Rummaging my computer, to post some stuff elsewhere, I found a folder of old talks/lectures and such, and thought perhaps they’d be still of interest. So I’ll post in the coming months some of them here. This one was sometime after 1993, but frankly I don’t quite know when, and I don’t recall just what the occasion was, nor where – clearly not in USA. Somehow it seems to me as pertinent now as it did then – perhaps the names have changed, but the basic theme has only hardened and gotten much worse.
To speak, is, by its nature, a social act. Whether it succeeds in its intentions – that of communicating properly from one organism to another – is dependent on a variety of factors: is the language shared? is there a common ground to point to the aim intended? is there an overarching reason why the communication should work? does the communicator possess the means to effect its purpose? Each of these questions is implicit in our first words.
So here, by way of laying a little groundwork, I’d like to back up, before beginning, admittedly at risk of seeming a bit academic, plodding, maybe overly precise. After all, presumably I am here to talk about the topic of films, movies, cinema, and, while in some circles it is a topic given the gravity of serious thought, it is more often consigned to the realm of entertainment, of gossip, of frivolity. So the idea of trying to be careful in what one says would seem to run counter to the grain: doubtless, in most cases, we’d rather have juicy anecdotes about stars and famous figures. I am sorry to say I will disappoint those of you awaiting such revelations, albeit, like anyone experienced in the film world, I have my fair share of such tucked away. However, my interests for here are elsewhere.
Today, here in the United States of America, my country, and I presume also yours, we are in the midst of great shifts in our cultural, political, social, and economic worlds. In this way we are not any different than most places elsewhere in the world: across the globe the entire human species, in all its cultural and social subsets, is being severely tested. Ironically, the origins of that testing is within ourselves: the sphere upon which we reside, this earth, our home, is reeling from the effects of our human habitation. Through the means of our intelligence, our cleverness, our prehensile hands, we humans have quite literally transformed the world — it is not at all the world which would have existed without us. And yet, within the short span of our presence here – a few million years of identifiable homo sapien occupation, we have, imprinted deeply within each of us.
In the interests of clarity – which I hope will be an on-going phenomenon in the words to follow – I think it would help to let you know a bit just as to why I am here, and how it occurred that I would be here before you today. So, first off I was invited… well, to be a bit more forthcoming the truth is that I was not exactly invited; rather, I invited myself. It is an occurrence which has been, frankly, rather common in my life — whether to sleep on some friend’s or acquaintance’s (or even a total stranger’s) couch or floor, or to find some elbow-room in the busy halls of public, social discourse: most often, whether in a discreet manner or a rude, blunt, fashion, most often I’ve had to materialize as a gate-crasher. It is little different here. There are of course reasons for this, which range from the most mundane, to the more complex of social/political minuets. I’ll try to explain.
Most often, to speak in public, to, as it were, be “given a hearing”, one must have demonstrated some expertise, some authority – preferably derived through personal experience, and preferably certified through some institutional stamp of approval – on some given topic. And then, as well, it helps to have provided some indication that not only do you know your topic, but also you have the wherewithal to speak coherently, cogently, and articulately, and if possible, even amusingly, about it. Many people who qualify for the former fail terribly at the latter. Though by a curious twist, oftentimes in our era, and one suspects in others as well, qualifying for the latter often gives the appearance of doing so for the former. Good talkers – among whom we might count actors and entertainers, showbiz con-men, razzle-dazzle businessmen and politicians (sometimes all bundled together) – frequently manage to get away with the flashy presentation of the appearance of saying something of substance when beneath it all the only real substance was the saying. It is an amusement to be observed all day, everyday, on television, or radio, or the halls of congress or academic conferences. You may, at the end of this, make your own judgment about me in this regard.
Given the foregoing, you can fairly ask – especially as I confess my invitation was essentially my own – just what do I bring with me that qualifies your interest? Most often, these days, one would reply, quite simply, “Fame.” And, depending on exactly what realm we were speaking of this might mean one were a known hot-shot in sub-atomic particle physics, a local politico, a Donald Trump, a sexy up-and-coming rock star, or the like. In any and all instances, your case would be considerably enhanced by having graced the cover of Time magazine last week, having been on Good Morning America yesterday, and done a stint on Nightline or Arsenio Hall. Puncturing through the orb of the mass media, by good old American entrepreneurial logic, pretty much qualifies one for showing up and mouthing off: somewhere, someone is taking tickets, counting heads, and if one is not “famous” there will be precious few stubs to tear. Being known by multitudes bequeaths its own strange authority, for better or worse. Conversely, not being known is tantamount to getting censored. By such a logic we find, by one more turn of the screw, that the mass media is largely a mirror of itself: its open slots are mostly filled with those who actively engage in forms of mass media itself: with actors, writers, politicians, sports figures, singers, and even, here and there, “directors”. It is not often that those who toil in non-mass media find themselves enlarged through its mechanisms: Joe factory-worker, the shop girl, the bank teller, the telephone repairman, the farmer, the unemployed — all these seldom find themselves broadcast by multi-band frequencies back to the “masses”, except, perhaps, to play the fools on daytime quiz shows, or to stand in as representative “social problems”, or as icons of “everyman” in slick beer and car ads.
