Saturday, July 09, 2005

Editorial: A Revisionist Consideration of the Studio System

My brother proposed to me something initially frightening: “In thirty years are we going to actually think that these mediocre Hollywood films are great the way we think 50’s Hollywood films are?” I immediately compared In Good Company to something like On Dangerous Ground. On one hand, it’s not a fair comparison, because the latter film had veteran director Nick Ray (compared to the newbie camp of Paul Weitz), as well Robert Ryan in the lead, an actor that is underappreciated these days, and one whom I can think of no contemporary comparison - the only thing that comes to mind is that Ryan is the actor Al Pacino wants to be: handsome yet brutal in all his beauty, with a calm, intense composure, a sort of internal combustion. Even the stories are incomparable. The former film is a story of cheap ironies: a young exec falling for the daughter of the older executive he is about to replace. The latter film is a story of moral and ethical collapse: a police officer resorts to brutal interrogation methods when both crime and bureaucracy prove too much. To cool down, he is sent to a small, northern town to investigate a child murder, where he ends up falling in love with the murderer’s blind sister. Here, too, there is irony, but it is not so cheap as in its current-Hollywood comparison, rather it is used to explore conceptions of piety and pity in the hardened-heart of Robert Ryan.

The main reason for comparison is that On Dangerous Ground was by no means the best film of its year (Strangers on a Train, The River, A Place in the Sun, Ace in the Hole and A Streetcar Named Desire all came out in 1951), but is there any Hollywood as strong as it from 2004? (This does not even take into account the sheer number of solid movies produced by major studios in 1951.) The answer is: no. In Good Company is both the average and the best Hollywood can offer.

To answer my brother’s question: no, I don’t think in thirty years I will change my opinion. This raises another oft-discussed question: what happened to Hollywood? I believe that Marshall McLuhan’s phrase “the medium is the massage” has something valuable to offer in that it emphasizes the notion of relaxation and passivity. McLuhan argued that different mediums (print, photography, cinema, telephone, etc) have affect the way we communicate, and that advances in technology accustom us to certain conveniences that affect our day-to-day interaction with other people. His argument about medium can be expanded to criterion, as well: audiences become accustomed to a certain type of movie, and if diversity isn’t pursued then a steady level of mediocrity perpetuates and quality declines.

Allow me now to illustrate this former hypothesis through revisionist historicism that deals with the studio system. Before its breakup in the early 1950s (a government decision against monopolies in 1948), the studios had it made: they owned not only the production means, but also the theaters that would distribute them. This vertical integration assured studios that their was an outlet for all their pictures, regardless of whether audiences liked them or not (or whether the studios thought they were sellable or not). It was an assured market: audiences always went to the movies as there was no television, and even if they went to see an ‘A’ film, there would always be that ‘B’ film before the feature.

The breakup of the studio system is the separation between studio and theater: companies like MGM and Warner stuck with making movies, while Loews stayed with the theaters. With the assured distribution of their movies rendered unsure, studios were left without the guarantee that theaters would purchase their movies. The result, as I see it, is that studios had to find some way to guarantee exposure and profit, the easiest way being to always appeal to the audience’s taste. Being the manufacturers that they were, Hollywood began pouring more money into similar movies, making them “bigger” and “better” than its last reincarnation, in hopes that audiences wouldn’t mind seeing the same thing over an over again. In the wake of this “economical genius” (that proved more deadening than anything) was the dissolution of the multitudes of films a studio would make.

Studios were pouring their money into films with lavish effects, huge action, childish humor and garish sexuality (bordering on the ethics, more so than the visuals, of pornography) in order to appeal to the widest demographics. There was no longer room for the adventurous producer, and with the costs of films rising incessantly, they found themselves in a money trap: audiences had become accustomed to movies with large budgets and found themselves uncomfortable with minimal production. Only films with large budgets would draw in crowds, money begets money, and thus the budgets of films began increasing (and still are to this day).

If I have left out the criterion of films, it is because such artistic attributes have no place in contemporary Hollywood studios: sophisticated writing alienates audiences that have been desensitized to degraded writing. Camera direction that does not pander to fulfilling the quick-to-cum fantasies of the audience is unfashionable.

Television, home video, and now the Internet have made the popular cinema more unstable than ever, not that such mediums are in anyway “evil” or responsible for the degrading of the Hollywood studios. Rather, it is that the studios lost their nerve. This is perhaps the result of the separation of the role of producer and director, the division between art and economy (not that the two are innately opposites). Perhaps Jean Renoir had the right solution back in the 1950s when he, too, saw the rising budgets of Hollywood studio films (where he made The River in 1951) as disastrous for the freedom of filmmakers. He suggested that the only solution is to lower the budgets: with less money spent, there is less pressure to make it back (and less to make back, at that). Only then can the studios begin to produce quality material without the fear of going bankrupt.

But how will audiences respond to such a change? Have their sensibilities become so accustomed to pornographic proportions that subtlety is no longer acceptable? Or, hopefully, it is to movie-going that they have become accustomed to, and that after a while, they will accept anything.

-Cullen Gallagher

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