has shown any interest in drawing strength from his roots, drawing up loamy goodness from the pebbly subsoil of Brighton Beach in Little Odessa, Two Lovers and We Own The Night. It may even be the reason he is not better known. The Russian immigrant guy? Films with Joaquin Phoenix all the time? Oh that guy.  
 In France, of course, he is lionized. Gray is currently at work editing his first period melodrama, set in the vaudeville of 1920s New York and starring Marion Cotillard, Phoenix and Jeremy Renner. “The disconnectedness that you’re talking about, part of it is on purpose because the studios want to appeal to a global audience,” he told me when I caught up with him recently. “The foreign box office is more important now. The studios have been purchased by much larger multi nationals, who demand a movie makes a billion dollars. When you make a franchise, when you have to make a four quadrant movie, that appeals to everyone its very difficult to be specific in terms of your setting. The more generic the better for box office. It cuts to the heart of what ails movies.”  
 We’ve heard this story before, in books like Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders Raging Bulls: how the summer blockbuster de-cored the American film industry like an apple, with the executives spitting out auteurs like pips. In Biskind’s book, the conflict was inter-generational, a tale of Two Americas: straights versus the squares, auteurs versus the suits. But for most of the eighties and nineties, Hollywood still bore a passing resemblance to the industry that had made Stagecoach, Casablanca and The Godfather: an film industry indigenous to North American, making American films for American audiences. That all changed with Jurassic Park in 1993, the first year in which Hollywood’s foreign earnings out-paced it’s domestic ones — a historic tip of the see-saw. Executives’ ears pricked up: the new wild west was overseas. Since then, it’s been a story of rapid, exponential growth: foreign revenues counted for 64% percent of the total in 2009, 66% in 2010, 69% in 2011 — pushed up there by Avatar, tellingly a remake of Dances with Wolves, in space — and now rests at a staggering 70%, an industry-reconfiguring statistic. In a recent piece for the New York Times, Michael Cieply observed:— “Last year Hollywood’s top 20 domestic box office performers included just two movies — “The Help” and “Bridesmaids” — with realistic stories about American life, contemporary or otherwise, according to The rest took place in a fantasy world, like “Thor,” or abroad, like “The Hangover Part II” and “Fast Five.” In 1992, by contrast, 15 of the 20 best-selling American films were rooted in realistic, if sometimes twisted, American experiences. Those included “Sister Act,” “Lethal Weapon 3,” “A League of Their Own,” “Unforgiven” and “Boomerang,” all of which were released from May to August of that year.” In other words: Forget Stage Coach. It’s when Sister Act disappears that we need to be worried.  
 The ironies here are legion. There were the French in 1993, up in arms about Jurassic Park, with Gerard Depardieu claiming “the movie industry in the United States is like a war machine”, casting Spielberg’s film as a Trojan Horse filled with Hollywood infantrymen, all bearing check books and smiles, eager to infiltrate heads of the little lycée children. Well, it was a Trojan horse, but it wasn’t bearing down on Paris, but Los Angeles. The film industry under threat was not France’s but America’s. Instead of French waving baguettes at Jurassic Park, Americans should this year be protesting foreign audiences for turning BattleShip into a hit. The film was a bomb at the North American box office when it was released earlier this year —a "two-hour infomercial that should do wonders for naval recruiting if not civilian entertainment” said Kenneth Turan of the LA Times — but not overseas it wasn’t, raking in $236 million, which meant Hasbro got stung, but not nearly as much as it needed to get stung in to stop more Battleships coming down the pike. The only ones interested in seeing Americans play the role of jingoistic, militaristic roid-heads, it seems, are non-Americans. The right-wingers turned out to be right, after a fashion: no longer the indigenous film industry of North America, Hollywood is now the world’s jukebox, pumping out what Michael Eisner once called “planetized entertainement.” It’s one reason Oscars have turned into such a mad scramble of late, even fishing overseas for quality crowd-pleasers — The Artist, The King’s Speech, Slumdog Millionaire — while reserving a spot on the nominations for something flinty and home-spun from the indie-world: two year’s ago it was Winter’s Bone, which plunged audiences into the meth labs of the Ozarks. 
This year it is most likely to be Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, which takes us deep into the swamplands of Lousiana. Together they almost amount to a new genre: the American Exotic, mixing myth and magic realism to trawl the furthermost reaches of the American disaster-zone for wide-eyed urban audiences, the same way they used to trawl the Third World. Even the genre is telling: magic realism used to be the genre of South America, not the North, the way storytellers make sense of the everyday absurdities and violent disparities of the developing world. That the genre has found any purchase on the Northern American continent is a subtle but damning indictment, both of how broken-down America has gotten around its edges, but also of his just how foreign the country now seems, even to Americans. It’s a whole other world out there. Somebody really out to make a movie about it.