And so, then, in this instance, why me? By most measures I scarcely qualify as “famous”, not even within the rarified, narrow-band, community of experimental/avant garde film artists, so-called independent feature-film makers, or whatever other label one might wish to apply. While at times I’ve been vaguely acknowledged in both of these little communities, it has usually been reluctantly, with insinuations that, somehow, I didn’t quite fit in – and, being fair-minded about it, given the parameters usually applied by those slapping these labels on, it is true, I don’t really “fit in”, nor in fact do I wish to. I do though, work in a media customarily thought of as “mass”, albeit by that criteria certainly I have thus far failed badly in the arena. And hence, “fame”, that necessary but often elusive ingredient, has largely eluded me – or being a bit more accurate perhaps I should say I have eluded it.
From the outset of my erstwhile career, I have always found myself thoroughly outclassed in this respect by the rushing passage of my peers: in the sixties, as we were all starting out, Paul Sharits, Scott Bartlett, Hollis Frampton, and a small host of others – the Mekas gang and friends among them, including ever famous Andy, held the limelight. The names you read about in surveys of the 60’s “underground” films were my peers, though, if you were to examine the literature of those years, you would be very hard pressed to find my name among them. At that time I lived in Chicago – the so-called Second City – where an inferiority complex comes with the cultural turf. And back then, during a few seeming pilgrimages to that perpetual American vortex of hipness, New York, I found myself, and my friends, casually, and I think causally, dismissed out of hand – even though in hindsight I could say some of them were considerably more talented and better artists than some of those I’ve just mentioned. However we were not in/of/and by New York, and hence clearly just didn’t know our asses from a hole in the ground. Or, in one bruising instance which I remember, in 1968, when the New York members of Newsreel – the radical-left filmmaking propaganda organization founded in 1967 – descended upon Chicago for the Democratic convention, we Second City members, having started our own Newsreel organization, also in 1967, found ourselves simply run-over by the Big Apple presumption of clout: we didn’t know where our asses were, but they sure kicked our butts around for our bother. Pity the poor souls stranded in, oh, Tulsa, or Houston, or, worse yet and god forbid, in some small town. Ever since that time I have harbored, in classic American fashion, a distinct prejudice against New York. It is, I regret to say, a prejudice which the intervening years have given no reason to discard, but rather quite the opposite, have only underscored.
In the seventies, with the emergence of far-from-Hollywood feature-filmmaking one found Mark Rappaport, Jim Benning, Yvonne Rainer, Amos Poe, and a few others taking the bow. One might again note a certain geographical bias – if they weren’t actually from there, at that point they were, having made the obligatory move, living and working out of there: “there” being New York, self-announced capitol of the American cultural high ground (LA proudly claims the low). Situated in the middle of the US art world, and its attendant media arms, those in New York stood to considerable advantage in the swirl of cultural and academic interest that surrounded the nascent “new narrative” film, as it got called back then.
In the eighties, with the clacking PR-buzzword “independent” slicing through the cultural fermament, thanks to, among others, the IFP, at first came a few holdovers from 60’s – 70’s politics – Rob Nilsson and John Hansen, and Richard Pearce, along with a few others. And then suddenly, Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee, Wayne Wang, Steven Soderbergh, Susan Seidleman, – all a lot, lot closer to Hollywood in their hearts (despite declamations to the contrary) and, duly, quickly a lot more famous than any of those I’ve previously mentioned. Within the ethos of the Reagan decade, these people, and a host of others who tried to follow-suit, had an apparent ace up their sleeves, which, neatly fitting the American cosmos, placed them at the heart of things — their stuff looked to make real money, which in the US scheme of things is the proverbial bottom line! Money talks/bullshit walks! And in general they even managed to get themselves into the pages of Newsweek or Interview, and into ads for GAP or American Express credit cards! This is the real thing! Significantly in hindsight one might also note that they were all, more or less, aesthetic and political conservatives – even for all his fire and smoke, Spike Lee.
