Wallace Beery. Wrestling. What do you need, a road map?

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"If France makes movies for the French, and America makes movies for the world, who's left to make movies for America?" asks David Kipen, the very sharp literary editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, in a recent article called "Offshoring the Audience" for The Atlantic. In a variation on what Tyler Cowen calls the "tragedy of cultural loss," Kipen sees the Global Movie trend as, ironically, victimizing Americans: "The movie business is booming abroad precisely because Hollywood is making pictures for the world market —at the expense of customers in America, where, not surprisingly, business is tanking."

While I have several disagreements with the premise, it's an intricate argument, and includes a reappraisal of the myth of the Seventies Golden Age with its enshrinement of the Hot Directors:

One could, however, imagine a very different book about 1970s filmmaking that profiled none of these men. Instead it would devote a chapter apiece to the less erratic, more thematically unified work of each of the men and women who merely wrote all those illustrious directors' movies for them. Rather than draw tortured auteurist parallels between The French Connection and The Exorcist simply because William Friedkin directed them both, such a book might more profitably examine the career of, say, Robert Getchell. In the 1970s Getchell received sole screen credit for both Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore and Bound for Glory. In the years since, he's written, among others, Sweet Dreams and This Boy's Life. Yet no film scholars think to study Getchell's career—whatever its inevitable contingencies at the whim of studio fortune or favor—as an organic whole. Add to Getchell's body of work those of the similarly anonymous Buck Henry, Nancy Dowd, Waldo Salt, and any number of others, and it becomes apparent that the 1970s represented not the decade of the director but a golden age of screenwriting.

Hear hear. Even Jaws, the seventies picture whose "Smile, you sonofabitch" ushered in the era of decrepit action movie one-liners, is remarkable now for having such an articulate and disciplined script. But there's plenty of evidence against the claim that movie globalization is squeezing out literate scripts. Among other things:

There is a writers' medium, which is immeasurably larger than the movies. It's called television. TV producers love writer-driven stuff for the same reasons old-Hollywood producers loved it: It's cheaper to produce, and writers are easier to replace, underpay, ignore, and otherwise push around than are directors, stars, etc. The dialogue in Gilmore Girls might not be as good as the dialogue in His Girl Friday, but it's just as fast.

Even if you stick to movies, the supply of dialogue-driven product exceeds the demand. Who are Wes Anderson and Neil LaBute and Kevin Smith and Woody Allen making movies for, anyway? (OK, Woody Allen's making movies for nobody, but still…)

If there's a problem for well written movies, the problem is on the audience side, not the production side: The artsyfartsy types who could be supporting this stuff don't have the courage of their convictions. Unlike the millions of yahoos who braved unanimous critical pans to give Van Helsing a massive opening, fans of literate pictures actually pay attention to bad reviews. Consider this exchange I had with a hyperborean buddy of mine a while back:

Me: "Did you see The Ladykillers?"

HB: "No, it looked really bad."

"Bad? Tom Hanks as an evil Colonel Sanders with yellow teeth and a maniacal giggle looks bad?"

"Well it got terrible reviews."

"So on the one hand you have two decades of experience with great movies by the Coen brothers, and on the other you have a pan by Jeffrey Lyons, and you're giving Lyons the edge."

(Of course, you must imagine my interlocutor speaking with a nasal, moronic whine, while I speak with a mellow, sexy baritone.) My point here is not that the Coens' remake of The Ladykillers is particularly great. But like all Coen movies, it had an elaborate plot, vivid characters, and plenty of colorful dialogue. It got a wide release, and nobody saw it but me.

The biggest problem for literate movies is that there is no problem for literate movies. Counting all the small-budget pictures, independents, vanity projects where Gwyneth Paltrow (our generation's T.S. Eliot) speaks with an English accent, and so on, there are more dialogue-driven movies being made now than ever before. If 95 percent of today's movies are crap, that's because 95 percent of all movies have always been crap, not because of some new macro trend.

