Hit & Run

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.