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!

* * *

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.


Blogger girish said...

Hi, Evan -- I agree with your suspicion of the dubious phrase "Golden Age of American Cinema." But I do think Bazin was getting at something important with his idea of the "genius of the system". To use Kent's quote which you mention: I guess I'm curious to figure out what factors account for the vastly higher number of "good movies" then as opposed to now...

March 06, 2010 3:18 PM  
Blogger Evan said...

It would seem that a great deal of that capability of the classical American cinema was its systematized mode of production, a concept that Bordwell, Staiger and Thompson discuss in their book. The ability for certain narrative, technological, and aesthetic factors to be securely in place--a limited "menu of options," to borrow David's phrase--allowed for directors to satisfactorily deliver expected conventions, while the best managed to tweak that menu into something unexpected and great.

After 1960, without the security nets of contracted talent, available facilities, economic need for steady flow of product, and a more expanded "menu of options" (to a degree), the system was inevitably faced with a wider range of quality.

This is a cursory gloss of Bordwell, Staiger and Thompson's argument, but it's always seemed to have made a good deal of sense to me. I just don't want to nostalgically look back and say that it was so much better in the 1930s. Not everyone ended up like Howard Hawks; in fact, most of them didn't.

March 06, 2010 3:47 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Evan and others -- My impulse for this post was non-nostalgic: I was thinking less of great films or of occasional "geniuses" like Hawks than of the sheer number of good films made in that previous era.

A friend asked me the other day (I'm paraphrasing--and expanding her question): Don't they still make Hollywood films in a more or less industrialized mode of production? Don't they still employ an elaborate division of labor (more elaborate than ever before) in all phases of production? Isn't there an unprecedented level of technical skill available at the filmmaker's (and the film project's) disposal? Isn't there more acting talent (or aspiring acting talent) in Hollywood than ever before? Aren't there genres that are alive and around and available to filmmakers to work with? If all these things are true, then why do we make much fewer good movies than we once used to?

I know Evan (via Bordwell, et al.) posed one response to this question. I was wondering what others thought--and if there were alternative perspectives on these questions.

March 06, 2010 4:49 PM  
Anonymous Corey Creekmur said...

I'm hardly the first to note (but will anyway ...) that no one recognizes a "golden age" when they are in the midst of it: golden ages only shine brightly through the retrospective glance from the silver or bronze age. And golden ages are always subject to memory and forgetting: it wouldn't be too hard to assemble a list of forgotten (or simply awful) films from 1956 alongside Sarris's list -- and of course no one would have put together his list in early 1957, when AROUND THE WORLD IN 8O DAYS won the Best Picture Oscar for the previous year: that example alone makes it unnecessary to accumulate more examples to demonstrate the gap between Sarris's retrospective, auteurist view and the mainstream opinions of the time! I'll admit that I am also prone to think of the early 20th century as the high point for comic strips -- but catch myself when I realize that I'm asserting that the great days of comics precede the arrival of the comic book, and of course the graphic novel -- a recognition that makes me question my own nostalgia for comics created before I was born. (Why, I ask, shouldn't the golden age of comics be defined by Lynda Barry, the Hernandez Bros., Joe Sacco, Art Spiegelman, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Alison Bechdel, Robert Crumb, etc.?)

I do think the "genius of the system" is worth taking seriously, though the romantic notion of "genius" might be usefully replaced by the less aesthetic concept of a mode of production (as Bordwell, Thompson, and Staiger do): Hollywood, like many factories, was designed to put out products of good quality that would please a mass audience. It didn't really benefit Hollywood to produce shoddy products -- especially if consumers shunned them. This meant that most Hollywood films (at least A productions from the major studios) maintained a level of quality -- not always quite genius -- that tends to remain satisfying (what Hollywood studio film is really unwatchable, if only for a level of technical skill?), and sometimes much more than that, even in what would have once been unexpected places (the highly conventional Western genre, or horror films, such as the cheap B-films produced by Val Lewton at RKO). One could argue that the breakdown of that factory system -- with its various forms of quality control -- led to films that were both better (in many ways, but at least that were less artistically constrained) as well as often worse (due to lack of systematic quality control) films. I'd argue that at least two key genres in mainstream American cinema -- the musical and the Western -- never really recovered (despite some stunning late examples) from the loss of the studio system, which ensured a steady stream of good examples of both forms.

