Hating Hollywood

Even in the year of the art film, failing to appreciate what movies do best is just as dumb as sneering at subtitles.

Published March 29, 2001 8:35PM (EST)

I have seen a great many very bad movies, and I know when a movie is bad, but I have rarely been bored at the movies; and when I have been bored, it has usually been at a "good" movie.

-- Robert Warshow

In one way or another, Hollywood will always be the Great Satan.

We've all seen it before: periods in which the movies streaming out of Hollywood are so lackluster that the prickly outrage of sensible moviegoers everywhere seems to hang in the air. There have always been critics and moviegoers ready to exalt the lamest new import or indie picture just because it wasn't made with evil Hollywood dollars. But last year -- one in which many critics publicly complained about the poor quality of the pool of mainstream offerings -- the usual discontented grumblings began to mutate into a dull roar. It seems as if we're deep into a fine time to hate Hollywood -- again.

The year-end critics' lists for 2000 were unusually top-heavy with foreign and "smaller" films, Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" being a particular favorite. Lee's movie was named best picture by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, among several other organizations; another import, Taiwanese director Edward Yang's tender and vivid "Yi Yi," was named best picture by the National Society of Film Critics. At the same time, "Gladiator," named best picture at the Academy Awards this week, appeared on virtually no critics best list.

And in the Village Voice's 2000 poll of 55 national film critics (many but not all from the alternative press), not a single movie in the top 10 was made in the United States. Sure, that outcome is partially attributable to typical Village Voice pointy-headedness, but it's still significant -- many of these critics who participated in the poll are widely read and respected among people who care deeply about movies.

The Chicago Reader's Jonathan Rosenbaum has been particularly vocal in his criticism of the mainstream. In a new book, "Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Conspire to Limit What Films We Can See," Rosenbaum charges that the movie industry, aided and abetted by his own colleagues, is working overtime to prevent movie audiences from seeing films from other countries, forcing them to be content with inferior Hollywood fare.

And even though the reactions of typical moviegoers are harder to quantify, the rumblings of discontent certainly aren't limited to critics. The American moviegoing audience is such a diverse and sprawling bunch that measuring its attitudes and desires is a bit like trying to determine the girth of the Blob with a measuring tape. But in a country where audiences are historically allergic to subtitles, the surprise success of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" in the face of a blockbuster like "Gladiator" has to mean something -- proof either that American audiences don't find subtitles as repellent as previously thought or, more significantly, that they're more willing to go out of their way to seek out alternatives to what Hollywood has been offering.

You could look at any of these trends as proof of a new brand of adventurousness sweeping the land, as evidence that moviegoers are more open to nonmainstream pictures than they've ever been. But there's more than a whiff of sanctimoniousness in the anti-Hollywood sentiment that's been going around. Comparisons between "high" and "low" culture at the movies are nothing new -- Pauline Kael's 1968 essay "Trash, Art and the Movies" is one of the most famous (and jazziest) treatments of the subject.

But here at the beginning of the 21st century, the moviegoing climate is rougher than it has been in the past. Are there more bad Hollywood movies than ever before, and are those bad movies worse than ever? I think so. But it's also true that Hollywood has always been a convenient whipping post, even since the days before the Hays Code. It stands to reason that an institution that has posited itself as a starry net for people's dreams is also going to be seen as a receptacle for their derision, their disappointment and their disapproval.

The new brand of snobbery against Hollywood seems more insidious now, if only because it seems to be so knee-jerk. It's easy to see how that could happen. Thanks to magazines like Premiere and TV programs like "Entertainment Tonight," adult moviegoers are now more sophisticated about box-office figures, if not about actual movies, than they used to be. They're more aware that Hollywood is out to rake in as many of their hard-earned dollars as possible. Who wouldn't be wary?

But as dismal as so many Hollywood movies are these days, it's foolish and lazy to take the stance that good movies are no longer being made. What is true is that it takes more work, and more open-mindedness, to find them, or to find the things in them that are deeply representative of all the reasons we love the movies in the first place.

