I facetiously asked Ted Hope on his blog about how he avoids being cynical, but since I asked it, I’ve been thinking about it. I’m planning a trip to LA next week. I haven’t been for a while, and it brings back memories of living there, which I hated for the very reason that I found the attitude towards film there to be completely cynical. Hollywood is a strange place where people who passionately love making films, make films that they would never go see and judging their quality entirely on their box office take.
In LA, people talk box office at parties and at work. I remember a producer I worked for asking me if I had seen City Slickers 2 over the weekend. I had, and hated it. “Great script,” he said, without a trace of irony. It was number one at the box office that week. Clearly, a classic film.
The film business can make anyone cynical, and it is easy to think from watching films that the people making them are completely jaded. The strange truth is that most people in the film industry, even in Hollywood, are passionate, caring people who genuinely want to make good films. So how do they get from that to, say, CONFESSIONS OF A SHOPAHOLIC?
The way I see it, there is an ocean of cynicism that we are all swimming through and that this ocean is made of many different ingredients.
The main ingredient, the water, to continue the metaphor, is money. Films are expected to make money in a way that most art is not, and that it is expected to make that money instantly on release. You’ll find that most classic films didn’t do so well at the box office. Art sometimes takes time to be digested, but most importantly, art is not something that can be judged by its worth or cost. And that’s the rub. The people behind the studios would like nothing more than to put out high quality, artful films that educated people like themselves would want to watch. But the numbers don’t lie. As much as we all dream about that utopian world where everybody likes great films, whenever that stuff gets thrown into theaters, audiences stay away. So they make films that they think will make money, not films that they like.
Actually, it’s much more complicated than that: they actually are trained to think like that. It’s not just them, it’s in the entire culture in Hollywood. Money is how they make their decisions, but they have adjusted their tastes so that they genuinely like this stuff. Honestly, you cannot make Hollywood films and be cynical. You have to love them. You have to think that what you are doing is awesome. It’s the cynical films that fail: even at the box office. That’s why other countries have so much trouble imitating Hollywood: because they cannot adjust their minds to the films that audiences like. The people who succeed are people whose tastes are naturally attuned to the audience’s expectations. Someone like Ron Howard is a good example. He grew up in Hollywood and he makes the gold standard of what Hollywood considers quality: serious-minded films that make money. It doesn’t matter that they are simple-minded drivel, there is not a speckle of cynicism in his films.
Now within this ocean of cynicism, there are tidal flows and eddies and undercurrents and stuff like that.
For example, there is this horrible whirlpool of cynicism that comes from the audience. It goes something like this: audience member sees a typically bad, unimaginative film; this leads to the thought that “anyone could have made that”; which leads to “I could have made that”; which leads to writing screenplays. This creates an incredible high tide of cynical, awful screenplays by people who don’t know what they are doing. Screenwriters who actually know what they are doing, who are not cynical, have to constantly tread water just to keep their heads above this mass of suck.
I have to get back to work, so check back in the next couple days for part two…
Part two: history of cynicism in films in America
Part three: writing films and cynicism