As a child of the 70s (at least that's when I began to see most major American films as they were released) it has been fascinating for me to see that era recovered as a (the last?) golden age of American cinema. And when I re-view key films from that period, I'm keenly aware that they simply wouldn't get made today. Trust me -- we didn't know then, despite many wonderful films, that we were in the midst of a period that would shine so brightly thereafter! (I also saw a lot of pretty bad films that no one recalls fondly from the 70s.) But then, isn't there also a recognition that everyone's golden age is their formative youth? Isn't it inevitable that this is the golden age for the generation that is just now paying serious attention to films, and which will look back on the first decade of the 21st century with nostalgia after another decade passes? (One of the surprises embodied by the recent Hindi hit film OM SHANTI OM is that its 40ish director, Farah Khan, looks back on the 80s as a golden age, boldly challenging the usually unquestioned view -- also entirely retrospective -- that the 50s were Hindi cinema's golden age.)

March 06, 2010 4:51 PM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

Girish: here's another corrective to add to Evan's. One reason it's almost impossible to compare recent times to the past is the weight of received opinion. With each passing generation, the masters of the past become more masterful, the talented artists are promoted to master status, and so on. Sarris, who was already ten years into the auteurism-upgrade project, is far more conservative with his evaluations than we tend to be: he chose to emphasize Nick Ray's limitations, wouldn't quite put Ulmer forth as a good director, etc. It's really hard to get past the prejudice we feel for the already ratified.

As for the old Hollywood system, it's worth figuring in that those movies were made for an adult audience that was permanently subtracted by television.

March 06, 2010 4:54 PM  
Anonymous Corey Creekmur said...

But isn't the "genius of the system" a concept contrary to the auteur? So while Ray and Ulmer may now shine for us in ways we find hard to challenge (if we wished to), the "genius" claim asserts the value of, say, Michael Curtiz films: though never viewed as an auteur, the idea is that Warner Bros. and the studio system in general assured that "his" films (which the concept denies were really "his"), such as MILDRED PIERCE or CASABLANCA, would be good (or better) films by most conventional standards. It's curious that there's recent attention to (and a NYC retrospective for) Victor Fleming, another non-auteur director whose name nonetheless appears on two of the most popular films of all time (even if film history chronicles the actual production history involving various directors). Adherence to the "genius of the system" suggests most (if not all) Hollywood films were good, and some superior. The system in place now (such as it is) doesn't promise a basic standard of quality (except perhaps in technology).

March 06, 2010 7:21 PM  
Blogger Marc Raymond said...

I'd also add that many younger critics would strongly debate the 50s as any kind of Golden Age. Most would consider all but a handful of movies from this period terrible, because the conventions and techniques are so vastly different from today's norms (the phrase "too melodramatic" is very common). I disagree, as I'm sure most do here, and try to make arguments with younger critics/students to come at these films with a different perspective. But aren't we guilty of something similar when we dismiss most of today's Hollywood as inferior compared to the past? (I do this as well) I actually think the quality remains pretty high at the mid to low budget range. The difference is that the films most people see (which is fewer and fewer films) tend to be pretty terrible.

In 10-20 years, we may look back at now as a Golden Age (in fact, younger critics are already hailing 1999 as an annus mirabilis), especially with the rise of digital and 3D. One thing I worry about is that digital cinema is making things too easy. I do wonder if the same quality will be maintained because of all this freedom, horrible, horrible freedom. But then again, I tend to be rather aesthetically conservative, much to my chagrin.

March 06, 2010 8:03 PM  
Blogger Rob Hunt said...

Perhaps "genius of the system" is somewhat misleading, giving too much credit to the studio business model. I prefer Brian Eno's concept of "scenius," which I encountered through music critic Simon Reynolds who applied it to eras and scenes where great art was made by a mass of individuals, rather than lone geniuses. Eno talks about "the intelligence of a whole… operation or group of people" in this interview: I've been reading Michael Powell's autobiography and his effusive praise for his collaborators definitely speaks to an intelligent operation. Of course, I'm not sure why Hollywood scenius died, but the idolatry--pardon the hyperbole--of individual genius could be a factor.

That said, I'm not sure I'm with you on the comics comparison. Those classic strips and books are the consensus classics of the medium. I think that even if the poll was taken today and the top 10 remained mostly the same, you would hear from most comics critics and readers that there is way more good stuff coming out in the past decade. I think the problem with comics is that the medium has really ripened this century and it's impossible to keep abreast of all the good stuff, while it's relatively easy to list the best comics from twentieth century (Western comics only one should note; that list would be harshly criticized for its ethnocentrism these days, especially after the manga boom). I know I've seen many respectable critics call this the Golden Age of Comics.

March 06, 2010 8:19 PM  
Blogger bradluen said...