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  1. “If France makes movies for the French, and America makes movies for the world, who’s left to make movies for America?”

    Japan. Someone has to buy that tentacle rape porn.

  2. Hey. Buck Henry is not anonymous…

  3. I don’t know if this post will get the number of comments that the abortion post did (some 135 +) but, don’t mistake that for a lack of interest.

    I don’t have a thing to say about it except that I tend to agree with the 95% premise–no wait, I think there are more crappy movies these days, if for no other reason than there is a huge market to fill that didn’t exist back before Blockbuster, DirectTV, Cable, Netflix, et al.

    But then again, those musicals, which according to my father, represented the bulk of the market in the 40’s and 50’s were pretty godawful. So, maybe the 95% crap ratio is historically accurate afterall.

    So, I guess I did have something to say.

    My orignal intent was to remark that despite the fact that I had nothing to say about this post I found the it especially interesting. Others will as well.

  4. First, yes, some people do focus too much on the directors as the “prime movers” in the era of great 70s film making. Certainly someone like Robert Towne was as important–or more so–than any single director you could name.

    TWC’s post about the “crap ratio” is fairly accurate. In the 20s through the 50s, ENORMOUS numbers of Hollywood films were made each year–many times the current output. This was largely the pre-television era, where double features were the norm, and moviegoing was enjoyed by all.

    Finally, while there are many very good “independent” films made, what are sorely lacking are the good MAJOR studio films that are broadly seen by the moviegoing public. This is what we have lost. In 1960, for example, both The Apartment and Psycho were two major studio releases in mid-June. First, can we even imagine a major studio film has good as either of these getting made nowadays? After that stretch, how about having them both out simulatanously, in the dreaded “summer movie season” (check your brain at the door)?

    Or consider something as late as 1974, when Francis Ford Coppola sent out Godfather II AND The Conversation, and Mel Brooks gave us Blazing Saddles AND Young Frankenstein.

    It seems impossible to imagine in the Hollywood of today.

  5. I think Sturgeons Law (90% of everything is crap), occurs in markets like movies and books because consumers themselves are a highly heterogeneous in their taste. International marketing make this divergence even more extreme.

    The five or ten percent of the movies that I really like won’t necessarily be the same set of movies that make up the 5 to ten percent that you like. Each of us will agree that majority of movies suck but we aren’t actually talking about the same set of movies.

  6. I saw The Ladykillers in spite of the reviews, but then I’ll probably never miss a film by one of the Coen brothers. Still, I have to confess to not having missed many of the films recommended by Messrs. Holden, Scott and a few others over the last few years, and I also have to confess to not having seen many films without taking a look at a professional opinion first.

    While “artsyfartsy” types like me may be following the critics like sheep, I think the people who program the local art house are equally to blame (for want of a better term). Just like a major chain won’t put a big budget film on many screens and won’t show it for long if there isn’t a big marketing budget behind the film, most art houses, likewise, won’t show an art film unless they know it’s going to get a good review by a VIP. Ever notice how many art film reviews are prefaced with a line that reads something like, “This film was seen by the reviewer months before its release as part of the blankety-blank film festival.”? Even if a film does get a good review, your local art house isn?t going to show it for very long anyway because, after a couple of weeks, when the effect of reading a good review wears off, the limited number of ?artsyfartsy? types the art world depends on to buy tickets usually taps out and disappears.

    But I think another contributing factor is the sheer profusion of art films being distributed these days. It?s a vicious circle. Because there are so many art films being released, we need critics to sort through them to find the gems, and because just getting a good review can guarantee a couple good weeks of ticket sales, there is a profusion of art films. The number of film being released is also being driven by the dramatic drop in the physical costs of production. You don?t need traditional film stock to make a film anymore, an iMac and a relatively cheap camera will do the trick. With a low cost basis and a good review, you can make a pretty hefty sum with just a few weeks of box office receipts. Even ignoring Michael Moore, some of the best films I?ve seen this year, ?The Fog of War?, ?Control Room? and ?Bukowski: Born Into This? were documentaries, and I?m sure that making documentaries is relatively inexpensive.

