Stranger Than Paradise: Maverick Film-Makers in Recent American Cinema, by Geoff Andrew, New York: Limelight Editions, $38.00, 374 pages
I once asked a friend if he could see only "art" films or "Hollywood" films for the rest of his life, which would he choose? Being college educated (an English major, to be precise), he immediately opted for the former. I reminded him that we'd seen many action films together, but I couldn't recall his attending any documentaries or Bergman festivals. Rather than argue the point, he asked me the same question back. I suddenly realized it wasn't an easy question. Big Hollywood films may often be slick and empty, but they can also be a lot of fun. And art films can be stimulating, but they're often obscure in both achievement and purpose. I had to admit that I didn't really know the answer to my own question.
One man who can clearly answer the question is Geoff Andrew, a leading British film critic. Stranger Than Paradise is a tribute to those he considers "maverick American film-makers." Such "independent-spirited auteurs," he writes in the introduction, are the reason he thinks there's "still…hope for the American cinema." Though the claim is somewhat hyperbolic, it's still a legitimate project–critics should seek out the best. However, it does seem a modern prejudice that the search starts at the fringes rather than the mainstream. After all, there's good and bad no matter where you look. It's the percentages that count.
Andrew sets out to illustrate his thesis through in-depth critical analysis of a number of favorite "maverick" directors. It's not clear that he proves his larger point that such mavericks are saving American cinema. But he certainly makes a good case that the directors he discusses–the Coen Brothers, Hal Hartley, Todd Haynes, Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee, David Lynch, John Sayles, Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino, and Wayne Wang–have, in fact, created some of the most adventurous, exciting, and enjoyable cinematic works of the past two decades.
Their films are, on average, superior to standard Hollywood fare. Moreover, Andrew is right that they generally did it with a single-minded (or for the Coen Brothers, double-minded) vision not overly concerned with commercial considerations. Ultimately, such considerations are what set apart their films from mainstream projects. Due to huge expenses, even top Hollywood directors can't make any story however they please. In contrast, independent films are so relatively cheap that they can feature little known actors and unorthodox subjects.
Andrew is also an astute critic, making many good points along the way. For instance, he notes that John Sayles (Return of The Secaucus Seven, Baby It's You, The Secret Of Roan Inish, Lone Star), often accused of "merely" being a good screenwriter, is seriously underappreciated as a director. He makes a compelling case that David Lynch's award-winning Wild At Heart (1990) repeats old aesthetic tricks without the original feeling or content, while the generally dismissed Lost Highway (1997) was his most imaginative film since Blue Velvet (1986). His chapter on Ethan and Joel Coen (Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Barton Fink, Fargo) demonstrates that, even though their favorite form seems to be the flashy genre pastiche, their seemingly disparate films have repetitions and symmetries that make each work a variation on a theme.
Stranger Than Paradise is not without flaws. Andrew is a bit too impressed by Todd Haynes, whose recent work, such as Safe (1995) and Velvet Goldmine (1998), has failed, for me, to live up to the promise of Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987), a 43-minute film done mostly with dolls and miniature sets. And he's a bit too dismissive of Quentin Tarantino's early, pyrotechnic writing in Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994), preferring what he considers a more mature style evinced by Jackie Brown (1997). Also troublesome are his plot descriptions, which, while necessary, tend to be long-winded.
A more substantial weakness–though no fault of Andrew's–is that the book was published first in Britain and only later in the United States, so some of the chapters are already dated. For instance, he ends his section on Steven Soderbergh worried that the director's latest work (1997's Schizopolis) is so far from the mainstream that he may "disappear…from film-making altogether." Soderbergh has since worked with the biggest stars (George Clooney, Julia Roberts) and the biggest budgets of his career. And it would be interesting to know what Andrew makes of such unconventionally conventional fare as David Lynch's latest, The Straight Story. The movie, a G-rated dramatization of 73- year-old Alvin Straight's trip from Iowa to Wisconsin via riding lawn mower to see his ill, estranged brother, is a significant shift for the director of Eraserhead.
Andrew makes a solid case that mod-ern American independent filmmakers are creating vibrant works. But is it true that they are the lifeblood of American cinema? This notion is based on the mostly unexamined belief, popular among many critics, that Hollywood made challenging films in the late 1960s and '70s, until it discovered blockbusters such as Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977). Since then, goes this story, Hollywood has churned out mostly mindless, shallow movies in pursuit of bigger and bigger revenue streams.