Some Hitchcock numbers:
1930s: 14 features
1940s: 12 features
1950s: 11 features
1960s: 5 features
1970s: 2 features

I think part of the explanation (though maybe not the directly causal part) is that after the studio system broke up, we stopped working our great filmmakers so hard. If we could get a movie a year out of Lynch and Bigelow and P.T. Anderson our numbers would look a lot better. (Of course, part of the problem is that there isn't a market for a movie a year from Lynch and Bigelow and Anderson).

Also if we're just talking American cinema, it's no longer the case that all roads lead to the US. Fritz Lang didn't have any choice but to go to Hollywood, whereas there's not much incentive for Hou Hsiao-Hsien to apply for a green card. (If we're not just talking American cinema, I'd argue there are more good movies made worldwide now than there were in 1956. Also, many more bad ones.)

March 07, 2010 2:10 AM  
Anonymous Craig said...

Can we really separate this "genius of the system" of film production from the "horrors of the system" in terms of human rights in the United States from 1920-1960?

What I mean here is that perhaps the limitations imposed by legal apartheid type laws, socially accepted misogyny, legal gender discrimination and legal and social persecution of "deviant" forms of sexuality created a much more coherent set of norms for narrative filmmakers. The opening up of society via the granting of legal civil rights to people of color, advances socially and legally for women, an upward economic mobility especially among the white working classes and the growing critique of the legitimacy of the states right to impose sexual limitation on consenting adults demanded a new kind of film making and the addition of new kinds of filmmakers.

These advances have been few and far between. Last year less the 7% of films were directed by women, directors of color are still rare, performers of color still find limited roles in Hollywood, etc. Hollywood now seems out of touch even with the dominant political system (ie. Women can be Secretary of State but don't seem to be allowed in certain powerful roles in Hollywood). Hollywood still feels likea bastion of "white liberal capitalism" during the dawning of the Obama multi-cultural era.

Audiences are by and large quite cynical about Hollywood today. They go to the cinema but they also have contempt for it. Everywhere you can hear people commenting about "Why do all the films about Africa have to have white men being saviors"? "Why do all the 70 year men in films have 32 year old wives"? "Why are women allowed to star in films after they turn 45"? "Well, the book is always better"? "Why does the gay guy or Black guy or Asian guy always have to be the first to die in the horror film"? Etc.

I think that the Hollywood commercial cinema has been unable to deal with the polyphony of voices that have been unleashed by the reform and social movements of the 1960's and 1970's. So, the products now seem stilted and limited. Of course, this is true of films in the 1950's but nobody expected to see diverse perspectives. When Elia Kazan is forced to drop explicit references to homosexuality in A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE or Martin Ritt changes the Black female leading character of the novel HUD into the white woman played by Patricia Neal it was deemed unfortunate but accepted. However, today when these kinds of "compromises" are made they seem outrageous (at least to some of us).

March 07, 2010 2:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Girish, I find Bazin's concept of "genius of the system" quite unfortunate, perhaps prompted by his polemical intent against "the cult of personality" danger he was criticizing in some texts by the promoters of "la politique des auteurs" (in fact, Rivette titled his seminal defence of until-then- utterly-neglected Hawks precisely and challengingly "Génie de Howard Hawks"). What he called "genius" - and I think there have been some geniuses in history, and that the concept cannot be dismissed as a "romantic notion" - was both a "good genie" and an "evil" one, and merely reflected the "industrial factory" side of American cinema, i.e. Hollywood. From both an economic and entertainment viewpoint, the so-called "classical" or "Golden Age" Hollywood was certainly successful: most films, even the very cheap ones, were at least "well made" and rather (more or less) entertaining for most audiences worldwide. But I doubt anyone would call General Motors, IBM, Boeing, Microsoft or even Silicon Valley "a genius". If you search for art, then the question is quite different, and the greatest films of that or any other era are not usually "a product of the system", but rather exceptions, anomalies or "wild cards", often compromised, mutilated or aborted by the very system (which included the Production Code) that produced them, although they might also have benefited from the availability of great professionals in all fields (producers, screenwriters, cinematographers, art directors, costume designers, editors, actors) which provided a highly efficient basis on which to create. Orson Welles - which seems widely considered a "genius", with all the limitations and problems people of that kind usually entail - was probably freer than at Hollywood after "Citizen Kane" in some of the films he made in Europe, though he always "missed" the technical means and the technicians he had in Hollywood, claiming he could not have made in Europe "Touch of Evil" (which was far from a luxury production). It is precisely such an exceptional film as "Citizen Kane" what for me embodies the "good side" of the system: it ONLY could have been made in Hollywood, but it was ONLY made the way it was because some of its main (rather restrictive)rules were not respected, and Welles was once given a free hand.
The "standard" or average U.S. film was certainly much better in the '20s, the '30s, the '40s, the '50s and the early '60s than ever after.
Miguel Marías

March 07, 2010 4:52 AM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

I think the real problem is that Hollywood studios were bought out by larger corporations, and a means of creating films that made massive amounts of money was developed into a generally successful formula. The idea of film as product has diminished the importance of the director. One example is the Twilight series, where the original director was booted because it was considered more important to get a new film out by a certain date. The genius of the system of the past has been replaces by a system that has created a generally less discriminating audience that is trained to see a film because it is the new one at one of thousands of theaters across the country. The directors who speak to this audience are Adam Shankman and Shawn Levy, among others.

