Film Fund-amentals: Digressions

If this were France, we all would be on vacation. But it isn’t, and the citizens of the U.S. are expected to trudge away through stifling heat and the umpteenth Will Farrell movie like dutiful workers in a redo of Metropolis. It all sounds just slightly dreadful, but it also sums up the strange feeling that seems to permeate the national mood.

Which is an odd mindset for a vacation, but having spent part of the week driving past boarded-up businesses, Tea Party billboards and a general state of weariness and decline, I suspect that such musings are unavoidable (unless you live in the protected bubble called Washington, DC). By and large, the country is not in good shape and appears to be on a downward skid that could yet rival the Great Depression of the 1930s. The effects are pretty obvious and the feeling is increasingly fatalistic.

But this is only true in the real world. At the movies, the universe exists at a complete disconnect from anything that might currently be real. Oh sure, people go to the movies to escape from their troubles. But in the past, there was some kind of connection between the viewer and the viewed, a type of shared consensus that allowed for a filtered and artificial sense of cinematic reality. For the most part, the movies had a connection with the lives of the movie-goers.

For all practical purposes, that connection no longer exists. The average Hollywood film made today has no particular relationship to any aspect of the viewer’s reality (except for the amount of time they suck away from the viewer’s overall life span – you know, a couple of hours here or there until you have a large chunk of your life that you can’t even remember). Most of these movies have gone beyond the rationale of mere escapism. Instead, they have created a strange twilight zone of comic book vision, adolescent fantasy and enough arrested development to stunt an elephant.

By itself, this would be sort of half OK if it weren’t for the fact that everything else is completely falling apart. The economic situation has turned into a half-bogus fight between the “conservatives,” who are hell bent on defending the “right” of the extremely wealthy one per cent to have everything, against the “liberals,” who are, ironically, fighting for the right of the pretty wealthy ten percent to have a cut of the action. The rest of the nation is basically damned either way. Real unemployment is around 22 to 25 percent, and this doesn’t seem to bother anyone. The average American household income has been in decline for years, and this also doesn’t seem to bother anyone (except the average American household, but their opinion simply doesn’t count).

Even worse is the stark fact that none of this is about to change. Instead, the nation appears determined to continue on an ever-widening gap between the haves and have-nots, with the haves dictating the game and building their own oddball fantasy world of luxury and splendor. And that is pretty much what most of modern Hollywood is all about. It has become the dreamscape of the wealthy, creating the translucent contours of their modern, self-contained bubble. In some respects, it resembles the weird and utterly disconnected sensibility of the Ancien Regime, just before the rude interruption of the French Revolution.

Which is why I am almost tempted to suggest that this current period of Hollywood cinema should be termed the neo-Rococo phase. For the most part, it is full of devalued spectacle and singularly devoid of social comment or acknowledgment of basic reality. For even a slight glimpse of that, only the indie cinema offers a passing hope, with an emphasis on “passing.”

Many years ago, during an interview with a collection of reporters, the actor Giancarlo Esposito stated that the only thing the country was still manufacturing was dreams. He was referring to the role Hollywood played in American life, beyond the mere entertainment role. He was addressing the degree to which Hollywood has become the major focus of the nation’s entire economic and political culture. Unfortunately, he was right back then (1994) and even more so now.

But what are these dreams? More importantly, why are we supposed to dutifully pay ever increasing amounts of money for something that has absolutely no relevance to our lives? In simpler words, when do we take back our cinema?

OK, the process would involve a massive restructuring of the economic foundation of Hollywood. To be honest, this restructuring is long overdue. Commencez la révolution maintenant! Or if you prefer plain English, get ready to take back what is yours. In the case of Hollywood, take back the ownership of your dreams.