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Why Can’t Hollywood Make Classic Movies Anymore?

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Hollywood is in the doldrums this year, because the business hasn’t had a good summer. Movie attendance is down.

What Hollywood should really be in the doldrums about is that they can’t make great movies anymore. Every now and then they make a good movie, but a great movie, forget about it.

For enlightenment, take a look at the American Film Institute’s list of 100 Greatest American Movies of All Time, “as selected by a blue-ribbon panel of leaders from across the film community.”

In the 50s, they find 20 movies to call great. From the 60s, they find 18, and from the 70s, another 18.

When it comes to the 80s, something weird happens. They find only six movies they can call great. Yep, the whole decade of the 80s produced only six great movies, according to Hollywood’s own. From the 90s they find eight. They didn’t get to the 2000s, but can you think of one great recent movie? I can’t. Hey, if OK movies like Spiderman 2, Batman Begins and Sideways are our ideas of great movies, then we might as well outsource our movies to India along with our other software. So the score for our decade so far is zero.

What happened?

When movie people think about it, they usually give two reasons, even though there are more and better ones:

1. The death of the studio system.
Yes, the old studio system, when directors, actors and writers worked under contract, turned out more classic movies than today’s system. You had a few studio bosses who tried to hire the best (heck, they tried Faulkner, Scott Fitzgerald, and Raymond Chandler), and it worked. Because they were so successful, and only accountable to themselves, these bosses also spent money on making what they called “prestige” movies, films they could be proud of — which often turned out to be great movies.

2. The discovery of the expensive summer blockbuster.
Yes, Jaws and Star Wars: most people in the movie business are trying to make another one of those, so they can get scandalously rich. These movies prevent Hollywood from making great movies not just because they’re expensive, so a lot of money gets sucked away from other movies. More importantly, they waste a lot of talent and time that could’ve been applied to more worthwhile efforts. If you’re spending your time doing the tenth rewrite of Jaws III, you’re not doing anything worthwhile.

Here are some other reasons:

1. The rise of costs in the new studio system.
Francis Ford Coppola remembers when a studio was run by ten people. Now it takes hundreds, with all their salaries. In the 70s and 80s, the studios left over from the great studio days were bought by business conglomerates. Business people took over. Literally, in sheer numbers. More people work in movie studios with high salaries than are actually out there making movies. The ratio of studio people versus people actually working on a set is way out of whack. In the studio days, everyone worked on the set. Now the people working on the set have to pay the salaries of the business people working off the set. Hence, the business people need those summer blockbusters to keep them and their big salaries afloat.

2. The discovery of the youth audience.
Or more particularly, the teenage boy audience. This is the worst excess of demographic movie-making, because of an insidious thing: older people are making movies for younger people. So you get patronizing movie-making that panders. Like, duh, dumb action movies and gross-out comedies. For every half-good action movie like Lethal Weapon, or genuinely funny gross-out comedy like There Something About Mary, there are god knows how many pieces of crap turned out by older people trying to suck up to younger people.

3. The B picture has become the A picture.
In the old studio system, they thought of genre quickies as B-pictures. Now these genre pictures have become our A pictures, with vast amounts of talent, time and money wasted on them. Think of all the cartoon character movies: Superman, Batman, X-men, Daredevil, Catwoman, etc.

4. The discovery of the franchise picture.
Blame James Bond for this. Also, Rocky. Who would’ve thought, Rocky V1? Talent and time that could be spent on making great movies get spent on churning out the next franchise.

5. The discovery of the global audience.
Because you’re making a movie for a world audience, all cultural subtleties go out the window. You get pieces of mindless crap like Titanic or Gladiator. It’s funny, the Italians used to gleefully turn out dumb sandal epics with Steve Reeves as Hercules, knowing they were making dumb movies. Now Hollywood makes them instead, and they take them seriously. A film-maker like Oliver Stone gets suckered into making a piece of crap like Alexander the Great, and then spends even more of his precious time trying to regain his reputation by working up a director’s cut for DVD, instead of trying to come up with the next Platoon.