March 07, 2010 8:42 AM  
Blogger Ed Howard said...

The comics comparison is definitely off, as several others have pointed out. Despite the continued — and arguably deserved — prominence of several of the medium's best old comic strips, there is no doubt that today, there are many, many more great comics being produced than ever before. I would even say that anyone who denies that we are in the middle of a golden age of comics now isn't really in touch with the medium.

There's another factor: everyone remembers Krazy Kat and Gasoline Alley and Thimble Theater, but forgets all the undistinguished crap being produced at the same time. Time is the great leveler in that respect, and it's easy to look back on these past eras and think that only masterpieces were being produced, while we're only too aware of the lousy work being produced today. It's the same in film: let's not pretend that Sarris' list was really representative of everything being made in Hollywood at the time.

March 07, 2010 10:25 AM  
Anonymous caboose said...

I think it is important to keep in mind that we are speaking of two very different kinds of genius here. When someone says "Hitchcock was a genius", they mean it in the sense a dictionary would describe as (and I quote the OED): "Intellectual power of an exalted type, such as is attributed to those who are esteemed greatest in any department of art, etc.". It is worth noting also that this is a relatively recent meaning, dating in English, like many of our contemporary cultural concepts (like "aesthetic") from the 18th century.

When Bazin speaks of the "genius of the system", however, he is employing a meaning little used today but which dates back to the 17th century in English (and which the French Robert dictionary dates to the 16th century in French and to Rabelais - more on that below).

For the OED, this meaning is: "With reference to a nation, age, etc.: Prevalent feeling, opinion, sentiment or taste; distinctive character"; or "Of a language, law or institution: prevailing character or spirit, general drift, characteristic method or procedure".

Some of these definitions might not be apt to describe a film industry, but some quite intriguingly are.

The French definition of the sense in which Bazin employs the term is, and here I quote from the Robert: "Ensemble des caractères particuliers, distinctifs qui forment la nature propre d'une chose". (It then gives example such as "la génie de la langue française", "la génie d'une époque".)

Then of course there's the oldest sense of the term, in French and English, dating back to the 13th century: "the tutelary and controlling spirit connected with a place, an institution, etc."

So I think that Miguel, for example, is mistaken to cast the debate in terms of whether or not "GM is a genius" in the first sense I outlined here; quite clearly we are faced with one kind of genius seeking to supplant a quite different kind. (I'll leave aside for the moment where this latter kind of genius comes from, if not from the fertile ground of the former.)

Bazin was referring not to a "golden age" of output and much less to an innate "brilliance" in the sense of genius as wunderkind, but simply to a set of tutelary norms that had developed over time. And he pointed out that one shouldn't be too quick to dispose of these, even in periods of exhilarating artistic upheaval and innovation.

Naturally, as one person commented, everything about our culture can also be tied back to prevailing social, economic and political phenomena and injustices, and the genius of the system will be inextricably linked to these circumstances.

March 07, 2010 10:44 AM  
Anonymous caboose said...

The "genius of GM", in this sense, was not that it was as brilliant as Orson Welles, which if nothing else is an impossibly incongruous comparison, but that it was able, in a heyday roughly corresponding to that of the Hollywood studio system, to find a way to produce a relatively well-made product at an affordable price in massive numbers. And, on another level, to influence - hardly the right word - our lives immeasurably, in realms as diverse as aesthetics, our sexual imaginations, our social relations, etc. The effect of this genius on our environment, our cities, our lungs, our economy, etc. is certainly worthy of consideration, but the fact of the system's genius remains.

March 07, 2010 10:57 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Ed, you've misunderstood me on two points:

(1) Nowhere am I claiming that the Sarris list is of representative films made that year: it is a list of the very best films made during that year; and

(2) No one here has disputed that a large number of bad films were made in the studio-era (see Evan's earlier comment that cites Kent Jones).

Instead, the questions I'm taking up are (i) whether a much larger number of good films were made on an annual basis in the studio era, and (ii) if so, why?