Throughout this whole time, now nearly three decades, the refrain which I’ve long grown accustomed to – I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard it – has been something like, “Oh, I’ve heard of or read about you…. (but I’ve never seen any of your films)”. I’ve heard this line echoed off the lips of regular film fans, directors of world-class film archives, other filmmakers from avant to big biz, and even from Hollywood lawyers and production types. So persistent is this that at this juncture I sometimes think I made one really major error in my career, which was that I actually bothered to make the films for which I have accrued a reputation built upon their having been “heard of” but never seen. Had I been really smart I would have perceived the possibility of simply crafting the aura and the myth of an ever-unseen body of work, and forget the rest of it! I mean making films is hard work and if one can have a reputation centered on unseen films… well…. The mind boggles.
Still, it is out of this – this stealth career – which, curiously, my presence here today is spun. Put plainly, I’ve been making films since 1963, some 28 years ago, and have managed, so far 20 some short films, mostly done in the sixties and early seventies, and since then another 11 finished feature-films, as well as 2 or 3 others awaiting completion. In sheer numbers, if the truth be told, it is considerably more than any of my contemporaries in America, younger or older. And when I say “I’ve made”, given the nature of the film business, maybe I should clarify a bit. In this case it means that: I found or didn’t find, or made, the money – usually very little – to make most of these films, meaning in the vernacular of the business that I produced them; then I thought or didn’t think, maybe wrote a script or maybe didn’t, took my camera out, loaded it and shot film footage – sometimes of things, sometimes of actors acting under my coaxing and guidance, synched the picture and sound, edited the results, sometimes wrote and performed the music, or otherwise, if there was any, supervised, carefully, just what kind of music; laid out the graphics and titles where there were such things, shot ’em on an animation table, cut the original for lab printing, the sound for sound mixing, did the mix myself or closely supervised it, and sometimes timed the lighting for the printer and finally hassled the thing through all the technical processes involved. By industrial film making standards one could say I wore a lot of hats, almost all of them. For myself though, as a craftsman and artist, I just felt like I was doing my job or jobs. And I will continue to do so, whatever the money at hand. Something in me feels there is a virtue in getting ones hands dirty, messing with the nuts and bolts and grease of things, and conversely, I see a vice in keeping ones hands clean.
But, despite this near three decades of work, or probably in a way precisely because of it, none of the resulting films has ever been theatrically distributed in the US or elsewhere, nationally broadcast, or exactly made much ado about – with a few modest exceptions – even in the most esoteric of film journals. In point of fact some of them are maybe a bit too strange, weird or something to be appropriate to the usual theatrical, or even art-house, setting. On the other hand many of them would, or would have, fit in, but I was remiss in the next job, that of salesman. Or perhaps – and I think this is in large part the actual case – no matter how good a film is, even an accessible one, if it doesn’t cost a lot of money it is somehow tainted by its poverty. There are certainly a few exceptions to this, so it isn’t a hard and fast rule, just a generalization. But the odd actual low-budget film that does see the light of some kind of US distribution almost always has a between-the-lines note that one ought to see it despite how little it cost, and despite its gritty, grainy rough edges. The obverse is that a really expensive film, no matter how insipid and lame, at least offers the spectacle of extravagant waste and idiocy, in vivid wide-screen color. And almost without exception, the mavens of the mass media hype machine will encourage you to trot out for a look.
In my case I would guess that each of my films has been seen, in the United States, by no more than two or three or, oh, maybe four thousand people – with the exception of two films broadcast at some graveyard hour by WNET in New York, which perhaps were subliminally perceived by fifty-thousand sleeping bodies. All of which is to say, I have remained thus far, steadfastly and adamantly unseen and, following naturally, unfamous. And hence, my need here, yet again, to invite myself. I hope you will forgive my rudeness.
