Sunday, December 19, 2010

Liberals – Art part II 108

“Life imitates both art and schlock.”

--from an Esquire magazine article, circa 1981

I am going to offer as conjecture a defense of the liberal ideological position that the director ought to seek ideals and propagate these to the audience through his all-critical powers to choose which cuts to include, direct the camera and technical equipment, select the accompanying sound and special effects, and often edit the script.

In doing so, the idealistic director minimizes the impact of emotionally manipulating the audience, of creating a banal tear-jerker or sentimental work of fluff. Instead, the film has an ideal, and it “says something” and “stands for something.” This approach maximizes the “relevance” and “significance” of the message and uses the medium of film to induce needed social changes. The alternative is to produce popular fluff that insulates and flatters the bourgeoisie.

A real-work case in point can be made, looking back to 1930s Hollywood, at the genius of Irving Thalberg being minimized by his money-seeking producer, Louis B. Mayer. Thalberg wanted to use the power of technology to create impactful and excellent movies. Mayer, who owned a string of movie theaters in New England back in the silent movie days, had a sharp eye for what the audience wanted and therefore desired to make money.

This conflict, with barely fictionalized main characters, was presented in the incomplete last manuscript of F. Scott Fitzgerald, [The Love of] The Last Tycoon. The sensitive, intelligent, artistically superior approach must be to take Thalberg's side in this conflict. Of course, sometimes the surface of such a film appears odd and cold and boring, but this reaction is at least somewhat the fault of an ignorant and insensitive audience. Risking a bored reaction from the uneducated is, at least, better than releasing shlock.

This is apparently sound reasoning reduced to a cogent argument. But it is not without flaws.

The counter-argument is that the ego of the producer is often the determining factor in the decision to develop a film project, that making money is important but not primary, that the size and complexity of motion pictures requires collaboration (which means that geniuses like Thalberg need shrewd management coming from those like Louis B. Mayer), and that the audience is frequently right rather than just a passive and sentimental mob.

As an example of this alternative analysis, let me give you one of the greatest movies of the post-war era, The Stuntman, a film directed by Richard Rush and starring Peter O'Toole and a supporting cast including Barbara Hershey (who practically plays herself). This film took ten years to go from concept to script to approved project to distribution, which itself was another complete nightmare. It won awards and was nominated for awards – but it didn't get an Oscar for Best Picture, which in retrospect it probably deserved.

Nearly twenty years after making the film, Richard Rush made a documentary called “The Making of The Stuntman.” Rush goes into the ego wars between producers and studios. He explains that The Stuntman was a little too close to Hollywood's aorta. The actors talk with the cameras rolling about their parts and their conflicts. Rush also talks on camera. There was one scene during the filming that he swore to himself he wouldn't cut. It's the end-of-romance argument and fight between the stuntman and Barbara Hershey's character, and it is a cold an chilling scene that reveals Hershey's character as manipulative, vapid and immature. The entire scene, cut from the movie, is presented in the documentary.

Rush talks about this scene in detail. He explains that he showed the film with and without this scene to test audiences. The audiences who saw the version that included this scene hated the movie. Rush was shocked, but he weighed the time spent on the movie, the goodwill of the investors and their money, and he decided to cut the scene from the movie.

That was the right decision. The audience was right. The movie is better with an ambiguous and flighty leading actress than with a known and proven bitch. Leaving this scene out moves the emphasis back to where it belongs – on the conflict between reality and cinematography, a major theme explored brilliantly in the presentation of the film as a whole.

The Making of the Stuntman presents a startling but compelling case that collaboration and checking with the audience are the right approaches for an art as complex and quirky as film making. Furthermore, the financiers and producers of movies are not paragons of rationality or artistic sensitivity.

Footnote: Who says the liberal thinking director and his producer are immune to the artistic and logistical difficulties of the modern motion picture? When I was twelve years old, I wheedled my family into watching a movie with me, a dubbed foreign film called The Sword and the Dragon, the first color film made in the Soviet Union, completed in 1956 with a cast of tens of thousands. The local television station was promoting this as an event not to miss. The family gathered with me to watch this. “Elephantine” and “tedious” are too dignified and kind to describe this monster. I burned with shame that I insisted that my family join me.  I was humiliated. And that's what kept me awake during this banal oat burner. I nearly cried with boredom. The plot, about a hero of Russian storytelling mythology, was incomprehensible. The actors were worse than amateur. The crowd scenes were massive and senseless. The motives and sense of social responsibility from the director and other apparatchiks do not excuse the colossal waste of money of this disaster. The only redeeming feature at all in this catastrophe is that forty years after it was filmed, it was used in Mystery Science Theater 3000. Joel and the robots tore it to pieces and made a comedy out of it. The clumsy, stop-action dragon was finally impaled upon the sword of irony.

No comments:

Post a Comment