Though this argument is oversimplified, there is something to it. While Hollywood has always produced its share of shallow entertainment, in the late '60s and early '70s major studio films probably were more ambitious and experimental than usual. There are a number of reasons usually given for this: Hollywood was losing its older audience and was unsure how to capture the new, baby boomer crowd; since World War II, foreign art films and a growing American underground movement had been influencing a new generation of filmmakers; there was a significant lessening of film censorship and loosening of social mores, allowing for exploration of new themes in more explicit ways; and an America disenchanted due to Vietnam and Watergate was ready for more serious fare (this last explanation seems less convincing than the others).
Why did that apparent golden age slip away? Whatever the general level of artistic accomplishment, the late '60s and early '70s were not a great time for industry profits. So Hollywood changed directions in its never-ending search for a crowd-pleasing, profit-maximizing formula. For all sorts of reasons–blockbuster films tend to require blockbuster budgets, and star salaries rose quickly as superagents demanded and got ever more, while supporting cast members' salaries rose along with them–big studio productions began to cost significantly more. Because of this, studios took fewer chances artistically and became more formulaic. Linear plots, simplistic heroes and villains, happy endings, and the like may not be aesthetically challenging, but there is a proven, pretty predictable demand for such things. And with a large and growing overseas market, visuals have become more important than words, leading to a greater reliance on special effects and spectacle. The result, goes the standard critical view, is today's parade of special-effects-laden mega-releases that are big on stars and explosions and small on substance and artistry.
So runs the standard argument to explain how Hollywood fell from grace. As Andrew notes, too often mainstream Hollywood movies are "simply `product'–bland, gimmicky, mindless `events' designed, through high profile marketing, to make a fast buck" resulting in "imaginatively moribund output." But it's not as if Hollywood has abdicated its artistic duties. Indeed, a better way to look at the rise of the independent films in the past few decades is to recognize that Hollywood has farmed out the smaller, more personal movies. Such films are almost certainly being made at as high a rate as they were 25 years ago, maybe higher–it's just that the studios aren't as directly involved (not a bad thing, incidentally, for auteurs seeking more creative freedom). Instead, the films come from a number of smaller releasing companies (e.g., USA Films, Strand, Fine Line, Artisan) or are distributed by divisions of major studios dedicated to "art films" (e.g., Sony Classics, Paramount Classics, Fox Searchlight, and Disney-owned Miramax). Interestingly, these "smaller" films aren't necessarily small–Miramax productions such as The English Patient or Shakespeare in Love (both Oscar winners) cost in the neighborhood of $30 million. Moreover, the distinction between the major studios and others has broken down somewhat. So much so, in fact, that even Andrew has to admit many of the "mavericks" he discusses–the Coen brothers, Spike Lee, David Lynch, Steven Soderbergh–have worked with big studios and big money.
But even if there is more indie fare out there, it's not as if the Hollywood heavies always play it safe, either. As I write this, big-studio films such as American Beauty, Fight Club, and Three Kings are in wide release. All take real risks in form and content. (Whether they succeed fully is, of course, another question altogether.) The sort of comparison Andrew implies throughout his book between the "typical" major-studio production and the "typical" indie offering is almost inevitably skewed by grossly uneven distribution patterns. The major studios put out about 100 to 200 wide-release films a year. That compares to the thousands upon thousands of independent films that get made annually, only a small percentage of which get a theatrical–or even a video–release. If you could see only the two or three best Hollywood films a year, you might get a different view of the average big-studio offering.
In any case, it's still an open question whether–or precisely in what way–"art" films are better than broad-based entertainment. Just because something's a huge hit doesn't mean it's good, but plenty of people still seem to fall for the opposite fallacy–that anything the mob likes must be bad. Historically, from Sophocles to Shakespeare to Shaw, many of the "greatest" artists were also popular artists. Steven Spielberg and James Cameron may work with big budgets and please an enormous demographic, but that doesn't mean they've sold out. And why exactly should someone be embarrassed for liking Die Hard or Aladdin or Men in Black as much as or more than contemporaneous "serious" films? Indeed, it sometimes seems as if makers of art films treat the difficulty they cause their audience as the sine qua non of artistic achievement. To quote Preston Sturges from Sullivan's Travels: "There's nothing like a deep-dish movie to drive you out in the open."
I was optimistic that, by the time I finished this review, I'd be able to answer definitively the question I asked in the first paragraph. But I guess I don't have an answer. Except to say there's nothing wrong about going out to see Gods and Monsters one day and There's Something About Mary the next, and liking them both equally. (Actually, I think I preferredMary.) Unlike Geoff Andrew, I can't pick sides in the war of the Independents vs. Hollywood. But perhaps the larger point is that, luckily, I don't have to.