6. The rise of quality television.
Since Hill Street Blues, creative people have seen that they can do good work on TV. Here the writer rules, the actual originator of the work. (God knows who rules in Hollywood, maybe the agent.) Having the artist in control makes a difference. It’s almost a perfect system, because the artist has only two contraints — if the series doesn’t get an audience, it gets cancelled, and the budgets are realistic, so they don’t encourage indulgence on the part of the creator or fear on the part of the investor. For TV they shoot in a day what it takes Hollywood a week to shoot. A personal vision can reach the screen more or less intact. So why should a good writer go to Hollywood? These days, original HBO programming beats Hollywood cold. They’ve got more interesting characters and better stories, like The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, etc.

7. The rise of the film school.
Unfortunately, these sinecures for failed movie-people attract and mold young people who go to film school because they want to do well in Hollywood, not because they want to make great movies. As such, these schools are the antithesis of art schools, where they actually try to nurture great artists.

8. The lack of a social conscience.
“If you want to send a message, use Western Union,” said Sam Goldwyn. But the fact is, a lot of message movies got made under the studio system. Now they don’t. The Stanley Kramers don’t exist anymore.

9. The death of wit.
There hasnt been a Preston Sturges or a Billy Wilder for a long time. Neil Simon tried. Nora Ephron tries. But they just ain’t Billy Wilder. These days, a Billy Wilder has to write novels to get their vision out.

10. The rise of the movie critic as Hollywood shill.
You don’t get a Pauline Kael anymore. Even a magazine as up-market as the New Yorker covers shitty movies as a rule, and gives them credibility. There are no movie critics holding Hollywood’s feet to the fire anymore. Movie critics have become what political pundits are: mouthpieces for the powers-that-be. They seem to be more interested in the business of movies than its possible art. This comment from Roger Ebert is rather sad:

The history of “Last Tango in Paris” (1972) has and always will be dominated by Pauline Kael. “The movie breakthrough has finally come,” she wrote, in what may be the most famous movie review ever published. “Bertolucci and Brando have altered the face of an art form.” She said the film’s premiere was an event comparable to the night in 1913 when Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” was first performed and ushered in modern music. As it has turned out, “Last Tango” was not a breakthrough but more of an elegy for the kind of film she championed. In the years since, mass Hollywood entertainments have all but crushed art films, which were much more successful then than now. Although pornography documents the impersonal mechanics of sex, few serious films challenge actors to explore its human dimensions; isn’t it remarkable that no film since 1972 has been more sexually intimate, revealing, honest and transgressive than “Last Tango”?

11. The death of the French New Wave.
There used to be a time when foreign movies jolted American movie-makers into upping their aim. Now too many film countries have become Hollywoodized themselves. There is what critic James Quandt has called the New French Extremity, but it hasn’t had an impact yet — films like Twenty-Nine Palms (Dumont), Anatomy of Hell (Breillat), Irreversible (Noé). James Quandt wrote about these films in Artforum:

“Bava as much as Bataille, Salo no less than Sade seem the determinants of a cinema suddenly determined to break every taboo, to wade in rivers of viscera and spumes of sperm, to fill each frame with flesh, nubile or gnarled, and subject it to all manner of penetration, mutilation, and defilement. Images and subjects once the provenance of splatter films, exploitation flicks, and porn — gang rapes, bashings and slashings and blindings, hard-ons and vulvas, cannibalism, sadomasochism and incest, fucking and fisting, sluices of cum and gore — proliferate in the high-art environs of a national cinema whose provocations have historically been formal, political, or philosophical (Godard, Clouzot, Debord) or, at their most immoderate (Franju, Bunuel, Walerian Borowczyk, Andrzej Zulawski), at least assimilable as emanations of an artistic movement (Surrealism mostly).”

I’d call Miike’s Audition an extremity, too, and Park’s Sympathy for Mr Vengeance. Audition and Irréversible are pretty damn extreme but exciting — small-scale chamberpiece spectacular shock psycho action adventures. Very worth renting, but steel yourself.