No matter how bad we believe the movies have gotten, eschewing Hollywood movies for independent features (many of which are not as independent as we would like to think, given the commercialism and insider politics of festivals like Sundance and the fact that many indie companies are now housed at major studios) is exactly the opposite of adventurousness. It takes a strong constitution to face up to what some of Hollywood is dishing out. Are American audiences tough enough to take it?

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Nobody asks serious, intelligent moviegoers what they think they'd miss if they boycotted Hollywood "product" altogether, or even how the shape and texture of their moviegoing experience would be affected if they simply separated their moviegoing into two distinct groups -- movies that are "good" for them, like spinach, and movies that are merely entertaining. If you look at a life of moviegoing as an ever-growing menu of experiences -- of big, dumb, loud pictures as well as intimate life-changing ones, of good films marred by cheesy scores and bad films elevated a notch by glorious and inventive cinematography, of heart-stopping performances nestled like pearls in the folds of a picture you otherwise couldn't have cared less about -- then what's so adventurous about circumscribing those experiences?

Even when serious moviegoers claim not to pay attention to how a particular movie is being sold, everyone has convenient file folders they drop movies into, once they've read something about a new picture or seen the first trailer or ad. In the old days, the term "arthouse" would have meant anything imported. Now the term is more amorphous, but there are still movies that people tend to place higher on the scale of artistic merit, and most movies made outside of Hollywood are automatically assumed to have more integrity, no matter how badly or well they're made. These "good" movies tend to be ones that people think of as beneficial for them in some way, edifying or enlightening or enriching -- ones like "Crouching Tiger," Julian Schnabel's "Before Night Falls" and Michael Almereyda's "Hamlet." This category would also include movies marketed to be daring and hip, like Guy Ritchie's "Snatch," as well as highly self-aware faux art house pictures like Lasse Hallström's "Chocolat."

At the opposite end of the scale we have the giant catchall for the mainstream pictures. At the bottom of the heap go all the big, dumb action movies or comedies ("Gone in 60 Seconds," "Dude, Where's My Car?"). After that are the large number of mainstream movies that are not necessarily big and dumb but are simply made and marketed to appeal to a wide range of moviegoers.

These are the movies that come to every multiplex, from pictures with a classy sheen, like Robert Zemeckis' "Cast Away," to seemingly throwaway comedies (and huge moneymakers), like "Nutty Professor II: The Klumps." Some "artier" mainstream pictures don't necessarily sit comfortably in the category (Sam Raimi's "The Gift" or Philip Kaufman's "Quills," for instance), but they're still likely to show up at the multiplex in at least the bigger cities, since they're made by directors who are working well within the parameters of mainstream Hollywood moviemaking.

Now that we have our convenient categories set up -- so what? What do they really mean? That movie distributors know which movie will appeal to which audience? But we already know that. (At my local New York art house, when I sit through a preview for the next Eastern European hardship drama shot in mud colors, I sometimes feel that I've been kidnapped by elite aliens who think they know what will appeal to me but are sorely off the mark.)

As much as we all love categories -- and face it, they're handy -- they probably do us more harm than good. Brave modern moviegoing demands a smudging of the borders. Critics are as guilty as anyone of having their pigeonholes. And since they're the ones most likely to air their snobbery publicly -- it is sometimes, after all, part of their job to come off as "snobs," whether we're talking about the good kind of snobbery (championing a little-known picture they believe in) or the bad kind (praising something that they think will make them look smart) -- it's easiest to take them to task.