    But having a lot of art films to choose from is a good thing, and I expect to catch a lot of the films I miss on DVD anyway.

  7. Respect yourself, Cavanaugh!

    Anyway, I saw Ladykillers, as did eight to ten other New Yorkers. It stank, Coen brothers or no, just like AO Scott said it did. That’s why I listen to the reviewers: they’re often right. Well, even if I did want to ignore them, I hear their voices while I try to fall asleep. Damn hypnagogic hallucinations!

    And, since you asked, I happen to know who Wes Anderson makes movies for: the Wilson brothers, whom he not so secretly loves.

  8. After reading TJ’s comment, I realized that I forgot to mention that I liked “The Ladykillers”.

  9. I loved The Ladykillers. Who didn’t think it was funny that the titular lady was sending her money to Bob Jones University?

  10. “Each of us will agree that majority of movies suck but we aren’t actually talking about the same set of movies.”

    Persactly, Shannon Love.

  11. The market is huge for all types of film: artsy, documentaries, shoot-em-ups, crime, horror, sex, Aki Kaurismaki films (since we get to name obscure figures, might as well go Finnish), whatever. Failure to thrive in this environment is only possible through stupidity in creation or stupidity in presentation. Just like always.

    90% is crap=90% is stupid. John Waters never lost money on a film. He knows his audience. Can the same be said of Spielberg?

  12. Fargo, which got raves, was decent. After all those years they managed to write a screenplay without complete contempt for all the characters and that was enough to get it declared a classic.

    That the Coen brothers get accused of “having contempt for their characters” has always struck me as extremely unfair. Virtually all of their films have been comedies or black comedies, and very few comedies of any kind treat their characters with respect. Nobody accuses the Marx Brothers, or Charlie Chaplin, or Mel Brooks of “having contempt for their characters”, despite the fact that the characters in all of their films tend to be simplistic folks with room-temperature IQs.

  13. In my experience, the Critics are seldom very good at reviewing genre movies. Think of movies like “Jeepers Creepers” or “Deep Blue Sea” – very nicely done, but reviewed as though they were in competition with Cornielle.
    On the other hand, if I like an “auteur”, then I’m going to see his/her movies no matter what any critic says because as often as not he gets it wrong. Can’t tell you how many movies like “The end of violence” i’ve seen in near empty theatres.

  14. http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com//photos/msid-788545.cms

    Since we are on the topic of offshored movies – girls gone wild in Bollywood.

  15. The more salient question for a movie is not whether it was “good” but whether it was profitable. A movie, after all, is a business venture. From my perspective, if the movie employed people and the investors walked away with a profit… bravo.

    In general, the work of critics reminds me vaguely of the kind of self pleasure for which Paul Reubens (aka PeeWee Herman) was arrested. In short, I don’t think movie (or literary) criticism should be illegal, but I prefer it be done it private.

  16. From my perspective, if the movie employed people and the investors walked away with a profit… bravo.

    It sounds like you’re a movie producer? Otherwise, I can’t imagine a single reason why you should care about the profit a movie makes–other than to show your libertarian chops. Do you only enjoy profitable movies? Or does enjoyment even play a part??

  17. Well let the thunder clap, and call me a monkey’s uncle; I think I agree with Dan.

  18. I thought the Coen Bros. “Miller’s Crossing” was a fine movie, much better than “O Brother!”. Then again I think “Slap Shot” was one of the best movies of the 70s.

  19. I have to ask: What in the world is Tim Cavanaugh actually saying in his post? Not a whit of it makes sense. Notice how this thread is filled with a bunch of disconnected posts? That’s because Cavanaugh’s original post made absolutely no sense, was written without a whit of clarity, and so the responses here are essentially a bunch of stabs in the dark.

    Cavanaugh: Any chance you could take a basic writing course and learn how to use words to communicate clearly? Your stuff reads like a bunch of arbitrary garble.