March 07, 2010 12:39 PM  
Blogger Ignatiy Vishnevetsky said...


But couldn't it be argued that in the early-to-mid classical era, the films being produced (or maybe "manufactured?") were even more "products," and the studios even more "factories," since until US v. Paramount, there were practices such as block booking and the ownership of theater chains by studios? In fact, wasn't it those rigid, sorta ruthless commercial practices -- namely block booking, which forced a theater to take an entire slate of smaller movies if they wanted a single big picture -- what allowed a lot of Hollywood artistry to flourish, via B pictures and the like? And, though "franchise" filmmaking as an A-film practice is a pretty modern development, the cycling of directors in those series is often a good thing. The booting of Chris Columbus vastly improved the Harry Potter movies, and, as far as Twilight, I'd rather watch a movie by Chris Weitz or David Slade than by Catherine Hardwicke.

March 08, 2010 9:21 AM  
Blogger Maya said...

As ever, thanks for the kind props, Girish. Always appreciated.

With regard to this discussion, I align with Dan's observation of "received opinion" and the hazards of nostalgic perception: 20/20 hindsight and all that.

But I especially concur with Craig who expresses the importance of socio-political reception much more eloquently than I ever would have. In other words, I think it's how these movies are being received that is the determining factor, not any diminuation of "the genius of the system." And I suspect it's the fear of moviemakers on how their movies will be received that have shifted the marketing--dare I say inspiration?--behind film production.

In fact, that plurality, that "polyphony of voices" as Craig puts it, grates meaningfully against singular ascriptions like "auteur" or "the genius" when the system is probably more accurately composed of many bottles with many genii.

March 08, 2010 11:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As Corey noted above, "Trust me -- we didn't know then, despite many wonderful films, that we were in the midst of a period that would shine so brightly thereafter!"

During the 70s, many critics were nonplussed, confused and fed up by Scorsese, Altman, Ashby and Cassavetes. The Conversation went by nearly unnoticed, while the popular Godfather earned Coppola his kudos.

There were infinitely more bad films produced in relation to good ones. My friends and I barely recognized "The Seventies" as they unfolded. In fact, we hated the decade. If things weren't soaked in 1950s nostalgia, then they were drenched in disco. Films were mostly about car chases and The Road, or disasters wiping out half of humanity, often on a shoestring budget.

March 08, 2010 5:31 PM  
Blogger Maya said...

Don't diss disasters wiping out half of humanity. It's one of my favorite themes.

March 08, 2010 7:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry, Maya. I'm a bit of a raw nerve. Last night I braved Earthquake for the first time in 35 years. The most terrifying thing about it was the credit that read "Written and directed by Mark Robson."

Like, ouch!

March 08, 2010 8:26 PM  
Blogger Maya said...

Heh. I'm being facetious, of course.

March 08, 2010 10:03 PM  
Anonymous Mike Grost said...

Pre-1967 Hollywood versus post-1967:

Downgrading Plot

Old: Story-centered movies. New: Movies and TV centered on non-story content, such as action, stand-up comedy, scares, special effects.

Old: Plot with strong logical progression. New: Film often episodic, with weak logical links between episodes.

Old: Plots often present difficulties for characters, solved by an ingenious final twist created by a character through thinking. New: Problems with clever solutions absent.

Old: Maps common in films. New: Maps rare.

Old: Geography of city streets and imaginary Western towns clear. New: Geography absent, vague.

Old: Comedy based on sight gags, or comic actors who take part in stories. New: Stand-up comedians in sketches and films that are only lightly fictionalized. Stand-up comics usually "hip".

The Assault on Reason

Al Gore wrote a book entitled The Assault on Reason (2007), which documents his claim that conservatives are conducting a war against thinking, reason and science. I think a related, similar attack has been happening in post-1968 Hollywood film.

Some changes between Old (pre-1968) Hollywood, and New (post-1968) Hollywood:

Old: A universe ruled by reason and laws of science. Events take place against a realistic world, or a science-based science fictional one. New: The supernatural, fantastic and paranormal are frequently present.

Old: Characters with special professional skills, such as musicians, reporters, authors, engineers, inventors, doctors, genius detectives or scientists. New: Characters without special skills, except those involved in inflicting violence - or in playing sports, or both (martial artists).

Old: Heroes build things. New: Heroes rarely build things.

Old: Heroes good at thinking. New: Heroes good at fighting.

Old: Musicals common, and characters who are skilled at singing and dancing. New: Musicals rare.

Old: Interpolated song and dance numbers in non-musical films common. New: Interpolated musical numbers rare.