Some critics, believing with all their hearts they're working in the service of the people, actually elevate themselves so far above the audience they write for that they unwittingly create mini-dictatorships. When he's writing about specific movies, Rosenbaum is an intelligent, passionate critic; in "Movie Wars," he comes off as more passionate about his own intellectualism than anything else. He gets his chief thrills from chiding his compatriots for not seeing as many foreign pictures as he does. He's right in lamenting that most critics' experience isn't as well rounded as it should be, but he dilutes his arguments by turning practically every chapter into a bragging contest about how many festivals he attends yearly (forget the fact that most working critics have to focus on movies their constituency will actually have a chance to see), or about how many obscure or foreign films he's logged in his lifetime. He collects outsider movie experiences like so many butterflies pinned to a sheet of cork, where they simply hang, impressive but lifeless.

Rosenbaum takes his colleagues to task, sometimes with appalling nastiness, for all the wrong reasons. There are plenty of charges you could level at New Yorker critic David Denby (personally, I'd start with his self-appointed role as the lone standard-bearer of values in this sorry culture o' ours), but Rosenbaum prefers to attack him for being so unprincipled as to work for a mainstream capitalist publication.

Rosenbaum, who's nothing if not honest about his Marxist tendencies, lives in a cheerful universe of his own creation in which writing for an alternative newspaper in no way constitutes working for the Man. (In my experience, alternative newspapers are more often means for the cats at the top to get fat on revenues while paying their writers thirteen-and-a-half cents a word.) He also soft-pedals the fact that his paper is part of a media chain as well, albeit a smaller one than the New Yorker's Condé Nast.

And his book is full of self-righteous puffery, too. He has a clear derision for almost anything that comes out of Hollywood, and monotonously argues that seeing all of the works of, say, significant and dull Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami will surely change all of our lives, besides being an absolute necessity in leading an intelligently navigated existence.

Where's the fun, or the adventure, in being an adventurous moviegoer when the commands are being barked by a guy whose love for movies is eclipsed by his larger goal of never letting you forget how smart he is?

It's all such a turnoff that it sinks his thesis -- which, ironically enough, is on the money. Rosenbaum is maddening, because even though his book reads like a lecture I'd mostly like to sleep through, I agree with his central argument with all my heart: What Rosenbaum really wants is for moviegoers to have the opportunity to see movies like those made by Kiorastami. As a fan of the filmmakers Chris Marker and Jacques Rivette, whose movies generally aren't distributed in this country, I've had to turn to museums or university film societies to see pictures like "The Last Bolshevik" or "Haut bas fragile," and that's deeply troubling. Because these movies don't show up even at art cinemas, it's almost impossible to share them with people who I know would love them, not to mention readers. They're hard to come by even on video.

The point, of course, is that accessibility is key to creative and open-minded moviegoing. Hollywood movies are available to everybody in multiplexes across the land, but they're not enough to create a full context by themselves. Satyajit Ray and Jean-Luc Godard helped us understand the Hollywood tradition better than pure Hollywood fare could; conversely, familiarity with the conventions of Hollywood is often key to enjoying those filmmakers' works to the fullest. In "A Bout de Souffle," at the cusp of the '60s, Godard both modernized and forever preserved dying-but-still-twitching gangster picture clichés; in retrospect, the picture is (among other things) a hearty and violent welcome to a new age, even as it's steeped in the language of the previous one. And the quiet pageantry and ripe-fruit stillness that Ray was capable of achieving surely owe a debt to the shimmery black-and-white sparkle of Hollywood musicals that had come before. There's music in every shadow.

One of the greatest pleasures of writing about movies for an online publication is getting immediate and frequent feedback from readers. Freely and often, they'll tell you when they think you're full of it, and even when they're completely off base there's usually some interesting insight to be gleaned from their comments. After I wrote a review of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" that was more qualified than glowing, and especially after I wrote a purely negative piece on Lars von Trier's stupefying "Dancer in the Dark," I received numerous letters stating that of course I couldn't appreciate these movies, as I'd clearly been "conditioned by Hollywood."