  20. Good point on the screenwriters vs. directors critical theory thing, but you’re championing the Coens?

    I didn’t see The Ladykillers because it got pretty bad reviews and even most Coen brothers movies that get good reviews are soulless. It’s like being told that the 1972 Fiat you called about has unusally bad electrical problems for a 1972 Fiat. Run away!

    Fargo, which got raves, was decent. After all those years they managed to write a screenplay without complete contempt for all the characters and that was enough to get it declared a classic.

    Besides, whenever I think about Tom Hanks doing a “colorful accent”, I break out in a rash.

  21. And hey, what the hell are you talking about “profitable movies from ‘The Last Temptation of Christ'”? That thing died faster than Jesus. The BO for Last Temptation was so poor it killed the market for religious pictures for several years.

  22. Movies are, on average, so godawful because it’s a producer- and director-driven art form, rather than a writer-driven one. Too many movies are cooked up by a couple of morons “doing lunch” to work out the “concept” and special effects, and then hiring some menial to do the secondary work of actually writing the script.

  23. Hey, I like those decrepit one-liners!

    Hot enough for ya?

  24. Really, what’s needed isn’t new producers, directors, writers, stars, or technicians. What we need are new distributors. Local theaters are getting squeezed by those guys, so they resort to the desperation of putting Mission Robot Asteroid Armageddon Twins IV on six of their twenty screens.

    Get some distributors who don’t demand all the first few weeks’ gross, and we’ll have better choices long before the home and video market. And the popcorn might even get to a nearly-affordable point.

  25. Hot enough for ya?

    Both my favorite one-liners belong to the Governor of California:

    In the climactic scene of Commando, Arnold is fighting Vernon “Wez” Wells in one of those metal-and-railing facilities Ebert defines as “The Pipe and Steam Factory.” Though it’s touch and go there for a moment, and you might expect Arnold is about to lose, through a series of improbable events he manages to impale Wez with a makeshift spear that goes through Wez and into some kind of compression tank. As vapor from the tank pours out of the dying Wez’s mortal wound, Arnold quips: “Why don’t you let off some steam?”

    In Total Recall, Arnold is fighting Michael Ironside in a freight elevator. Earlier, Ronny Cox had given Ironside an invitation to a party at the executive suite after he got through killiing Arnold. Though it’s touch and go there for a moment, and you might expect Arnold is about to lose, through a series of improbable events he manages to get Ironside hanging out of the elevator car and over the vertiginous shaft, just as the elevator passes a floor, which of course severs Ironside’s hands at the forearms. As the handless subsidiary villain hurtles to his death, Arnold calls after him: “See you at the pah-ty!”

    And they say this isn’t a writer’s medium!

  26. Movies need more boobies. Big libertarian boobies.

  27. Like Tim, my two favorite one-liners are Arnold’s… but mine are different (Tim must just think he’s too artsy for my vulgar favorites:)…

    In Commando, Arnold is dangling some guy over a cliff… holding him by the ankle with one arm. After extracting some info from him, he drops him to his death. Arnold goes back to his girl, and when she asks what happened to that guy, he replies “I let him go.”

    And from Predator… Arnold throws an enormous knife at some bad-guy, lifting him off his feat and stuck to the wall… “Stick around”, says Arnold:)

    I’m glad he’s my governor.
    Andy D.
    ———–
    Gee you got a big pussy. Gee you got a big pussy.
    Why’d you say it twice?
    I didn’t; it was the echo.

  28. Tim used too many big words. Hyperboreal? Interlocutor? Me go watch Scooby Doo 2 now.

  29. Hyperborean, rather.

  30. The accusation that Fargo has contempt for its characters — which Koppelman to his credit didn’t endorse, but has been made pretty widely — seems baseless to me. Timothy Virkkala wrote a good essay several years ago pointing out the ways in which Fargo is in fact an argument in favor of the bourgeois morality of its “normal” characters (as opposed to its criminals). I suspect that the real problem was viewers with contempt for Fargo‘s characters, who then projected this onto the filmmakers.