Old: Whodunit mysteries common, with detectives skilled at figuring out who committed a mysterious crime. New: Whodunits rare.

Old: Farmer and rancher characters frequent. New: Farmers absent.

Old: Interest in contemporary news events, life and technology. New: Disinterest in current events, which take place in a world sealed off from current news or technology. (Exception: the spate of political films, 1968-1971)

Old: Cutting edge, visually spectacular architecture, interior design and costumes. New: Ordinary settings and clothes.

Old: Depictions of classical music, theater, radio and publishing. New: No depictions of "high-brow" cultural worlds.

Old: Musical scores of classical or jazz music. New: Popular music scores, made up of individual songs.

Old: Vibrant Technicolor photography and bright color design in color films. New: desaturated, toned down color.

The Worship of Force, Violence and War

New Hollywood has made lots of pleasant comedies, without violence. But many New Hollywood films glorify violence.

Old: Violence restricted to short bursts, tied to the story, and frequently restricted to a climactic fight between good and bad guys. New: Large scale set pieces, showing violence, torture or gore, elaborate beyond story needs of the plot.

Old: Torture not shown on screen. New: Torture common, and shown as effective in solving problems.

Old: Stories centered on heroes and good guys. New: Stories often centered on sick, vicious or criminal actions of evil or emotionally disturbed people.

Old: Child abuse not shown. New: Child abuse, molestation common.

Old: Theft condemned. New: Theft glorified.

Old: Fist fights. New: Martial Arts, treated as an expert skill on-screen.

Old: Few films about sports, and those often about a non-sports topic (e.g. Pride of the Yankees, Angels in the Outfield). New: Sports films common, and centered on winning

Old: Heroes avoid killing people. New: Heroes commit mass murder..

March 08, 2010 10:21 PM  
Blogger Maya said...

That's polarized to the point of being incanted poetry.

March 09, 2010 1:36 AM  
Anonymous Mike Grost said...

In addition to plot, Old Hollywood films stress highly complicated characters and personal relationships.

One might also look at some of the content of the 1956 films Girish highlights.

Science: Old Hollywood films are full of science and technology. Bigger Than Life shows drug advances (steroids) affecting personality. While the City Sleeps shows modern media: television, photo wire services, teletypes, and their social impact. Lust for Life shows the technology of painting, everything from a paint shop with supplies, to the science of color, to how painting is affected by outdoor light conditions. Bhowani Junction is full of trains.

Non-violence. Bhowani Junction has astonishing scenes of Gandhi inspired protests, with Indians lying down on tracks in front of trains. Non-violence appears elsewhere: All That Heaven Allows is inspired by Thoreau, whose books are discussed and shown on screen. The Man Who Knew Too Much show heroes James Stewart and Doris Day non-violently disrupting a political assassination.

Race and Civil Rights. The second half of Giant centers on the USA learning to accept Mexican-Americans as social equals. The Searchers has racist Ethan Edwards learning to give up hate. Bhowani Junction looks at relations between Indians, Europeans and Anglo-Indians.

Gays. Tea and Sympathy looks at the War on Homosexuals, then reaching its climax in American life. While the City Sleeps has idealized male buddies Dana Andrews and Howard Duff hunt down a serial killer with Gender Problems. The Killer Is Loose has villain Wendell Corey in a dress. In Lust for Life, Van Gogh tries to reach out to Gauguin, with bad results. The Searchers can easily be given a gay reading: Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) is a gay man in love with Jeffrey Hunter. At the end, all the straight characters go inside and join the Community, while the gay hero has the door close on him, permanently outside.

Old Hollywood films often had more subjects of substance than is commonly recognized.
This in addition to their strong commitments to plot, character, relationships, reason, thinking.

March 09, 2010 9:27 AM  
Blogger Evan said...

Perhaps the moment of division is more appropriate around 1949, the year in which the Paramount Decrees began to affect production. The 1950s seem to be different for many reasons with comparison to the 1930s and 40s.

March 09, 2010 11:12 AM  
Blogger Marc Raymond said...

Well, this hardly warrants comment, but Mike's list is highly selective in its old/new binaries and clearly reflects his own biases more than any kind of reality. To my mind it's equally as wrong-headed as those who claim all older movies are simplistic and technically crude. Both are reductionist. And the comment about the treatment of gays is laughable. Really, TEA AND SYMPATHY, which couldn't even mention homosexuality, is your example of progressive thinking? Whatever the problems of current cinema, and there are plenty, it has come a long way in terms of representations of gay and minority characters. We certainly shouldn't throw away the past, but let's not idealize it either.

March 10, 2010 1:48 PM  
Anonymous Craig said...