I was delighted. What lifelong moviegoer hasn't been conditioned by Hollywood? How can you not be conditioned by the system that practically invented movies? Ray himself, accepting an honorary Academy Award from his deathbed, speaking in a feeble voice tremulous with both humility and pleasure, exclaimed over how honored he was to be recognized by Hollywood, whose films he had loved for years. And then there's the long list of directors throughout the history of movies who have come to Hollywood from other countries to work: Ernst Lubitsch, Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Douglas Sirk, Max Ophuls, Ang Lee, John Woo, Wim Wenders, Lasse Hallström -- the list goes on and on. While quite a few of those filmmakers fled to this country out of necessity during wartime, there's no denying that many of them produced their best work within the Hollywood system.

And as much as other nations may complain about it -- particularly, historically, the French -- Hollywood movies, good or bad, have a powerful grip on the collective imagination of the world. Here in the States, good anti-imperialist liberals would like to believe that in other nations, moviegoers are rushing out to support their native product in droves. But do a quick scan of Variety's international box-office figures in any given week and see how many American films dominate the top 10. You can decry it or crow about it, but it's simply a fact.

But let's get back to Ray and that award acceptance speech. You could argue that Ray was talking about the "old" Hollywood. But how do we know where the old Hollywood leaves off and the new one begins? If you'd abandoned Hollywood movies in disgust after viewing Sam Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch" on its release in 1969, you'd have missed Robert Altman's "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" in 1971 and any number of equal or lesser pleasures through the '70s, '80s and '90s, from "The Empire Strikes Back" to "Blue Velvet" to "Almost Famous." (You'll have to make up your own list.)

If you turn away from Hollywood movies today, what will you be missing? A lot of car crashes and numbingly asinine romantic comedies? Yes. Loads of inane teen comedies and piffling dramas that purport to deal with "serious" issues even as they insult our intelligence? Yes.

So why go at all? Especially given the fact that movies are so expensive. (In the metropolitan New York area, the price has finally hit $10 a ticket.)

The best answer I can give is essentially the same one I would have given you toward the beginning of the last century, if we'd all been moviegoers together then.

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There are always going to be at least some good movies coming out of Hollywood, as well as bad movies that are enjoyable on some level, things that we need just for pure, pleasurable escape. But even if we're talking about the yearning to get something more out of mainstream movies, some deeper kind of connection, there's at least one good reason to stay in the game. The last great hope of Hollywood cinema -- which is also the one that it began with -- lies with actors.

Styles of acting have changed over the decades, but the essential magic that drew audiences in the earlier years of the last century to performers like Lillian Gish and John Barrymore and Mary Pickford has remained the same. Directors and writers, composers and cinematographers, are all important to the finished look, feel, sound, structure and meaning of a film. But actors are our truest mirrors. I've come to believe that they're doing the real dirty work of keeping Hollywood relevant.

The appeal of actors has partly to do with the cult of personality, and that's nothing new: In the middle of the last century, young people used to read movie magazines for news and gossip about their favorite stars, people whose skill or even just their sheer magnetism on-screen made them fascinating. Maybe that kind of interest never had much intellectual depth, but there was certainly something primal about it. The pictures and stories in those magazines represented not just a playground for youthful crushes and fantasies but a way for ordinary mortals to conjoin with the gods, to unravel certain mysteries of sex and beauty that weren't likely to surface, at least not in the same way, in everyday life.

Celebrity watching has a different tone here in the early part of the 21st century, where magazines like InStyle show us how to slavishly copy the lifestyles of the stars we admire (in other words, inform us where we can buy the "stuff") and entertainment-tabloid TV keeps us informed of their every move. It's natural to be at least somewhat interested in celebrities. They tend to be good-looking people who wear better clothes and lead more glamorous lives than most of us do. But more and more it seems that actors become celebrities before they've even become a presence on a movie screen -- every time I pick up InStyle, I find at least half a dozen young actors whom I've never heard of before, men or women who allegedly have some sort of credentials other than the fact that they're wearing the latest from Prada, but I have no clue what those might be.