    The only Coens movie where the accusation arguably fits, I think, is O Brother.

    (Even sillier: The claim that their movies are simply empty exercises in style. As with Fargo and “contempt,” it’s an accusation hurled most frequently at the movie that deserves it least, the multi-layered Big Lebowski.)

  31. Fargo, which got raves, was decent. After all those years they managed to write a screenplay without complete contempt for all the characters and that was enough to get it declared a classic.

    The Coens’ “contempt” for Minnesotans was the complaint voiced by many Fargo naysayers, Garrison Keillor most prominent among them. I am baffled by the widely distributed notion that the Coens have contempt for their characters, unless that means any movie that doesn’t end with the hero and heroine kissing passionately while a crowd of onlookers applauds and the soundtrack plays “Walkin’ On Sunshine” has contempt for its characters. I don’t really understand what “contempt for the characters” means anyway: Any storyteller who starts to identify with the characters, or thinks they should automatically deserve our sympathy, is, I think, on the wrong track.

    I suspect it has something to do with the Coens’ being rootless cosmopolitans who set most of their pictures either in red states or in the red counties of blue states. (In twenty years of making movies, they have set every one entirely within the borders of the United States-though it looks like they may be giving that up if Paris, je t’aime is not a hoax project.) I have always taken their interest in American regional cultures, slang, habits, and settings at face value. Considering how much effort it takes to direct a movie, I doubt two filmmakers would stay so completely within the American grain unless they liked it. The last three minutes of Raising Arizona, parts of The Big Lebowksi, Marge Gunderson’s cramped relationship with her husband in Fargo, and bits and pieces of the other movies have all seemed to me pretty conventionally moving, and not designed to snicker at the characters. I suspect what other people call “contempt” I call “being in control of the material.”

    Finally, contempt for the common man was the central theme of Barton Fink, so the Coens even managed to beat their critics to the punch.

  32. i’m new around here (i got a link via instapundit), and i have to agree with the posters above that this post made absolutely no sense. is tim cavanauh one of the guests here or is he employed by Reason? his writing doesn’t make any sense.

    i don’t want to sound completely negative, so let me say that i have enjoyed much of the other stuff i’ve been reading here since i started browsing here a few days ago. i hope to become a regular visitor here in the future.

    good luck with the site, and thanks to glenn reynolds for the pointer.

  33. Mr. Cavanaugh’s bitch about the 95% crap ratio of movies is the same bitch gourmands make about fast food. I can imagine Cavanaugh grousing about how the local McDonald’s is always busy and Cafe Intelligentsia is not.

    If Cavanaugh wants to talk about the nuances of a Coen Brothers movie or how the local Pinot Noir has undertones of teak, lingonberries and ceramic tile (Spanish)… so be it. If you look under the hood, however, what you find is a simple contempt of the common taste. Oh, were we all so enlightened and educated as the literati so the art houses may be packed and the stadium theatres empty.

    Personally, I enjoy a wide range of movies. If someone asks, I’ll share what I have enjoyed. What I won’t do is confuse my personal opinion with the “artistic merit” of a film… as if such merit can be objectively measured.

    And yes, I celebrate profitable movies, from the “Last Temptation of Christ” to “Debbie does Dallas.” A trip to the local video store is enjoyable if only to see the wide range of entertainment available to the American public. We sit at a banquet table groaning with the weight of movies, and Cavanaugh decides to enlighten us with his assessment of the caviar.

  34. What I won’t do is confuse my personal opinion with the “artistic merit” of a film

    Since nobody else in the original post or in this thread used the phrase “artistic merit,” why are you putting it in quotation marks? Are you quoting somebody, or just imagining what you think people should be saying?

    If you look under the hood, however, what you find is a simple contempt of the common taste.