Marc-- I agree that representations of LGBT characters has advanced but I have to say that things are not so clear in terms of images of people of color? The oscar nominations and wild popularity of films like THE BLIND SIDE, CRASH etc suggest that things may be going backward. It's complex because we have a wide range of films and there are some realistic/empowering/credible roles for people of color but not in many bigger budget films and certainly not for women of color! There is visibility for African Americans but most roles are still demeaning or at the very least odd.

March 10, 2010 3:53 PM  
Blogger Marc Raymond said...

Craig -- totally agree, but I don't think better examples are to be found in the past. And while there are still major problems, especially in the mainstream releases, there is greater visibility and variety. And there was nothing as insightful about race like DO THE RIGHT THING pre-1967 (to give just one example).

March 10, 2010 8:11 PM  
Anonymous Mike Grost said...

I was talking about Hollywood - studio financed movies with decent budgets that play in multiplexes.
Thought Girish's post was about the "System", i.e., Hollywood.

Independent films like Do The Right Thing are outside the scope of this subject.
So are most modern gay films, which are mainly low budget indies.

March 10, 2010 10:10 PM  
Anonymous Craig said...

Mike and Mark- Part of what makes this dialogue difficult is that we no longer have a clear "industrial system" that dominates film production. What we now have is a commercial distribution system that controls what most people are able to easily access. That's why I have some feeling that we really are talking about apples and oranges here. If the great filmmakers of the studio period were beginning their careers today they would most probably be making independent films and hoping to get shown at Sundance and on the IFC channel.

That said I also understand Girish's initial question as being did this rigidly controlled industrial system have a kind of quality control "genius" to it that is lacking in post-studio pictures? I actually think the answer is a probable yes. This said I certainly don't want the studio system or the Hays code to return! Instead, I think we need to ask ourselves what forces could help remedy the situation we currently find ourselves in today.

It seems to me that with the collapse of the studio system and the increase in opportunities for film production and viewing that the most logical space for increasing quality standards is via film criticism itself. This makes it all the more distressing that we are seeing the demise of professional film criticism. The changes at variety being the most recent example of the new trend.

Certainly, the internet creates new opportunities for expanding critical space but it also creates many new problems. How do we popularize critical film spectatorship?

March 11, 2010 2:11 AM  
Blogger Nathan said...

Which I guess raises the question of niche marketing.
Before the political movements of emancipation for blacks, women, gays... in the 1960s, Hollywood could claim to represent all America "that mattered", i.e. white, rich, all the elements that Craig astutely pointed out.
But what I'm wondering about is how, once blown away, these claims could be reconverted in new sub-industries. The best example would be blaxploitation films from the 1970s: could the phrase "genius of the system" be applicable to that string of films, for example? There's no doubt that a lot of films were made, efficiently, with claims to represent a whole segment of the population... because the mainstream industry was incapable, in part because of what made "the genius of the system" possible in the first place, to do so.

March 11, 2010 3:13 AM  
Anonymous Adrian said...

Craig, I respect your views, but I cannot, in all honesty, regard anything that happens at that industry-oriented abomination known as VARIETY (two or three good critics aside) as any kind of serious 'sign of a crisis in film criticism' !!!!!! It is, rather, the spectacle of the mainstream culture-industry auto-destructing, and this is something I salute !!!

And (I am not referring to you here, Craig), all these crocodile tears in public for Todd McCarthy, whose work I gladly gave up reading years ago ...

March 11, 2010 8:15 AM  
Anonymous Jake said...

Well, uh, Ebert gave a rather touching dirge of sorts for Todd McCarthy (link) that revealed what an obsessive cinephile he was. He certainly wasn't all that bad and Variety is a good source of news in any case.

March 11, 2010 11:11 PM  
Anonymous peepudeepu said...

Regarding the genius of the system..

Auteurism is possible only when we have a strong system..It is protected by such systems.
Auteurist is like a small sapling.. It can get crushed if there is no system to protect it

but then there are gonna be some which grow into big trees and prevent the younger saplings from getting enough light to grow..

March 12, 2010 2:54 AM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

eedowsPeepudeepu's comment is interesting. It's hard to make definitive statements like that about auteurism, because the word has taken on multiple senses over the years. But it does seem that, to the extent we regard it as a social or political phenomenon, auteurism needed to react to a powerful, recognizable filmmaking machine. The people at Indian Auteur have what feels like an old-fashioned auteurist movement, and that's largely because Bollywood is still a steamroller.