While there's no denying that certain actors are undoubtedly "stars" in the old-fashioned Hollywood sense (I'd consider George Clooney one of these, as well as a lovely actor), it's time for audiences to try to shut out the din of the celebrity magazines and TV shows, to forget what they read about this or that starlet in Vanity Fair and to instead look closely at how actors go about their work. Until I see an actor on-screen, his Prada remains the most interesting thing about him, because how he does his job is of much more value to me.

Actors constitute the single biggest reason I still look forward to going to the movies, every time. Because when they're good, when they're funny, when they're simply entertaining, I feel they're renewing the essence of the promise that my first moviegoing experience (Walt Disney's "The Three Lives of Thomasina," at the age of 3 in 1964) held out to me. After I've been forced to sit through a string of bad movies, a great performance -- or even a merely delightful one -- can feel like a wrong redressed. A good performance in a bad movie can make my day; sometimes it's even more cheering than seeing a good performance in a good movie. If someone can speak to me from his or her heart, with words, or facial expressions, or a special way of moving, from the middle of a complete and utter mess, my sense of gratitude and wonder is even greater. It's the best kind of connection.

Sometimes Hollywood's restrictions hamper actors' performances; then again, the freedom conferred by a true indie project doesn't necessarily bring out the best in an actor, either. (I love Lili Taylor, but I've always found her freer and more fascinating in commercial movies like "Say Anything ..." and "Ransom" than in indie projects like "I Shot Andy Warhol.")

Because what actors do is so intuitive, you're as likely to find a good performance in a big picture as you are in a small one. If snobbery against Hollywood had made me less open to Tom Hanks' deeply melancholic turn in "Cast Away," to Richard Harris' Shakespearean mournfulness in "Gladiator," to Kate Hudson's golden-hued airiness in "Almost Famous," to Elizabeth Hurley's devilish spark in "Bedazzled," to Connie Nielsen's twin knockouts in "Gladiator" and "Mission to Mars," I'd be a poorer person for it. Not all of those performances are great in the sense of being life-changing. But each delivers its own brand of pleasure. Each does something to mend that breach of faith that opens when someone or something in Hollywood -- a dumb director, a greedy studio, a featherbrained writer -- has let you down.

The annals of moviemaking are full of horror stories -- ogrelike directors, arrogant stars, good scripts rewritten by morons. But the story of moviegoing at the dawn of the 21st century is fraught with peril, too. Going to the movies is less of a sure thing than it used to be; even if you set out in search of pure entertainment rather than transcendence, there's no guarantee you'll find even that. And since movie tickets are so dear, almost every nonprofessional moviegoer has to make certain choices.

I wouldn't urge anyone to stay away from the art house; if anything, I want more people to see Almereyda's "Hamlet," Yang's "Yi Yi," Claire Denis' "Beau Travail" or Wong Kar-Wai's "In the Mood for Love." I don't much care for what I've seen of the work of Kiarostami, but I think serious moviegoers should have at least an idea of what he's about. His movies should be distributed here. Rosenbaum is right in lamenting that poor distribution means that American moviegoers are deprived of many foreign films that they might enjoy if they were only given the chance; we should always be aware that there are large chunks of the world picture that we're just not seeing.

But what about Hollywood? Will movies get better if individuals start boycotting pictures that they assume to be lousy? The realistic answer is, probably not. But as disheartening as it is to think that we have little control over the quality of what Hollywood dishes out, the main thing to remember is that we do have complete control over our own life of moviegoing. We can choose to watch intelligently and with openness -- which is much harder work than being dismissive.

It's a dangerous world out there, and every ticket is a risk. But the potential rewards are still great, and the whole point of surprises is that we can't possibly see them coming. Like Russell Crowe fending off those multiple tigers in last year's Hollywood über-entertainment "Gladiator," we have to recognize that good work can come from any corner. Meeting it head-on is part of the challenge, and all of the thrill.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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