I should note though that while the things I’ve just said lend themselves to being interpreted as open to a kind of bitterness in regard to this “being famous” stuff, it is not really that way at all. Actually, way back when I was starting – I was nineteen years old – I was already quite aware that working in some mass media form, such as film or pop music, inherently set one up for “fame”, and for all the things that go with it: for wealth, and its subsequent isolation and distancing from the ordinary world. To be successful in such a field, – whether you are a singer, TV newscaster, actor, or even only a modestly successful director -, this phenomenon, in one way or another necessarily occurs. And, quite consciously, it was something I did not desire (though certainly I also did not desire to labor away in my work to have it virtually unseen by the world). In consequence, by means conscious and otherwise, I often did things which subverted and undercut whatever possibilities existed for me in respect to pursuing the career/fame ladder. And likewise, I also busied myself doing other things, for their own or my own sake, heedless of the potential effect on such a “career”: in the sixties, for political and moral reasons I spent a bit over two years in prison, for refusing to do military service, pretty much right through the height of the cultural ferment of that decade. On getting out I spent the better part of the next two years engaged in as much political mayhem as I could manage. I worked for the draft resistance, rabble roused, helped set up the left film making and distribution group Newsreel, was involved in setting up a film co-op in Chicago, and worked for the “Mobe” – the organization that led to the Chicago Seven trial. It wasn’t, politically speaking, really all that much, and certainly in hindsight it doesn’t seem to have moved things at all in the desired direction I seemed to have had in mind – but it did gobble up several more trips around the sun, and provide, as did the prison time, an interesting education. I suppose it also laid the foundations for a future reputation as a uncompromising, foam-at-the-mouth, hot-head.
In the seventies, I retreated into a nearly six year stay in the woods – in California, Oregon and then Montana – far far from the cultural centers of New York or LA, or even Chicago. There, again, I was rewarded with a rich education – in raising animals, gardening, scavenging the garbage of Kalispell, implanting myself in a rural community, sharing life with a child (not my own), and living exceedingly frugally. I was, as is said, dirt poor, but we survived quite well and learned a lot, about a lot of things. I am not afraid of the next recession or even major league depression. Though again, I was far removed from any apparently useful “career moves”. Along the way, with the kind of insights that long solitary walks in the woods can open up, my awareness of the nature and effects of “fame” heightened, and my determination to try to avoid this increased. Looking at it now it seems a bit comical, this concern about “fame” while rummaging through garbage bins to keep three mouths fed. Immodestly, despite my circumstances, I knew I was very good at what I did, and that if I merely followed through and worked at it, pudding would prove.
While out in the woods, though, I did also shoot and complete a first long film, in 1973: it was called Speaking Directly. And while it took a another 6 and 2/3rds years to obtain a New York showing for it (in December 1979 – and not, I should add owing to my not trying – rather it was looked at by all the “right” NY people, who duly passed on it) it did, elsewhere, far away – in Canada and Britain – make some ripples. In consequence, for the first time for me, the walls of the cultural world were slightly breached. More importantly to me then, as now, was that it, along with my other work, showed to good effect in places like Cedar Rapids, Iowa, or Bloomington, Indiana, despite its quite non-commercial form and its direct critical, political, content. These days there are some, even in New York, who think of Speaking Directly as some kind of American masterpiece.
Subsequently, in the mid-seventies, feeling I’d largely absorbed whatever lessons were to be offered up by rural solitude, poverty and hard physical work, – not to mention long bitter winters – I found myself in southern California, where, after a deliberate lapse of four years, I resumed making films. In Los Angeles in 1976 I made a nasty but funny satire about Hollywood called Angel City, and returning to Montana in 1977 made a kind of contemporary Western road film, called Last Chants for a Slow Dance. Both were made for absurdly small sums, even for those days – $5,500 for the LA epic, and $3,000 for the Montana film – (and we’re talking about feature length, color films, with actors, aerial shots, some snazzy graphic effects and all, though of course in 16mm). As a consequence I was, momentarily, vaulted into the then-burgeoning independent film world, getting invited to festivals in Europe – Edinburgh, Berlin, Florence, Brussels. Back in LA in 1979 I made another film, Chameleon, this one for a whole $35,000, blown to 35mm too. It was a caustic, nasty tale about a spiritually corrupted dealer in drugs and fake art: a parable about Hollywood and LA. Briefly there was a little buzz spread about regarding my seeming talents: the hot air of the critics, without any apparent sense of contradiction, anointed me a new American Godard, an up-and-coming Wenders (never mind I’m a few years his senior), a this or a that. In the last few months I’ve been twice anointed a David Lynch acolyte or something. All this despite that a look at my work would show a perfectly consistent aesthetic and political continuum. I long ago gave up giving our friends the critics much credit for insight or intelligence. Back in ’79 one major Italian critic felt sure Hollywood would take me under its wing, and this being America, in some realms it was assumed I might make the only obvious next step and turn to Hollywood – or at least something like it. Never mind that my Southern California films, Angel City and Chameleon, had both been scathing critiques of Hollywood and its cultural parallels. One would have had to assume that either I was a total hypocrite, or that I was so naive as to not have any idea what I’d made.