This said, not any machine will do. I commented earlier that it's no mystery that the American entertainment cinema changed radically, given that virtually its entire adult audience abandoned it for television. The more mysterious question is why television didn't become fertile ground for unheralded but valuable directors. (Or whether it did. The network telefeatures of the 70s and 80s were often quite interesting; maybe pockets of interest develop and vanish during the history of television. But regular old serial, episodic TV doesn't seem to work out so well for directors.)

March 12, 2010 7:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There were a multiplicity of Grounds in Classical Hollywood Cinema against which the Figure of the Auteur could play. These main machines were:

1. The system of production..."we need a Clark Gable vehicle..." or "This is a B-picture"

2. Genre. as in "My name is John Ford. I make westerns."

3. The Hays Code as representative of a decency and civility culture where certain things needed to be elided or suppressed, for the sake of homogenous American culture. And negotiating and subverting this code proved your mettle as a filmmaker.

So what's left today: You've got a few guys like Fessenden or Zombie or the nameless oddballs at the Asylum who are working cheap in genre, but most directors want to be late David Lean -- more or less pretentious bigshots who want to leap genres with aplomb. This likely reflects the reality of the business -- less movies being made in hybrid (monstrous) genres.

And Dan -- just throwing this out -- maybe the reason people say TV is a writer/creators paradise is because it is NOT particularly visual -- they are in effect radio dramas. Viewers have become accustomed to a mode of TV "experience" that creatives dare not violate.

March 12, 2010 2:54 PM  
Anonymous peepudeepu said...

As we are talking about auteurism today.. some people like us were talking about indie films during 1940's(in Hollywood)..

I don't know how far we can draw a parallel between auteurism as we see today and idie film in those days(which reflected individual integrity and inturn innovative,artistic ideas).

The conflict is always there

The studio system came to hollywood because there was a conflict with Thomas Edison who used to collect royalties for motion picture cameras(he had a patent). So inorder to get away from his monopoly(he used to live in new jersey so people went to california to get far from his lawyers) the hollywood studio system came in which inturn created a monopoly during 20's and 30's. And then the Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers was founded in 1941 by Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, Orson welles etc.. to promote the interests of independent film producers. It's another issue that SIMPP had won a case against these big studios in supreme court.
Now that independent production is not a big issue(it still is actually !!) the conflict is drawn to formulaic versus art house films or the present film scenario versus the "golden" age or something else.

But have we progressed without any conflict ??

Wonder what the future of cinema would be.. (after all the present conflicts.. ) :)

March 12, 2010 4:07 PM  
Blogger Marc Raymond said...

To go back to previous comments, DO THE RIGHT THING is hardly an indie. It was distributed by Universal, budgeted at 6.5 million, and grossed over 27 million. It was also one of the most discussed films of the year, even in the mainstream media.

That said, it is true that today it is harder to define what is a studio film and what isn't. But still, any film getting a significant wide release in theatres should be considered mainstream enough for comparisons with the Hollywood of old, or else the whole comparison becomes absurd (which may be the case anyways). The mere quantity of old studio films would give it an unfair advantage. I'm not sure it makes sense to see DETOUR or other ultra-low budget classic films as studio and many of the Indiewood films of today as outside the system.

March 12, 2010 9:56 PM  
Blogger Maya said...

I was reminded of this string reading Gavin Smith's editorial introduction to the current issue of Film Comment: "Over the course of the last 30 years, art cinema, or what the French call 'auteur cinema,' has to a great extent been annexed by (or surrendered to) the not-dishonorable commercial imperatives of turning out product in order to put bread on the table, product that, for all its modernity, some regard as a return of the repressed: the dreaded Tradition of Quality, caricatured by Cahiers du cinema back in the day, alive and well in stylish new clothes."

March 14, 2010 10:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

João César Monteiro said something very interesting in an interview from the time he made le bassin de john wayne that somehow touches on this subject. He said that it was impossible to make films today like the good john wayne films because we don't believe in man anymore. the only film that john wayne dies is liberty valance and exactly because it's a film about the extinction of a way of life in the name of progress (and james stewart plays exactly the kind of character which will make us not believe in man anymore). he says that today we don't even believe in the president anymore. I think it's a good point of view on why the films changed from the 50s on. and I think somehow you have to believe in director of the film (in the sense of believing in man) and that's the auteurist vision. today we don't believe in much of anything and that's sad and not a very creative way of living. it's like coltrane quartet in teh 60s. coltrane is obviously the author even though the other musicians contribute in a very particular and special way. elvin jones said they were willing to really die for each other everytime they went onstage. that's belief!

ricardo pretti

March 15, 2010 10:54 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you, all, for your thoughts!

I'm caught deep inside the nets of the semester--but spring break is around the corner! I hope to put up a post this weekend...

March 26, 2010 9:50 AM  

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