The Book Club

Market This

Dear Tony,

Biskind’s book is quite a good piece of Bob Woodward-esque reporting (although riddled with factual errors, as one of my correspondents reports—much worse than my originally referring to the great Richard Slotkin yesterday as Richard Plotkin). But I didn’t find it anywhere near as pleasurable as you and some other people did. It made me sad and anxious for the artists who have to run that gantlet of monsters. To say that I dislike reading about these films almost exclusively through the prism of financing and distribution sounds willfully obtuse, I know, but I find it depressing that money has to matter so much to young filmmakers. (See Robert Altman’s Vincent and Theo for a full, anguished treatment of the effect of commerce on sensitive artists.) It’s not just Biskind: Look at the coverage of Sundance and now the Oscar nominations. According to today’s New York Times, Cold Mountain didn’t get a Best Picture nomination because it was released at the wrong time—at Christmas instead of a month earlier. That meant there wasn’t enough time to get tapes out, mount a campaign, or build the audience. Huh? It’s bad enough that this is the way we talk about our political leaders, but to reduce movies to marketing, marketing, and more marketing is tragic.

Maybe Cold Mountain didn’t get nominated because it didn’t work: because the first hour was a hash and because the central relationship never took hold. Maybe it didn’t get nominated because the key point of the novel (the inhuman things that the protagonists had to do to survive in such a terrible time) was blunted to make the film more attractive to a larger audience. Nuts to that! According to Biskind, Harvey Weinstein didn’t want Nicole Kidman to wear that nose in The Hours but since Scott Rudin was calling the shots, she did—and won an Oscar (as I predicted in my review and Denzel Washington echoed on the night itself, “by a nose”). Weinstein denies this; he tells Biskind he just didn’t want the nose on the poster. But in Cold Mountain, playing a former Charleston, S.C. society gal ravaged by poverty and death, Kidman looks like a Revlon ad even at her character’s lowest ebb.

In saying of The Dream Life and Down and Dirty Pictures that “these very different books might share an unacknowledged theme, which is the eternal American dialectic of idealism and violent disappointment,” you have unwittingly (albeit wittily) put your finger on the aspect of Biskind’s book that disturbs me: Subtitle notwithstanding, the book is not about “the rise” of independent film but its gangland-style murder at the hands of the Weinstein brothers, among others. Well, sorry: I don’t believe that that is the story of independent film, which has made all our lives richer despite the fact that multiplex conglomerates have consolidated their hold over every market in the country and that these films have fewer and fewer outlets for exhibition. They’re being made, and they weren’t being made in the same way when I began reviewing movies 20 years ago, and they’re going to continue to made—more and more cheaply, if need be, and distributed over the Internet, if need be. And they will be a check on Hollywood—a check, that is, if they can focus their attention on anything other than the world that Hollywood distills in much the same that way George W. Bush’s handlers distill the morning newspaper, omitting the dissonances.

Which brings us to the larger issue: that movies no longer invoke the nation’s dream life as they did in the period J. Hoberman writes about so excitingly. Yes and no. It’s our misfortune, I think, that the dream life is now movies—or movies talking to other movies, or, in the case of Adaptation, dreaming about movies talking to other movies. That said, Hoberman has another book in stores right now, a collection of reviews and essays published called The Magic Hour: Films at Fin de Siecle, that puts this in political perspective. He demonstrates the ways that, in our dreams, we abandon ordinary life for the “magical make-believe of virtual reality.” He evinces nostalgia for the “lost fusion of modernist aspiration and mass appeal—what the critic Raymond Durgnat meant by ‘the wedding of poetry and pulp’ and neo-New Wave filmmaker Quentin Tarantino called ‘pulp fiction.’ ” He concludes, “The catastrophe then is to no longer remember what that fusion meant.”

But I don’t want to get too far from The Dream Life—especially when its final chapter is a chronicle of disillusionment leading to a fantastically escapist rebirth. I am struck by the way in which Hoberman uses the distance from Blowup to DePalma’s Blow Out. The latter is a mordantly tragic thriller about a sound man (John Travolta) who inadvertently captures evidence of a political assassination, but proves powerless to expose the conspiracy or even to protect the innocent (Nancy Allen) who can refute the “official” explanation. The film, released (to no business) in 1981, is set in 1976, the American bicentennial, and the moment Hoberman calls “a drastic shift in American political life—and, indeed, the corresponding change in Hollywood production, associated with the post Star Wars inflation and recycling of pop-culture imagery.” He demonstrates the way in which De Palma criticizes the ideals of the ‘60s and even the “American notions of freedom” in the dark Watergate farce Shampoo (doing full justice to a film for which he seems to have a visceral dislike). He writes that “the freedom of the Sixties is identified with abuse and murder, as well as the production of soft-core slasher porn”—it’s Manson and Night of the Living Dead and Altamont in one. Hoberman goes on:

A restrospective of Sixties concerns, Blow Out is less a scenario than a myth. In this overwhelmingly bleak and tawdry film, the Kennedy assassinations, the Watergate scandal, the death car at Chappaquidick, the Son of Sam serial killings that had recently terrorized New York, the life and death of the Orgy, are all conjoined in one ultra-paranoid conspiracy. Our public movie set is governed by an unknowable system whose hidden operations are impossible to name or represent. …

He then sets up “morning-in-America” Reaganism, contrasting the assassination of John F. Kennedy with its movie-inspired 1981 sequel—and its movie-ish happy ending:

And so it came to pass that an unhappy young fan, obsessed with a movie that had been inspired in part by the case of the would-be George Wallace assassin Arthur Bremer and hoping to impress the actress who starred in that movie, shoots the first professional movie star to become President of Freedomland, U.S.A. [Here Hoberman is referring to the upbeat Bronx historical amusement park born under Eisenhower, which later became a casualty of the counterculture.] Instantaneous and ineffable national flashback! Nostalgia for the festival of the JFK assassination gives way to a new festival. The media celebrates Ronald Reagan’s remarkable good humor and personal strength as evidence of a national spirit, if not a divine miracle.

And so here we are in the age of the escapist blockbuster, of Lucas and Stallone, and so the seeds of disillusionment are planted that will lead to the birth of “independent” cinema. Or is this a romantic misreading?