Sunday Night Journal — December 14, 2008
I said a few days ago that I would try to articulate the reasons why there aren’t very many Hollywood movies that I really care about. I don’t think I can construct an intellectually coherent argument based on the specifics of film-making, because I don’t know much about it, and I have a limited store of examples ready to hand, so all I can really do is describe what works for me and what doesn’t. In the interests of simplicity I’m not going to precede everything I say with “in my opinion,” but you can assume it as a qualification to any dogmatic-sounding pronouncement.
By “Hollywood” I suppose I mean the mainstream film industry. I don’t know any more about it as an industry than I do about the process of film-making, so let’s just say I mean the usual stuff that’s shown in the average multiplex across the U.S.A., and I suppose probably in Europe, too. And I don’t mean just the movies of our own time but of the American film industry for most of its lifetime.
As I thought about this question in odd moments over the past few days, certain words kept occurring to me: big; loud; crude; cartoonish. Followed by unconvincing; unbelievable; shallow; heavy-handed; sensationalistic. The one that turns up most often is crude—not crude in the sense of being vulgar, but in the sense of being clumsy. Hollywood movies are like comic books to me. I can get very caught up in them while I’m watching them, but the impression usually dissipates quickly and leaves no lasting impression. They rarely touch anything very deep in me. They often leave me impressed with their means but indifferent to their ends.
All this seems obviously applicable to the sort of movie that doesn’t really purport to be anything more than entertainment: Spiderman, for instance, which I like, or the original Star Wars, which I love. But for me it’s also mostly true for the more serious ones. In fact, I tend to prefer the merely entertaining, because Hollywood’s ability to mount an impressive spectacle is unrivaled, but when it tries to get serious it usually fails, because it just doesn’t have a subtle enough touch. Its efforts to be deep and serious are also frequently undermined because it is tainted, or perhaps I should say poisoned, by the same cultural illness that has weakened the other arts: a simple-minded political and social leftism, a quasi-religious devotion to the sexual revolution, a tendency to take mindlessness and violence as proof of authenticity, etc. But even without those I don’t think Hollywood would do much better. If I imagine it dominated by right-wing jingoists I don’t imagine myself liking its products any better.
Thanks to Netflix, I’ve probably watched more movies in the past two years than I had in the previous ten. Almost every one that really moved me, or that at least interested me so much that I wanted to watch it again, was either a foreign and very un-Hollywood-ish film like Bergman’s Winter Light or a low-budget American one like Napoleon Dynamite (which I think I’ve seen three times, and could watch with pleasure right now).
Rarely do I encounter in Hollywood movies people or situations that seem real; all seems exaggerated and superficial. I know that a lot of the actors in Hollywood movies are very skilled, and yet they generally seem to me to be striking a series of attitudes and poses. I conjecture, then, that the directors want it this way. The apparent need for simple conflict and simple action drives out subtlety and ambiguity and keeps one’s attention on the surface. There’s a lot of excitement, but not much sense of seeing into the real depth of the human situation.
I’ll let my reaction to The Children of Men serve as one instance of the pattern. (SPOILERS follow.)
It’s a story set in a dystopian near-future in which the human race has suddenly become physically unable to reproduce. (It’s “based” on the P.D. James novel, but it really only uses the one idea.) A lot of people whose judgment I respect found it very moving and profound. But for me it was just an action movie—busy, fast, loud, and violent—and pretty good on those terms; I didn’t dislike it, but it failed to move me.
I never felt that the film showed any real sense of what the end of fertility meant; the troubles of the society it depicted seemed to be based more on current politics than on the infertility plague. I never had a strong sense of the inner lives and motivations of the characters. I never felt any sense of engagement with the obvious questions about the significance of human life raised by the central plot device. The miracle pregnancy seemed only a MacGuffin justifying chases and gun battles. Within ten minutes of the end of the movie, I had stopped thinking about it; a few weeks later the only scenes that remained very strongly with me were the poignant and gentle moments between the Michael Caine character and his catatonic wife.
And that pretty much sums up my view of Hollywood: even the movies that are not action movies seem to be a product of the same sensibility. American Beauty comes to mind. Its treatment of suburban-consumerist malaise seemed superficial and clumsy, reaching strenuously for obvious conclusions and crude shocks. As with Children, little of it remained with me for very long; almost the only thing I remember now is the long shot of some lightweight bit of debris—a plastic bag?—being floated about by a breeze.
It occurs to me that my complaint could be summed up in one word: sentimentality. Sentimentality in art is sometimes defined as the effort to extort rather than earn emotion. Present-day Hollywood has changed dramatically since the late ‘60s, and seems to pride itself on its toughness and honesty. But I don’t know that there’s been a fundamental aesthetic change; sentimentality, in the broadest sense, seems a constant.
I’m quite sure I’m being unfair here to some movies I haven’t seen, but these are some of the reasons why I haven’t seen them. And while writing this I remembered an exception: Tender Mercies.
Coincidentally, just as I was about to post this, Francesca Murphy, commenting in another thread, seems to anticipate and respond to me:
Film is a medium both crude and brilliant. One has got a few seconds to communicate to the thickest dolt a sense of pathos, or of expectation. All the tracking signals in film have to be larger than life, because it's art for everyman.
I think this is true of what I’m calling Hollywood films, and perhaps it has to be this way: expensive films require large audiences. I don’t think it has to be true of film in general as an art form. But Bergman isn’t art for everyman.
Labels: Movies, Sunday Night Journal, Sunday Night Journal 2008