Notes on American Cinema
by Jack Wareham
Looking at the mainstream American releases of the last two decades, it’s easy to see why Susan Sontag claimed cinema was in an “ignominious, irreversible decline.” Members of the film-is-dying-camp usually point out that the films currently in theaters can’t even remotely compare to that legendary period of the early 1970s, when viewers got to see The Godfather, Badlands, Mean Streets, A Clockwork Orange, and McCabe and Mrs. Miller.
According to their commonly accepted narrative, American film’s golden age was the 1940s and 50s, when the studio system produced genre masterpieces like Sunset Boulevard and The Searchers. In the 60s and 70s some subversive, visionary auteurs flourished on a mainstream scale, including Kubrick, Scorsese, and Coppola. The 1975 release of Jaws signaled a shift toward blockbuster cinema, and Star Wars was the last nail in the coffin — American art cinema was gone, forever replaced by special effects and superheroes.
Although some version of this story has been promulgated by a range of critics, it relies on some strange assumptions. First, we have no reason to believe that a masterpiece will be recognized as such right out of the gate. Most of the best American films (Citizen Kane, Vertigo, 2001) take many years to become part of the essential canon. Second, those who claim cinema is dead will have a difficult time offering an explanation for this demise. Studios have become less interested in experimentation, but film equipment has become affordable and widespread, giving a new generation of filmmakers plenty of tools to produce innovative work.
Instead of dismissing an entire art form, a more productive approach would be to take Jean-Luc Godard’s advice: “Failure is much more interesting than success because it is like a sick body. You can look at it and examine it and then say what’s going wrong or not.” Two critically-acclaimed releases from March of last year offer clues as to where American auteurs have gone wrong, and diagnoses of their failures can help pave the way for future successes.
On the one hand, there’s Andrew Haigh’s Lean on Pete, a film about a boy’s journey through the Pacific Northwest with a horse. Although the film left me teary-eyed, his constant “homages” to minimalist auteurs (dialogue from Cassavetes, low-angle shots through hallways from Ozu, and plot devices from Bresson) had me wondering whether Haigh had an artistic vision of his own, or was merely content lifting stylistic techniques from other directors. By the end of Lean on Pete, one might feel moved, but still long for the grungy, low-low budget days when indie directors like Jarmusch and Lynch made films with stylistic rigor and surreal inventiveness — films that disturbed you instead of lulling you into a humanist stupor. This, of course, isn’t just Haigh’s problem. Most of the indies of the 2010s seem satisfied to remain slick, efficient empathy machines: consummate entertainment, but repeat viewings yield little to nothing.
Then there’s Wes Anderson, who clearly does have a unique vision. There are debts, primarily to Truffaut’s whimsy and Kubrick’s exquisite composition, but their reformulation creates a style that is, to say the least, original. And yet, Anderson’s trademark techniques (symmetrical shots, pastel colors, dollhouse mise en scène, stop-motion animation, wooden acting, and heavy irony) are devoid of substance — gussied-up kitsch. According to Anderson’s worshippers, artiness equals art, and his mere differentiation from normal big-budget high-concept blockbusters is a sign of quality.
In Isle of Dogs, he elevated his vision to the realm of political commentary, and the result was embarrassing failure: a grab bag of hokey visual gags and tasteless comparisons between dogs and refugees. I heard chuckles in the audience when the authoritarian government set up a concentration camp for the dogs, as if the Holocaust was just one big puppet show, subject to hip in-jokes like everything else.
These are just two films, but the problems they present — feel-good tranquilizers on the one hand, and empty artistic vision on the other — are not isolated. In the first camp, one also finds Call Me by Your Name and The Shape of Water, while the second contains Ex Machina, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
And yet, last April I saw a film that elegantly skirted both of these pitfalls: Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, which follows a clergyman’s spiritual crisis and political radicalization as he becomes more aware of climate change. Schrader’s film is intensely formalist, but for the sole purpose of enhancing its content (unlike Anderson, whose films are style over substance par excellence). And, instead of jerking tears, First Reformed embraces the genuine ambiguity of violence and refuses to end on a heart-warming note. As in Lean on Pete, there are explicit comparisons to Bresson (both in religious theme and stylistic minimalism), but Schrader is not interested in merely referencing the old masters. By placing a pared-down aesthetic in conversation with environmentalist content, Schrader accomplishes something genuinely original and substantive — a disturbing meditation on spirituality in the wake of human extinction.
Assessing whether Sontag was right about cinema’s decline is a difficult task. Although those who defend her claim will find ample evidence in what’s currently playing at the theaters, cinema’s current failures shouldn’t be viewed as proof of American film’s demise. Rather, they can be used as clues: ways to critique, modify, and ultimately improve the state of film. Only through this optimistic approach could we discover new works that can rejuvenate our hope for the lost art of cinema.
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