And so, with the apparition of a “career” right around the corner, a seeming foot in the door to some kind of real “deal,” rather than making the anticipated grown-up leap to Hollywood, I instead consciously made a handful of films which, in their deliberate smallness, in their aesthetic, political and cultural radicality, only reiterated my refusal to make the mainline move. At a time when the banners of The Great American Indie were being hotly waved, and organizations were sprouting from coast to coast in their support, and the concept was shifting from nickel-and-dime film making to heftier quarter and half-million sums, or more, I was off piddling around making films for $8,000 (Slow Moves) or $25,000 (Bell Diamond), as well as a few others for lesser sums that remain unfinished at this moment, and one, for German TV – Stagefright – which was just plain hard-core avant-experimental. So much for career moves. For a decade this seemed to shunt me, yet again, off to the margins of the great cultural Whoo Haa. My work, pretty much as usual, was somewhere off the cultural trend map: it did not emanate from the hip hotbed of Soho where the stylistic posturings culturally mirrored the Wizard of Oz politicking going on a few hundred miles to the south, or the fiscal smoke and mirrors going on only a few blocks down Broadway on Wall Street: the politics, economics and films were all of a piece, equally vapid and morally bankrupt, riding on appearances rather than substance. They were all duly applauded and adored while the country stuck its head in the sands of history.
My films contrarily were about the inverse of the hip — two films about some unattractive, decidedly unstylish unhip losers in Butte (where?), Montana, and Northern California (Bell Diamond and Slow Moves); Uncommon Senses, a sprawling, politically and aesthetically, radical critique of America at the height of the conservative Reagan years; and Rembrandt Laughing, a quiet, gentle, comedy of manners among the not-yet-fashionable near-middle-aged, set in San Francisco, done for $10,000, at a time when the concept of “independent” had moved into the multi-million range. As usual, for practical purposes these films were all but unseen in America. One might say it is as if one had willed obscurity; or, others might say, “failure.” And, in part, I’d have to admit this would be correct: the longer I was around, the more I knew, the less interesting or appetizing the movie business seemed – whether in the knuckle-crunching version played out in Hollywood, or the back-biting, trend-conscious version played out in various Arts Councils, foundations and the like. If the measure of success was to be found there, then I didn’t mind passing on the whole affair. Though, being myself, given the odd public forum, I generally spoke my mind, called a spade a spade as I saw it, and – I think especially in the last, and current, conservative years – paid duly for the effrontery of actually using the supposed right of free speech.
Along the way, a new, and dubious tag was affixed to me. I had not faded away, but, apparently oblivious to the winds of fashion, or to that significant eighties imperative of making the honorable million or two, I had instead doggedly persisted to make my ever inexpensive and “unseen” movies. And in turn I was anointed “a” or “the” or an “independent among independents”, a “maverick”, an unruly outsider, a loner…. Finally the specific label doesn’t really matter, rather its function does: the point is to diminish one’s meaning, to marginalize, to push to the side; to, finally, walk over, dispose of, and try to crush. That is the real point of such labels, whether it emanates from the offices of some commissar in a defunct USSR, or from the pens of critics who are really little more than PR flacks of that big business – an ideological factory – called Hollywood. However it is couched, those who would call another a rebel, an enfant terrible, and all the other similar names, are really saying that one is an outcast, which, if we just reverse the order, says it more clearly: one is, thank you, being cast out. Of course, the more vehemently it is said, the more suspicious it becomes.
And so, to, in musical fashion, return to the motif announced at the beginning of this, I am here, decidedly, as a self-invited gate-crasher. Having been cast out more times than I care to count, I’m back at the door, determined to get in, however undesired that may be. Sorry. I am here, despite innumerable things, small and large, which mitigate against the chances of someone such as myself getting to such a place; I am here in lieu of numerous others, not dissimilar to me, who either fell by the wayside invisibly, or chose – perhaps more sensibly – under the circumstances to find other things to do with their lives. In consequence, lacking a degree, or a pedigree, or other institutional packaging ribbons, I’ve had to make this little excursion into biography, for which I hope you will excuse me. I am a firm believer that one should know the background and situation of those who deliver messages, the better to make judgment on that message.
Having said all this, you might well wonder just what is it that makes me either want to be here, despite my obvious reservations and complaints, or what is it that allowed me to, or made me, persist. Or, you might also think, “where does this guy get off saying this – he IS famous, well sort of….” (meaning you have heard of me, and so you thought to come to this talk). Or maybe you think I kvetch too much, and, what after all is wrong with the way things work in America. In the movies? In life? I can, frankly, imagine a host of doubts swarming in your minds.
And so, then, I will try to tell you why I have invited myself, and tried, however lamely, to crash the party.
