Committee Of Correspondence

What Happened to the Great American Movie?

Jack Valenti
9:41 a.m.  Thursday  10/3/96 

       In regard to Herb Stein’s query about taxes: Actually, in the global movie world, taxes are onerous but not the central gargoyle confronting the American film industry. In too many countries there have been erected barrier walls whose aim it is to shrink the advance and entry of American movies and, in particular, U.S. TV programs. There is alive and well a truly defunct mythology which declares if you can exile the American creators and their words, your own native industry will spring full-blown and healthy, like Athena from the forehead of Zeus. That it is myth, and defunct, seems not to diminish its utility and popularity in too many countries. The more this kind of protectionism prevails in the world, the smaller the revenues gathered by American films and TV programs.
       In the American landscape, there are no taxes borne by the creative community which are not equally applied to the rest of the population. Non-American films are treated in this country precisely as their American counterparts.
       The largest problem facing the U.S. film and TV industry is the onrush of piracy–the theft of movies and their illegal duplication in cassette form–which is why the protection of intellectual property is the highest-priority issue to which the industry must attend. The other issue which is just as grave is how we make sure the American movie and TV program can move freely and unhobbled around the world. What we are saying to other countries is, ‘Let us compete fairly in your marketplace just as you have the right to compete openly and fairly in ours. Let your citizens make up their own minds about what they want to watch in a movie theater and on their TV screen.’
       Which is why every day we have to be vigilant because, like virtue, we are every day besieged. Frank Rich
2:39 p.m.  Thursday  10/3/96 

       With all due respect to Jane Austen, I feel all these Austen adaptations are part of the problem with American movies, not the solution. I say this not just because I’m one of the 10 people in America who found Emma (the film, not the novel) laborious and cutesy (though I did like Gwyneth Paltrow). But glossy adaptations of great books do not a vital movie culture make–not now and not in the past. (Remember all those “classy” MGM pictures with literary pedigrees in the 1930s?) These films are the bones Hollywood traditionally throws “art” so movie people can feel good about themselves on Oscar night and justify all the crap they churn out the rest of the time.
       Nor am I convinced, as Joe Queenan suggests, that the vacuousness of current American movies can be attributed too much to our admittedly bland times. Or to argue it conversely, I’m not sure that national crises (the Great Depression, for instance) produce better art. I still believe that the real problem today is that movies have become such expensive products, manufactured by such top-heavy and bureaucratic mega-media-corporations, that they are no more likely to have personality than a new Buick rolling off the GM assembly line. Ben Stein is right that the level of screenwriting is poor–but who chooses the writers that turn out this drivel as opposed to recruiting more imaginative writers (and they do exist) who might do better? The answer is studio executives who a) are completely out of touch with American life as most people live it and completely ignorant of the artists who might depict that life in the exciting, Mike Leigh-esque ways Joe Queenan and I would like to see; and, b) don’t want to take a chance on originality when so many big bucks are at stake. So instead they just play it safe, imitating last year’s successful model (probably a special-effects movie, or a SNL-esque comedy).
       Of course there are exceptions–though only occasional ones if we’re talking about major-studio movies, as opposed to boutique or independent movies. Clueless, to take one small example, struck me as more in touch with the Austen spirit than the reverential Emma. Herb Stein
3:07 p.m.  Thursday  10/03/96 

       We have one more day on this stage, so if anyone has a prediction or a program this is the time for it.
       Perhaps we have been concentrating too much on theater movies. What might be the effect of having 100 TV channels on cable? There will be a great demand for “content.” Will this provide a way for independent movie-makers to get an airing? Would 10,000 script writers pounding away at movies for 100 channels produce Gone with the Wind or The Godfather?
       Would the ability to call up movie classics on your home screen via the Internet provide competition and standards that would motivate the production of better new movies?
       There have been suggestions that Hollywood should be shamed or coerced into producing fewer movies glorifying crime, drugs and violent sex. Would that make room for better movies or only blander bad movies?
       Could the community of film critics do anything to elevate standards? Every day I see ads for movies in which some critic is quoted as saying that what is obviously a mediocre movie is “the best ever.” (I don’t know where those quotations come from. When I read reviews I never see such statements. Perhaps my eyes glaze over.) Incidentally, on the subject of reviews: I look at the movie reviews in the New Yorker and they always deal with movies I never heard of. Is there a genre of movies produced only to be reviewed in the New Yorker?
       Could the economic structure of the industry be changed in a way that would be more hospitable to artistic or innovative movies?
       Although we attribute the poor state of movies to the poor state of culture in America, I have the impression that there is more popular interest in classical opera now than ever before. Why aren’t there movies of operas?
       Will time, another turn of the wheel, bring us more great movies? Or will time make us think that the movies of 1996 were really great, at least by comparison with the movies of 2016?