    I’m sure you fantasize about looking under my “hood,” but not on your life, pal! not on your life! Where did I show any contempt for the common taste? Tom Hanks is “caviar”? Deducing a “common taste” from an entertainment field where even the most popular product gets seen by a small fraction of the population doesn’t make a lot of sense anyway. And since you’re at pains to demonstrate that you’re more libertarian than anybody else, you should know there’s no such thing as common taste, only individual tastes. What are you, some kind of collectivist?

    And what’s up with the free use of “contempt” around here anyway? Is “contempt” the new “bias”?

  35. “I suspect it has something to do with the Coens’ being rootless cosmopolitans who set most of their pictures either in red states or in the red counties of blue states.”

    Just to prove I have way too much time on my hands:

    The Coens have made 11 films and actually the very Blue Los Angeles is their favorite setting. Also they are from Minnesota (A state that narrowly went for Gore).

    If we assume Red and Blue status is based on the 2000 election – Red = Bush and Blue = Gore than there are 4 films set in Red states and 4 set in Blue states. 2 more films are set in unspecified big cities that resemble Blue state locations. Fargo takes place mostly in a Red part of Minnesota making it a total of 6 to 5 Blue. Pretty even actually. If they have contempt for middle america they have more for California where 4 of the 11 films are set.

    Here’s the detailed breakdown:

    Blood Simple ? Texas (RED)
    Raising Arizona ? Arizona (RED)
    Miller?s Crossing ? Unnamed prohibition-era large city with mobsters (Chicago – BLUE)
    Barton Fink ? Los Angeles (BLUE)
    Hudsucker Proxy ? Unnamed large city with skyscrapers, corporate HQs (New York – BLUE)
    Big Lebowski ? Los Angeles (BLUE)
    Fargo ? Minnesota (BLUE)
    O Brother Where art thou? ? Mississippi (RED)
    The Man Who Wasn?t There ? Santa Rosa, CA (BLUE)
    Intolerable Cruelty ? Beverly Hills (BLUE)
    Ladykillers ? Mississippi (RED)

  36. Movies are, on average, so godawful because it’s a producer- and director-driven art form, rather than a writer-driven one.

    That seems like an unlikely explanation, since most literature, poetry and journalism stinks too.

    I suspect that the real problem was viewers with contempt for Fargo’s characters, who then projected this onto the filmmakers

    I think a lot of viewers heard McDormand’s exaggerated Minnesotan accent and automatically assumed “she’s a rube”. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth — her character is intelligent, perceptive, and methodical. I was also sort of touched by the fact that her character is a basically good and well-adjusted person. How often do you see a movie cops who aren’t ultra-violent, or incurable smartasses, or tortured by inner demons, or some combination of those three things?

  37. You manage the falsetto shrillness I expect, Mr. Cavanagh, when interupting a coffee house critic who is holding forth on the Coen brothers while smoking a clove cigarette.

    I used quotation marks around the phrase “artistic merit” because I think the phrase and movie critics (amateur or professional) are 95 percent crap.

    Finally, I miswrote and meant the Passion of the Christ… I really don’t know the gross earnings of the Last Temptation (box office, DVD, etc.)

  38. I lost all respect for Hollywood when Julia Roberts got the Oscar…

  39. the two best gubinator quotes come from his timeless conan character (a story about a germanic warrior christ figure, if you haven’t seen it), namely the “conan, what is best in life?” quote and “SLUTS!” (gubinated to SLAAATZ!)

  40. “To crush your enemies. See them driven before you. And to hear the lamentation of their women”

    Yeah, that is a great one:)

  41. “The more salient question for a movie is not whether it was “good” but whether it was profitable. A movie, after all, is a business venture. From my perspective, if the movie employed people and the investors walked away with a profit… bravo. ”

    Wow. So I suppose you remain unmoved by the majority of literature, music (especially classical, but also blues, jazz, etc.) as well as, well, virtually every innovative artist/director/visionary in history?

    You rugged individualist, you!

  42. Pepe, I stand in awe of a guy whose PhD. in Coenology makes mine look like a mere honorary degree. Thanks for the correction.

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