HOW IT WORKS
In my previous words I tried, consciously, to be a bit conversational, casual, maybe even amusing; to describe a bit of a part of a life spent making films, living in the cultural milieu which surrounds that, and trying to tell you, and perhaps as well, myself, just why I took the paths I took. Along the way I tried, in a low-key manner, to provide the underpinnings of a kind of argument as to why you might wish to bother to listen to me, to consider and think about my experiences and the thoughts which they in turn have generated. I would not, otherwise, be here today, or have spent the time thinking about these things myself. So perhaps it would be instructive, if a bit academic, to go back for a moment here and look at the very word attached to my being here: I am here, formally, to “give a lecture.” In general such a phrase is likely to induce a recoil: for the most part to be on the receiving end of such – to “be lectured” is thought as a painful process, either because we made some damn fool mistake, or, because it seems to imply a bit of heavy, brain-damaging, thinking. Generally we regard it rather something like taking a bitter, even if just, perhaps, needed dose of medicine; we seldom though imagine it as “fun.” But, sometimes a bit of brain-tickling can be just that. So let me, an unschooled, self-taught, autodidact, if you will, spin a little bit of linguistic etymology. For those who might have found that a bit too much of a lexical torment, it just means I’d like to take a look into the history of the word we’re using here. Just what is a “lecture?”
According to some etymological sources – mine was Websters Collegiate Dictionary a long time ago – in the Indo-European languages the word for lecture derived originally from “leech” – as in the medical practice of letting leeches suck the blood out of sick people, supposedly to help them. This was, as many things way back then were, quite wrong-headed. However the intention was to help. Then the word morphed into “lecture” which originally meant a reading, one from which it was intended one would “learn.” And from the process of learning, one would draw conclusions and the word morphs into “law.” So, briefly, a lecture is meant to be a useful, healthful process from which one might learn and in turn draw certain rules, or laws.
With this in mind then, I’d like to take a look at a small world, the one I’m presumed to be at least somewhat knowledgeable about, film making, and to try to understand a few things about it which are perhaps not customarily perceived. To do this I’ll draw on a life of experience, trying to reflect through that something more general and useful regarding our culture at large, and finally something you might find directly pertinent to your own lives.
I am, as you know, a filmmaker. By the measuring stick one might normally apply to this, though, I sit far off at the margins of the industry which film production constitutes, caught off in a little eddy, along with a handful of others, while the larger mainstream roars loudly and quickly by. So forcefully does this larger main branch go that it often picks up tidbits from my little eddy and takes them along, and does so so loudly that hardly anyone ever hears it. The inhabitants of this backwash in which I survive count for perhaps one in 25,000 film makers or people who in one way or another imagine themselves to be film makers. This is, of course, an assertion that begs for some clarification, which I’ll try here.
In America most film making – by which I’ll venture the guess that this means 85 or 90% of film making – is done in the service of a single, driving, motivation: to make money, preferably lots of it. This comes, though, in many guises: from the obvious example of the Hollywood blockbuster, carefully constructed with all the right “elements” – big stars, director, budget, hot script -designed to elicit the most bucks per theater, internationally, possible, on to the more humdrum routine of the daily fill of TV time, of advertisements, of MTV, and the like. Of the remaining little pool of 10 or 15%, most is devoted to utilitarian functions – to educational purposes, to scientific study, to governmental or corporate propaganda, or the like. Beside these two branches a last tiny little protrusion exists – maybe, being extraordinarily generous, 1% (though I suspect probably more like .1%): here the driving motivation is to make “art”, or something like it. The proponents of this are often screwball cases, like myself, who work away, heedless of such silly preoccupations as worrying about money, insurance, pensions and all the things that go with it. We may or may not give much consideration to our possible audience, and whatever our intentions, we often fail. But, most decidedly, we do not make films in the anticipation of thereby making money; quite the opposite we do so despite the fact that it most likely costs us money. The concept of the “deal,” with all its implications, sees us recoiling in disgust.
Now I know that here I’ll likely be called into question, what with my numbers: certainly, given all you read about it, “art” covers more than 1 or .1% of film making. After all, what about all those “independent” films you’ve read about – you know, sex, lies and videotape, or Metropolitan or Spike Lee’s latest? What about the classier Hollywood product, like, oh what the hell, Dick Tracy, Henry and June or The Sheltering Sky, or, oh, I don’t know, some film where the director goes on TV and says he took a big cut and big risks, and the actors said it was real tough, and gee whiz, they all did it because, you know, “they really believed in it.” And maybe Ebert and Siskel said two thumbs up, and Canby said “masterpiece.” Isn’t all this “art?” My answer, as you might easily anticipate, is most likely a rude, “fuck no!” Most such film making, some made under the sincere rubric of “art,” is made by people who honestly confuse their earnest desire to “express themselves” with their equally earnest intention to make a good buck as well, and they know in their hearts all too well the formulas by which that buck is made. Their inner concept of “art” already has commercial intent and content built in: it is, from conception, kitsch, and has as much relation to art as Hummel dolls do to Michaelangelo’s Pieta.
