What a film can be vs. the wall of stagnation

If you look at the great films of the past in their historical context, you can see pretty clearly that the filmmakers were reacting defiantly against what film was at that time, and wanted to show what a film could be, as they believed it could. In other words, they went to a lot of movies, were inspired by the potential of cinema but unsatisfied with some aspect of it, and they set out to change that.

Look at the French New Wave, sick of the glossy formalism and elitist bend of the studios at the time. Look at the British directors of the 70’s, like Mike Leigh, who wanted something more realistic, something more connected with his working class background, and just wasn’t seeing that in theaters. Look at Spike Lee, who saw Bill Cosby and thought that people might want to see a different kind of African American experience. Look at Bill Cosby, who saw that black people were completely ignored on television and knew that there was an audience for that.

All of these people saw potential, missed opportunities, different ways of doing things. Their films went out to prove their ideas right.

Mike Leigh didn’t just want a working class film. He wanted an entirely more realistic quality in cinema. He figured out a way to achieve that through a unique process of improvisation and theatrical scripting. And he did it.

Cassavetes looked at Hollywood and thought it was devoid of life and humanity. He set out, again with a unique process, to put it back in.

Every artistic choice in a film fights for its right to be there, but an artistic choice that is different the preconceived notions of things faces unusually strong opposition. It has to fight the system of how things were done before. There is the format of a script. There is the way things are financed and scheduled and budgeted. This is the status quo; the system fighting every choice at every step of the way.

This is when you get stories like Coppola facing executives at Paramount telling him that there is no fucking way they are going to let him cast Marlon Brando in The Godfather. This is why Kubrick created his own system, in London, away from Hollywood, where he could spend a year making his film for the same budget that most people got a few months out of.

It’s not just the system of filmmaking that a filmmaker has to fight, it’s also the audience. New ideas take getting used to. Most great films take a while to become great, and often don’t do too well when put out into the ether.

So from beginning to end, there is the fog of stagnation that an idea has to battle with. The only thing that can possible get that idea through is the simple belief that it is the right thing to do. It helps if you can articulate it and convince people or educate people to understand your idea, but what people respond to is your emotional need to put that idea out there because it is just obvious to you that needs to be put out there, and there is no reason not to put it out there. It just makes sense. Once it is in the world, it will be obvious to everyone else too.

My first reaction to everything is “no”, and I know I’m not alone. But after I’ve said “no”, then my mind starts to open and I can question why it is I said “no” and if there is no reason, then maybe I should have said “yes”. It’s human nature to be skeptical. A superficial idea will bounce off a “no” and that will be that. An interesting idea will reverberate around that “no” and win that skepticism over. In other words, a good idea is unstoppable.

I look around the state of movies today and I see nothing but possibility. Movies, or at least American movies, are in an awfully bad state artistically. But there is also a huge stagnation. The people who make films have it in their heads that what the people want right now is more of the same crap that’s been coming out, except with a schmaltzy sauce. The movies really need some good ideas right now.


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