Saturday, March 06, 2010

The Genius of the System

The rich discussion on auteurs and auteurism in the previous post thread has me humming with questions. Let me take up one particular line of inquiry in this post.

I think it would be uncontroversial to assert that our present moment is not the Golden Age of American Cinema -- especially so in comparison with Hollywood's aesthetic zenith at the height of the studio era from the 1920s to the 1950s.

For example, here is a small subset of Andrew Sarris' list for best films of 1956: Ford's The Searchers; Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much and The Wrong Man; Nicholas Ray's Bigger than Life and Hot Blood; Budd Boetticher's Seven Men from Now and The Killer is Loose; Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows, There's Always Tomorrow, and Battle Hymn; Fritz Lang's While the City Sleeps and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt; Vincente Minnelli's Lust for Life and Tea and Sympathy; Frank Tashlin's The Girl Can't Help It; George Cukor's Bhowani Junction; Stanley Kubrick's The Killing; Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers; George Stevens' Giant; Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments; and many more.

What was in place -- what combination of factors existed -- during that moment in Hollywood, and in America, that allowed a thousand good movies to bloom? One early answer came from André Bazin, who cautioned the 'young Turks' of Cahiers, like Truffaut, Rohmer and Rivette, against creating a "personality cult of the auteur". Instead, he defended the fertile context composed of industry, genre, and tradition he called "the genius of the system":

What makes Hollywood so much better than anything else in the world is not only the quality of certain directors, but also the vitality and, in a certain sense, the excellence of a tradition...The American cinema is a classical art, but why not then admire in it what is most admirable, i.e., not only the talent of this or that filmmaker, but the genius of the system, the richness of its ever-vigorous tradition, and its fertility when it comes into contact with new elements.

David Bordwell adds:

Bazin's point struck the Cahiers writers most forcefully only after his death, partly because the decline of the studio system faced them with mediocre works by such venerated filmmakers as Mann, Ray, and Cukor. 'We said,' remarked Truffaut bitterly, 'that the American cinema pleases us, and its filmmakers are slaves; what if they were freed? And from the moment that they were freed, they made shitty films.' Pierre Kast agreed: 'Better a good cinéma de salarie than a bad cinéma d'auteur.'

I think that the fine arts during the Renaissance and theatre during Elizabethan times might provide two parallels to Studio-era Hollywood. In all three periods, we had large numbers of artists who produced work of great collective volume for a single, sizable audience. The scale of the system could support and nourish a large number of artists and craftsmen, permitting them to work towards a technical mastery of skills. Further, genres flourished as conventions were created, elaborated, modified, transformed and regenerated in a continual and vital process of exchange with a mass audience.

Two more analogues of such "systems" spring to mind, both of which, like Studio-era Hollywood, thrived in the first half of the twentieth century. First, the era of the "Great American Songbook," with its brilliant roster of songwriter/composers including Irving Berlin, George & Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hart, Shwartz & Dietz, Hoagy Carmichael, and dozens of others. The institutions that made this great flowering possible included Broadway, Tin Pan Alley and Hollywood itself.

Second: Comics -- both comic books and newspaper comics. The Comics Journal, the leading US publication that focuses on comics as an art-form, conducted a large poll in 1999 of the "100 best comics of the century" (scroll down about half-way). Their results are revealing: while a good number of contemporary "art-comics" make the list, the uppermost reaches are occupied by works of popular art from earlier in the century like George Herriman's Krazy Kat, Charles Schulz's Peanuts, Walt Kelly's Pogo, Winsor MacCay's Little Nemo and Carl Barks' Donald Duck (all in the top 10).

So, to draw the circle back to where we started. We all know that American movies are still Big Business. Viewership is high. The industry has seen rapid technological development, with a concomitant expansion of palette for artists and technicians. What, then, accounts for today's American films not being in the same league as those made during the '20s to the '50s? How are the two eras -- then and now -- crucially different? And what role might "the genius of the system" play in all of this?

I realize that I've advanced more questions than answers in this post, but I'd love to hear your thoughts on any of these issues. Thank you!

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Some recent reading:

-- I've respected and learned from Cineaste associate editor Thomas Doherty's writings over the years, but his new piece at The Chronicle of Higher Education, "The Death of Film Criticism," is disappointingly glib, lazy, and inaccurate (as others have pointed out). See Chuck Tryon's and Jim Emerson's responses to the piece, and Jonathan Rosenbaum's comments on the Chronicle post thread.

-- The new issue of Cineaste has about a dozen pieces available to read online, including a few "web exclusives."

-- Adrian Martin at Filmkrant: "For my part, I often return to a key article of 2004 by the young Brazilian critic Filipe Furtado which...begins with a fine gesture: it juxtaposes Kiarostami's Ten (2002) and McG's Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle (2003) while sharply lamenting, 'the fact that it seems impossible to talk about them together struck me as a shame.'

-- Zach Campbell at The Auteurs on the extras and supplements for Criterion's DVDs of "Rossellini's War Trilogy."

-- Kevin Lee puts up Jia Zhang-ke's 1998 essay "The Age of Amateur Cinema Will Return."

-- David Hudson looks ahead to several new films including Secret of the Kells; and a tad late but no less interesting for its delay: Doug Cummings at Film Journey has put up his list of favorite films of 2009.

-- Several new posts at prolific Jeffrey Sconce's blog, Ludic Despair.

-- Craig Keller posts notes on several new Masters of Cinema DVD releases.

-- The Self-Styled Siren mounts a defense of Sam Wood; and Glenn Kenny takes up auteurism in his "Topics/Questions/Exercises of the Week" column at The Auteurs.

-- Is there a harder-working film-blogger than Michael Guillen of The Evening Class? Recently: he interviewed James Benning.

-- A nice overview of the career of Sergei Parajanov by Ian Christie in the new Sight & Sound.