This is not to say that art can’t, here and there, make money. Just that art doesn’t, and can’t, begin there – perhaps (and having little to do with whether it is good or bad art — probably most money-making art is the bad art) it can end there – making money. But when a big time (or little time) industry director takes it in his head to make “art” – say Steven Spielberg making The Color Purple – he makes a great to-do of the sacrifices, the difficulties, the mental and emotional torments involved; and, not having the vaguest idea of what art might actually be, makes the inevitable piece of overblown doodoo. Whenever the mighty powers of Hollywood begin to fulminate about art one can duly anticipate a certain heaviness of hand, a pre- and portentiousness, and most often an awful thud as it tumbles downward in the Variety listings despite the inevitable pages of free press rendered up by the national media, not to mention the 10 or 15 million spent for promotion. Unhappily, Hollywood seems not to know that one does not take a little time off from the unhappy rigors of commercial demands to make art; making art, or trying to do so, is a far far more rigorous a chore than anything the heads of Hollywood, or their hired hands, can imagine. When, as happens on occasion, Hollywood does make art (very very infrequently in our time) it is at best the consequence of a happy accident rather than consciousness.
Given that the foregoing smacks of a tirade, of a bit of petulance, arrogance, and for sure a certain lack of shall we say, generosity, toward the likes of Mr. Spielberg, I can almost hear the chorus coming back, something to the effect: well, what’s wrong with – and then a compendium of titles, the ones you can remember from the past few years, the ones you liked, the ones you heard about that did big b.o. but you didn’t manage to see, and so on. Distilled to its essence, it comes down to something like, “I liked it/millions of others did also,” and, by a leap of illogic, ergo it is OK, and further, it is even, put under pressure, “art,” if “art” is the necessary legitimizing word we need. My answer is, forgive me, “bullshit!”
I’ll cite, because it is vaguely amusing, a recent personal instance of this kind of thing. This past summer I was at the Telluride festival, high up in the Colorado Rockies, and as things happened I was placed on a panel composed of an odd mix of supposed “independent” filmmakers: they included, sitting at the far right, Clint Eastwood, who of late has busied himself with making imagined “art” in between stints at self-acknowledged commercial shtick; Taylor Hackford, a producer and the director of “An Officer and A Gentleman;” Abel Ferrara, maker of stylish, New York-set exploitation flics; our moderator, Annette Insdorf, a professor at Columbia and intellectual gad-about the biz; then Babette Schroeder, Euro-helmer transplanted of late to the US, director of Bar Fly and Reversal of Fortune; Richard Pearce, the maker of The Long Walk Home, and a string of similar liberal minded, do-goody films of no creative merit whatsoever; and lastly, at the far left, myself. We had gathered together, all present for having films in the Telluride festival, to talk, ostensibly, about the imagined difficulties faced, thanks to the harsh taskmasters of Hollywood and their even harsher taskmaster, the Market, for making – and I duly place this in quotes – “adult” films. Madame Insdorff opened up with a soliloquy on the vicissitudes of the market, though mentioning a handful of, in her mind, “adult” independent films that had miraculously squeaked through (in my mind these same films would qualify as puerile drivel, so it was clear we had some kind of semantic problems before us). Annette proceeded, duly, to toss the matter, systemically, right to left, into our expert hands. Clint, showman that he is, made the obvious “porn” joke which attended the seeming question at hand, and then waxed long, if not exactly eloquently or interestingly, on how difficult raising the funds for White Hunter, Black Heart, had been. The audience, slightly numbed, wept crocodile tears on his behalf. The baton passed to Mr Hackford whose very name renders up its own obvious appropriate joke, but he in turn waxed long and boringly on his own artistic pretenses, using the inevitable cliche “really-believed-in,” and stressed his profound artistic sincerity. Mr Hackford was present as producer of The Long Walk Home, a sterling example of mush-anointed-art typical of Hollywood’s liberal wing – though along with Mr Eastwood, Taylor purported to be a struggling outsider! Truly, he, director and cast all suffered mightily to make this wishy-washy tear-jerking commentary on the politically touchy topic of — uh, well, civil rights events of 30 years ago. Abel Ferrara came next and provided some streetwise humor delivered in good New Yorkese, which helped, if only momentarily to puncture the dubious solemnity of the event. In contradiction to the two preceding him, Abel was happy to wise-ass that now he was a hot-shit Hollywood director, and then, it was my turn. Speaking more briefly than those who had preceded me, I laid into the pretensions of these Hollywood sorts with their sad stories of how hard it was for them and