Hollywood under the cosh
The seemingly endless number of column inches devoted to the moving image coagulated over the last few weeks – at least amongst the newspapers that I read – in to some rather interesting speculation, hand-wringing and observation about how we view film, both metaphorically and in reality.
Recently I wrote about the English director Sally potter, and again, David Fincher set me thinking in a compelling interview he gave to Danny Leigh in the FT. Like Potter, Fincher has, for me, a very engaging oeuvre but not all of his best films have been box-office hits. His debut cult classic se7en made in 1995 grossed $100 million yet Zodiac, made in 2007 only grossed half its $65 million budget. Gone Girl, made in 2014 that he found hard to get financed was a huge success however, grossing over $370 million. Fincher has a broad palate; from Fight Club (1999) starring Brad Pitt to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), Social Network (2010), Girl With a Dragon Tattoo (2011), and then everything changed when he got to produce House of Cards for Netflix.
His observation that it is now the domain of streamed multi-episodic drama where character development reigns supreme is compelling. In his view the decline of modern Hollywood is driven by risk-aversion, but this demise is actually something that has been going on for a very long time. Studios think they know what the audience wants. Hence the proliferation of endless sci-fi sequels, mindless animated kiddie entertainment, two-dimensional romance. Just look at what is showing at your local multiplex and the evidence is there, literally before your eyes.
It is true that now when we gorge ourselves on TV series, regardless of where they were made – Scandie agony crime, French noir crime, British gritty crime, and American surreal crime, what keeps us watching is the evolving complexity of character development and detailed story-arc. Still in my book one of the finest drama series to come out of the US in the last few years is The Wire. But all is not lost in the short-form 2-hour movie alternative. With similar subject matter, the great power and brilliance of Barry Jenkins 2016 Oscar winning Moonlight is testament still that cinema can produce films all about character.
Returning to column inches, Paul Haggis, another very successful Hollywood screenwriter whose output includes pure entertainment in the form of Bond movies, Casino Royale (2006) and Quantum of Solace (2008), as well as rather more intelligent fare including Crash, (2005) and Eastwood’s war epics, Flags from our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima (2006), recently interviewed in the Observer by Vanessa Thorpe that his desire to write more intelligent scripts had meant a move to New York. Again, the insularity of Hollywood has made it risk-averse. Being based on the East Coast gives Haggis greater contact with the rest of the world; with film festivals and just plain, ordinary people. New York film makers, like their European piers have a completely different approach to work.
Although many of us have wished for more serious and intelligent films to come out of Hollywood, such stuff isn’t so rare. The year Haggis’ Crash was nominated for an Oscar all the other contenders where equally serious. But that was more than a decade ago. Most recent finalists have been rather short of intelligence.
Michael Freedlander, writing in the Observer recently about how in 1927 The Jazz Singer saved Warner Brothers from extinction but decimated the small New York studios reminds one that even great edifices such as Hollywood can have foundations laid on sand.
Although the magic of cinema keeps Fincher in thrall – I share the emotion – his observation that cinema isn’t dead, it just does something different is profound. Seeing Blade Runner 2049 recently, the cinema was full of people on their phones, multi-tasking with 3D glasses on! For Fincher cinema is now a social event like a bonfire. The movie is the bonfire. With 5th November upon us, as we gaze into the flames or wonder at the firework display reflect upon the reason why we are there. It’s not actually for the fire.