12. The success of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.
They changed our idea of what a great movie is. A great movie isn’t about great characters and a great story anymore: it’s about great special effects. It’s astonishing that the creator of American Graffiti and Star Wars could’ve produced Revenge of the Sith, a relentless barrage of special effects with characters so wooden, they’re an insult to trees, and a story so lame, it got in on the disabilities ramp. George Lucas says he wants to make interesting movies, but never has. At least Steven Spielberg tries, even if it’s embarrassing to watch. Let’s face it, Spielberg constructs kitsch-driven action-spectaculars of stupefying energy. But his ‘serious’ films (The Color Purple, Saving Private Ryan) only work half-way. They let the kitsch come at us unmediated, instead of being laced with irony and gusto, like in his fun movies. Take Schindler’s List. Some of the violence is properly upsetting, but it’s mostly kitsch through and through. I once had a huge argument with a friend of mine about the movie. His point was that Spielberg at least showed a lot of people that there had been such a thing as the Holocaust. I was a snobbish aesthete, my friend said. I know I am, but still, it sucked. Spielberg’s movies won’t be looked at in fifty years, while Scorcese’s Raging Bull will. As will The Godfather. Spielberg is a pop moviemaker, not an artist. I find his pop movies vastly superior to his arty efforts. Close Encounters was bloody good. Spare us your “art”, Steven. It’s a pity that Spielberg and Lucas have become the role models for young American film-makers. Here’s a different view, that doesn’t blame Spielberg and Lucas:

With War Of the Worlds opening next week, it feels like an odd time for me to be wondering whether Spielberg and Lucas killed the movies. During the past few months, which have been unusually bleak for movie lovers (has anything flat-out wonderful opened since last year? Not that I can recall), I’ve been hoping against hope that Spielberg would return to form—that he’d become Steven Spielberg again rather than the impostor who used his name on The Terminal—and that he would save the movies, or at least give us the sort of huge, exuberant, and shrewdly conceived blockbuster that used to be a Hollywood staple every summer. Certainly Spielberg and Lucas changed the movies fundamentally, in some ways for the worse. But I’m with you on Jaws—if only we could see new films of such flair and power today—and I was even more excited than you were about the first two Star Wars films.

My first exposure to Star Wars was startling. It was in 1975 in California, at the Avco Theater in Westwood, then a state-of-the-art fourplex. I was married at the time to Piper Laurie, and we were there for a sneak preview of Carrie. The preview went extremely well, but then a trailer came on the screen for a movie no one had heard of, and I thought that I would go crazy with delight. An ape at the controls of a space ship? A space ship the size of Rhode Island? The memory of that stunning newness is still with me, and I cherish it.

I also cherish my encounter with another movie I knew nothing about at the time, except that Steven Spielberg had directed it. My daughter was 10 years old when I took her to a screening of E.T. at the Motion Picture Academy. She kept her (strong) emotions to herself, but I completely lost it when the kids on their bicycles soared into the sky … The theme here, I think, is newness, and surprise, and surprisability, qualities currently in short supply in many films, and in the people who see them.

… both directors seem to have lost their way in recent years as innovating entertainers. It’s the consequence of the conglomerates starting to lose their audience by beating the Spielberg-Lucas formulas—along with most others—into the ground. The exception I referred to earlier is, of course, Pixar, a not-quite-studio, safely based near San Francisco, hundreds of miles from Hollywood, that has turned out six brilliant, and brilliantly successful, films in a row. Their winning streak will end some day—how could it not—but in the meanwhile Pixar’s prodigious outpourings provide proof that even in these tumultuous times, when movies are losing traction to video games, strong entertainment values still bring customers into the tent … The same values, that is to say, that Spielberg and Lucas pioneered and refined.
Joe Morgenstern.

13. Hollywood’s commercial pressures turn great moviemakers into crap moviemakers.

This often goes without saying, but here is an interesting dissent, about Francis Ford Coppola. Critic David Plotz claims that Hollywood had nothing to do with Coppola turning into a crap movie-maker:

Every couple of years, Francis Ford Coppola’s devoted fans–and such people still exist–do something heartbreaking: They see his new film. This month has brought the latest Coppola punishment, The Rainmaker.

Critics are greeting Coppola’s film–the usual Grisham tale of an idealistic young lawyer slingshotting a Goliath–with a desperate generosity. One well-meaning critic called it the best Grisham movie since The Firm. This is sad: Francis Ford Coppola, the director of The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, The Conversation, Rumble Fish, and Apocalypse Now and the winner of five Academy Awards, is being praised for making the second-best John Grisham movie. What’s even sadder: The Rainmaker is actually much better than most of Coppola’s recent work. His last dozen films have ranged from bombastic dreck (Bram Stoker’s Dracula, The Godfather Part III, The Cotton Club) to infantile dreck (Jack, Captain Eo) to biographical dreck (Tucker: The Man and His Dream) to pretentious dreck (One From the Heart, New York Stories).