their ever-so creative impulses, to deal with the demons of the business. I suggested that their laments were phony (and by implication that they were phonies), and to claim they were “independent” was farce. Annette, looking vaguely shocked, saw fit to promptly direct the talk elsewhere. Whereupon – and I am not kidding – bursts of shouting and applause for what I’d said punctuated the thin Colorado air. Yells for “More! More!” echoed over the mountain top where we had gathered. Instead Ms. Insdorff shunted things back to celebrity and a thin gruel of talk where, in a spate of hyper-radicalism, Mr Eastwood – and this is a true story – said he was pleased that his new film had allowed him to quote John Huston complaining how the process of selling popcorn dictated what kind movie one could make, and so he thereby sort of agreed with this fella at the other end of the table, and boy, take that on the chin Hollywood: had Clint ever acted so limp-dicked in any of his roles he never would have left the mock West of Spain. The talk dwindled into sawdust, and after an hour was closed. In a discourse among presumed grown, adult, intelligent people, most of the talk had been self-serving bullshit, whining about funds, and thoroughly dishonest assertions of “independence” from people who have long since been bought and sold and were, thereby, strangely, embarrassed about it all. To think that these people, carefully culled for presentation at this major festival, in some way represented the enlightened, intelligent face of American cinema, is at best a travesty.
So I have cited this anecdote not for the intelligence or wisdom to be gleaned therefrom, but, sadly, for the opposite factor. There, gathered under the auspices of a prestigious festival, of some import in the wheelings and dealings of, at least, the US art house distribution and exhibition biz, were a small handful of people, presumably intelligent, energetic, experienced, who, given the opportunity to speak in public took refuge behind a veneer of liberal platitudes, of self-serving kvetches about money, and who did not dare look, even momentarily, in the mirror to their own image. Like those who populate the political spectrum in America, these people – perhaps marginally more sincere than their crasser peers – Freddy Fields, or Michael Ovitz, or other On High Hollywood bigwigs – are, as their cringing behavior, as well as their questionable words, revealed, thoroughly corrupted: intellectually, socially, morally.
These are, I know, harsh words. In the present social atmosphere, they are in a way taboo. We are not supposed to talk like this, or, if and when we do, we are quickly pushed aside by various means. One is compared to the thundering know-nothings of the religious or political right – to Jimmy Swaggart or Senator Helms. Or one is ridiculed as a throwback to the sixties and the shrill “off-the-pigs” sloganeering of the left. Right or left, the intent and effect, though, is the same: to foreclose discourse, to shut off the option of public thinking. The purpose is to sustain the status quo, to silently assert that whatever is going on – especially with oneself and one’s own immediate world – is OK, nothing to get excited about, and certainly nothing to criticize.
But, as the evidence of our everyday world insistently indicates, everything is not OK. However much we would like to think it is, and would like to think our role in it is OK, we cannot these days walk down a city block, take a drive through the rural back roads, or give a momentary honest look at the world around us, or our place in it, and claim, with any honesty, that all is OK. The evidence, simple and plain, is to the contrary.
So, you might ask, what the hell has this to do with movies? This guy is here to talk films, and here he is talking something else. So, I imagine, you might be thinking.
So, while I will redirect these words back to film, I must note that they can and will, necessarily, erupt out from that world, and into the world at large.
Recently I read that in US exports, the entertainment business, of which I am certain movies and television make a very large portion, (along with popular music), stands second only to aerospace — which is a nice euphemism for a mix of commercial airliners, and, well, military exports – fighter planes, bombers, missiles, you know, those run of the mill exports that keep the economy humming, or at least running. It gives a bit of room to ponder, though it doesn’t, at least for someone who travels as much as I do, surprise: the marquees of Paris, London, Berlin, Tokyo, not to mention myriad other smaller burgs, bristle with the titles and stars of Hollywood: our exported shadow shows bring back, it seems, some very real very big bucks. I mean really really big bucks: this is, on a scale that you and I may find hard to comprehend, really big business, and, like its counterpart, the military-industrial complex, it would prefer to keep many aspects of its workings off-screen. It is pleased to make its stars house-hold names around the world, it is pleased to have its aura induce screams of delight from teenagers from LA to New York to Tokyo to Moscow to Rio; it is not, however, pleased to have its real business aired in public.