Committee Of Correspondence

What Happened to the Great American Movie?

Frank Rich
8:32 a.m.  Tuesday  10/1/96 

       I was born in 1949, so I don’t remember a time when movies weren’t competing with TV. One thing I loved about the first movies I saw was that they were so big–literally. To compete with the small screen, Hollywood gave us VistaVision, Cinemascope, Todd AO and Cinerama. There was a sense of event, even if many of the movies made in these processes are now forgotten.
       What makes a great movie? As the Supreme Court Justice said, I know it when I see it. Janet Maslin perfectly explains the continued appeal of The Godfather–but, of course, her description wouldn’t apply to The 400 Blows or Singin’ in the Rain. Great movies, like great novels or music or paintings or anything else, don’t follow any single set of rules. Some have little visual style but wonderful talk (Preston Sturges) or magnificent visual style and no talk (Buster Keaton)–and so on. The minute you codify “great art,” it’s dead.
       With the possible exception of Lorne Michaels, it seems that everyone in the movies these days is overeducated. I heard that when Jack Lemmon held an open house for fellow Harvard alumni in Hollywood a decade or so ago, you couldn’t get near the place. Joe Queenan
9:03 a.m.  Tuesday  10/1/96 

       Frank Rich makes an excellent point about people in the movie industry being overeducated. But it’s worse. Directors and screenwriters go directly from New York University or Harvard into the film business, with almost no direct experience of human life aside from a summer job as an intern at Spy. When they start making movies, they make movies about the only thing they really know about: other movies. This is one reason there are almost no good contemporary films about working-class people. When was the last time a working-class person made it big in Hollywood? Oliver Stone? Spike Lee? Steven Spielberg? Children of privilege, all. To see good movies about the lives of ordinary people, we have to go across the Atlantic to the work of Mike Leigh. I know that Leigh is the beneficiary of a massive hype job right now, with media profiles turning up everywhere, but it doesn’t change the fact that for understanding of the human condition, no one in Hollywood can touch him. Anyone who has seen Secrets and Lies or Naked knows that he blows our home-grown clowns away.
       Earlier generations of filmmakers were highly influenced by the novel. Today’s filmmakers are influenced by earlier filmmakers. And when they are influenced by the novel, it is invariably a novel influenced by someone who has seen too many movies: Brett Easton Ellis, E.L. Doctorow. Hollywood today is filled with would-be Sergio Leones, Sam Peckinpahs, etc. Robert Rodriguez, who became famous after making El Mariachi on a shoestring budget in 1993, is not interested in making the next The 400 Blows or his generation’s Strangers on a Train. He is interested in remaking old Clint Eastwood movies. Looking on the bright side of things, it’s probably better to have a bunch of Sergio Leone imitators running around Hollywood than a bunch of Otto Preminger wannabes. But still?
       Now, as to the Godfather series. What makes Francis Ford Coppola’s achievement so amazing is that The Godfather and Godfather II are entirely different motion pictures. The Godfather is a movie about Italian-Americans. Godfather II is a movie about America. Like Alfred Hitchcock before him, Coppola took a pretty awful novel and turned it into a great film. Well, two great films. (Clint Eastwood worked similar alchemy last year with his sensitive, intelligent screen version of the horrendous book The Bridges of Madison County.) One thing that makes Coppola’s two masterpieces so great is that he tells his story with moving pictures. James Caan’s trash-can hurling explosion and his subsequent execution at the toll booth are among the most memorable images in the history of American film. Ditto Al Pacino’s sentinel work at Marlon Brando’s hospital bedside, and the final scene in Godfather II where Al Pacino’s older brother Freddy is murdered. The most indelible scenes in these two movies are not filmed conversations like we see in most American films today, but filmed events. Moving pictures–which is what the idiom is supposed to be about in the first place.
       I still blame Lorne Michaels for everything Jack Valenti
1:34 p.m.  Tuesday  10/1/96 

       Trying to determine what is “a great movie” is to rummage around in dark corridors with inaccessible exits. Joe Queenan illuminates this rather engagingly when he tosses GONE WITH THE WIND into a dustbin while others collectively canonize it as the ‘finest ever.’
       For me, the greatest film ever made, a jewel of a creation, every frame braced and knit in a seamless glory, is MAN FOR ALL SEASONS. The principal reasons for this greatness were three: Robert Bolt adapting from his play, which is about as good as plays can get; Paul Scofield, even today (to my untutored eye) the finest living English speaking actor; and of course, Fred Zinnemann, who unerringly enticed camera and actors to the highest point to which the creative spirit can soar. No other film ever made matches it. That’s my opinion.
       So when Ben Stein queries ‘are there any lasting standards of excellence?’ MAN FOR ALL SEASONS is an exemplar. THE LONGEST DAY is another one, maybe the most splendid war movie of the modern era (just a tad ahead of PATTON).
       Frank Rich, who is probably as knowledgeable as anyone in the land about the creative process, on stage and on screen, complains (and in many ways rightfully) about the dumbing down of American movies. But the era in which we live is bombarded by visual felicities and frailties. The ‘Golden Age’ of films existed in a landscape essentially barren of competition for the eye and ear of a public clamoring to be entertained. Some 84 million a week attended movie theaters in those days; now that weekly attendance is some 24 million. Today, there are 95 million TV homes, 27,000 video stores, 76 million VCR households, 63 million cable households, 50 million pay-cable subscribers. Oh yes, the average household is watching TV 7 hours and 15 minutes per day.
       To grasp and to hold momentarily the attention of an audience swimming in a sea of visual alternatives is a task not exactly coincident with cleaning the Aegean stables, but damn near it. Which is why quiet little films (a number of them from non-English speaking authors) find it difficult to find a place to stand and be admired.
       But I do believe that the reasons from which spring ‘great movies’ have not changed. I am one of those who believes that there is no formula buried somewhere underneath Spago’s restaurant on the Sunset Strip. But there are essentials. First, second, and third are the script. I don’t know of a single great or near-great film which leaped off the pages of a bad script, no matter how divinely inspired the cast or the director or the producer. I am reminded that the principal writer on GWTW was Sidney Howard, no illiterate he (though David O. Selznick brought in others from the bullpen, like Ben Hecht and for a brief moment, William Faulkner). If there is a vacancy in Hollywood today, it is the small supply of first class writers. Herb Stein
2:27 p.m.  Tuesday  10/1/96 

       I wonder if we are missing something by treating all movies as the same kind of thing, with the same ambitions and subject to measurement on the same scale of excellence. The movies of the golden age of my youth were of three kinds–showcases for glamorous stars, like Garbo, Dietrich, Gable, and Cooper–comedies, like the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields–and musicals, like the Rogers and Astaire pictures. They were entertainments and they were actors’ movies.
       The golden age that many of you remember–the Godfather period–was an age in which movies were aiming at something different. They were after social realism and they were writer-director movies rather than star movies.
       What is the characteristic of today’s movies? In what do the ones that excel, excel? I suggest that it is in special effects. Perhaps we should not look down our noses at that. It is the thing that movies have that other media do not.
       I am amused that Queenan blames Nixon for the paucity of movie comedies in the past 20 years. Poor old Nixon! Is there nothing for which he is not to blame? I don’t know that comedy is produced when the social conditions give people much to laugh about. The great era of movie comedy was the period of the Depression and the War, not exactly a fun time.