… This vision of Coppola as romantic genius makes it very easy to rationalize his failures as poor accountancy. “His career can be summed up as the case of a man who needed a financial manager,” says Roger Ebert. Coppola spent much of the ’80s in bankruptcy, driven there by the failure of One From the Heart and his studio’s collapse. So of course he became a hired gun: He needed to pay his debts.

… But Coppola may be misjudging the reason why he’s made so many bad movies. He thinks that selling out–making movies for financial rather than artistic reasons–has put a crimp in his style. But he has always been a sellout. Or, to put it more kindly, the quality of his movies has never depended on whether the movies were sellouts or not. Some of Coppola’s “personal” movies are magnificent (The Conversation and, arguably, Apocalypse Now). But others are dreadful (One From the Heart, Tucker). Some of Coppola’s sellout movies are dreadful (The Cotton Club, Jack …). But Coppola’s two greatest movies, the Godfathers, were studio-funded, studio-managed projects. The Godfather, in fact, was the quintessential sellout: Paramount picked Coppola to direct the movie because he would work for cheap. Why would he work for cheap? Because he had just bankrupted himself making a disastrous independent movie called The Rain People.

This may be the heart of Coppola’s dilemma. He views his life as a story of unfulfilled promise, the tale of an artist constrained by commerce. It isn’t. Coppola’s life is the story of fulfilled promise. He made two of the greatest, if not the two greatest, movies in American history … It is Coppola’s tragedy that he believes his best work is always ahead of him, yet keeps on making Rainmakers.
David Plotz.

Can Hollywood ever make great movies again? There are four bright spots for a modicum of hope:

1. Harvey Weinstein.
Not many people in the movie business actually love good movies the way Harvey does. His example has changed a few things. All the big studios now have smaller Miramax-copy off-shoots like Sony Classics, where there’s room for some experimentation and risk-taking, because the budgets aren’t so large. At least people who love good movies have places to go and work now, where the so-called “indie” film is nurtured. Unfortunately “indie” too often means Hollywood calling card, instead of a unique vision, like Todd Solonz or Hal Hartley has. They might not be great moviemakers yet, but at least they have their personal visions. The indie film that’s more than a Hollywood calling card has actually become a genre. One might call it the New Quirkiness — films like Happiness (Solondz), Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola), and American Splendor. The smaller studio off-shoot system has produced only two great movies so far, Pulp Fiction and The English Patient, but let’s hope.

2. Charlie Kaufman.
He’s the only true auteur working in Hollywood today, but at least he exists, and others may be inspired by his example. As he gets older, the writer of Being John Malkevich may surprise us even more than he has so far.

3. HBO.
The people at HBO are truly a godsend. Like any novelist, I was wondering what my latest novel would look like as a movie. It’s a story set in the near future, in which America has become a puritan theocracy (a Pat Robertson paradise). And then I thought, hell no, Hollywood would screw it up; HBO should do it as a series. When a creative person can’t trust Hollywood anymore, and would rather go with HBO, you know that Hollywood is in trouble.

4. Mel Gibson.
I think the rise of the actor/director augurs well for the business. They have the clout to do what they want. Mel has made two very good movies: Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ. Let me end this essay by putting in a word for The Passion of the Christ. I think it’s a great movie, probably a classic. Listen, before I duck the deluge of rotten tomatoes, let me point out that I’m not an American or a Christian, so I think I can state my case objectively — unlike you, dear reader. Let’s face it, it’s impossible for anyone in America to see or judge this movie objectively. As a non-American non-Christian, I’ll tell you how this movie strikes me. It comes off exactly like an East-European art-house movie. EXACTLY. Why? It has a relentless vision. That’s what Hollywood lacks. You need a Stanley Kubrick, or a Martin Scorcese before he started making crap. Someone with a relentless vision: that’s what makes a great movie. Yet Hollywood encourages visionless technicians like Michael Bay by the dozen, instead of Stanley Kubricks. As long as Hollywood doesn’t foster original talent — and when last did they? — they don’t stand a chance of making classic movies again.