  1. Two points. You could not really have forgotten about Paul Thomas Anderson when you wrote this, could you? Hmmm. Beyond that, you're working awfully hard to turn Alexander Payne into a problem U.S. film has to solve. He's just not. The Coens are engaging with the U.S. landscape but they're emotionally barren (i.e. sarcastic, snide, ironic, jokey) next to someone like Payne IMO. And Payne *is* engaging with American themes -- indeed, *contemporary* American themes! He's a lot closer to ... Klute than the Coens, isn't he? Fincher is working in the same popular genres as, say, Hawks, as he's popular too. Isn't a brooding sensibility precisely what popular U.S. film is said to lack? What's the problem here?

    Second, the central criticism of America is that we don't know the rest of the world exists. Right? It would be just as easy to recast all of this evidence to support the assertion that America is/has become intensely interested in and connected with the rest of the world -- and that includes the big soulless blockbusters that are supposedly the problem.

    Nobody would argue that Armageddon or Transformers engage the American mythos etc. as incisively as The Godfather or Deliverance or Klute, to take three random examples from a single 14-month period at the height of American filmmaking. But while the 1968-1975 period will never be recovered or topped, it's not that those kinds of movies have disappeared, they're just not #1 at the box office anymore. That is surely a shame, but it's not like Transformers describes American film today any more accurately than Airport did in 1970. There are serious problems with film as a popular medium today, and they're not going to be fixed soon, but it's not all so bad.

    I appreciate the essay because you're definitely onto something, and it's a striking insight. But it's more the case that everything is mixed up, tendencies running in both directions, and the rest of the world is catching up in some ways a la Fareed Zakaria.

    I've done a lot of thinking about the decline of popular movies in the U.S. because I'm working on a blog about precisely that -- I'm reviewing every #1 movie, in order, from 1970 onward. (It's called Box Office Boffo -- do look it up, I'd appreciate your comments -- and your readership via links.) Looking at the whole list of U.S. #1s from 1970 to today, in order, is depressing reading -- I can send you a list. But -- well, the situation is not as bad as the list of #1s itself would lead you to believe. The trouble is that the great American filmmakers are not making it there. That's a shame, but it doesn't mean the great American filmmakers aren't around, they're just ignored by the big machine that cranks out idiotic movies. (And as you say, there's TV.)

  2. You make some great points Martin. Globalism cuts both ways: I have great hopes for The Life of Pi, out later this year, for example. Anderson is a difficult case for me in that I find myself at complete variance with almost everyone else in not particularly liking There Will Be Blood. And my view of Payne is certainly at the harsher end of the spectrum, although I think you're a little harsh on the Coens — at least the more classical Coens of No Country for Old Men and True Grit (both adaptations, it should be noted). Your blog sounds terrific. See you over there.

    1. Thanks Tom, I really appreciate it. I should note that I recently purchased your book Blockbuster to help guide me through the thickets of all those high-grossing movies. Popular movies are an underappreciated subject of contemplation (I'm kind of kidding) and your book seems to be one of the few that is relevant to my Boffo project.

      Re Payne and Coens, I think you're right, but the odd thing is that if anyone is guilty of directorial condescension towards their characters, it's the Coens! Barton Fink, Hi, Norville Barnes, the Dude, Ulysses E. McGill, Larry Gopnik -- nobody, but nobody, has staked more of an impressive career on relentlessly signaling to the audience how superior they are to their characters. So I feel like, you know, give A. Payne a break, he's good and he has more innate empathy than the Coens, even if he is a bit judgy. Plus note that he's from the flyover states, so Payne's pose was probably more of a survival strategy than some coastal thing.

      Ultimately, I think you've got a point on Payne. His least successful movies were About Schmidt and the recent Descendants, both of which were droopy studies of late middle age. It can be a problem. The Coens have the advantage of endless technique and control of tone etc., which means that their high-risk strategy of being so cheeky about their protagonists (IMO) can often pay outsize dividends.

      Tom McCarthy is an interesting case, his movies are excellent and very American, but they are also semi-ignored. But your thesis was much more than discussing these directors. The bit about Sister Act is spot on, and the list of #1s backs it up very much IMO.

    2. Also, I have mixed feelings about PT Anderson too. Boogie Nights is excellent, I disliked Magnolia but formally it's rather good, and Blood is outstanding but has a few major lapses here and there. Ultimately some of these directors/Andersons would benefit from the contract studio system of yore.....

  3. I like the article (really well-written), but the two major filmmakers you overlook are of course PT Anderson and Terrence Malick. I don't think you have to love either of them (though I kind of do) to acknowledge that they're both making big, major films intensely involved with and focused on American history, culture, life, and landscape.

    Also, I've been noticing a recent trend in indie films that seems to be signaling a rise of regional and rural settings on the independent scene. David Gordon Green sort of started it, though, he's left it behind for now, but other quite interesting filmmakers like Kelly Reichardt and Jeff Nichols are now leading the trend. Films I would include in this group are That Evening Sun, Junebug, Get Low, Small Town Murder Songs, Littlerock, Cook County, Putty Hill, General Orders No. 9, and maybe Martha Marcy May Marlene. I'd also probably put Winter's Bone and Beasts of the Southern WIld in there, though you seem to have an aversion to them.

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