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About Adam Ash

  • You make SO many great points Adam. But the whole thing can be summed up in what the character Norma Desmond says in the film SUNSET BOULEVARD:

    “I AM big; it’s the pictures that got small.”

  • Victor, you’re absolutely right.
    And that line was written by one of my heroes, Billy Wilder, who made a number of classic movies in the days when Hollywood actually did that.

  • There’s also the terrible Hollywood trend to make movies based on television series. High ticket prices, home theater systems, and DVD’s loaded with extras also contribute to the doldrums. All of your reasons for the lack of quality films is right on.

  • “Great movies” have a lot to do with perspective.

    Generally, the future determines whether a movie is great, and a lot of the movies we generally recognize as great today got reviews in their day ranging from tepid to terrible. Time magazine hated Casablanca, for example, and everyone hated Vertigo. And, of course, sometimes movies are said to be great that simply are not.

    Look up the old reviews of two of the greatest film critics of the 20th Century, James Agee and Pauline Kael; they looked at a lot of what people call great today and weren’t that impressed. Sometimes, such as with Kael’s review of Terrence Malick’s Badlands, this serves as a corrective to movies that have been over-rated through the years. At other times, she and Agee just seem blind or blockheaded in their likes and dislikes. They didn’t approach these movies as classics. They saw them as the latest releases.

    That’s why I think it may be short-sighted to say that only a handful of great movies were made in the 1980s, because opinions, “blue-ribbon” or not, change like the weather. The same could be said of books or TV as well — you can, probably, find more examples of excellence from the 1960s and 1970s than from later years, but people’s idea of what’s lasting or what has classic status has a lot to do with their biases, prejudices, and sentimental yearning either for the times they grew up in or the decades before.

    No one will ever argue that the 1980s marked a time of creative ferment, but there were certainly more than six great films made. (Raging Bull, Blue Velvet, Tootsie, The Hit, Hannah and Her Sisters, Down by Law, House of Games, My Dinner with Andre, Berlin Alexanderplatz, Shoah and Hotel Terminus all come to mind.)

    I can’t think of a comedy in the past ten years that gave me more pleasure than Alexander Payne’s Sideways. Whether I’d feel the same way if I saw it again, I dunno. But Payne’s Election certainly holds up, and I don’t think it is all that much of a stretch to compare him to the best of Wilder or Sturges.

    You make a lot of interesting points, more than I have time to address, but let me point out one major flaw: Faulkner and Fitzgerald are very, very poor specimens of how the studio system brought in good writers. Both novelists had notoriously unhappy experiences in Hollywood and neither ever much improved anything they lent their hands to. The Big Sleep is great because it so closely follows Chandler’s book, and because of Hawks and Bogart and Bacall — not Faulkner. Much of the same can be said of To Have and Have Not, although that isn’t all that good of a movie. Faulkner spent most of his time in Hollywood either drunk or in dry-out clinics. Fitzgerald had even less of a record, though not for lack of trying.

  • I must disagree with your thing on Mel Gibson. Braveheart is overrated, and Passion of the Christ told the wrong message about Jesus. Actor/directors can be a good thing, as long as there are more clint eastwoods than mel gibsons.

  • Wonderful to read. You put my suspicions in to words. I now have this post selected as a “favorite” on my browser.

  • This was well-written, but I strongly object to two points in your otherwise excellent piece.

    Television, with a few notable shows as exceptions, has gotten just as bad or worse than cinema.

    Mel Gibson is not a hope for the future of cinema as art — he’s classic big-studio bombast and stupidity whom big studios decided to stop financing because of his bizarre politics and religious convictions. He’s become his own big studio now, but he’s no artist and what social consciousness he does have is reactionary and dangerous.

    There are bright directors and writers working for major studios today and making good, commercially viable film art, but who probably won’t regularly enjoy huge box office success: Wes Anderson, PT Anderson, writer Charlie Kaufman (whom you mention), David Fincher, David O. Russell, Alexander Payne, Sofia Coppola, Todd Solondz, Terry Zwigoff, and Judd Apatow.

    And there are the established acclaimed directors who continue to produce quality work like the Coen brothers, Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez (in his movies for grown-ups), Scorsese, and Lynch.

    That is all.