Are movies facing an apocalypse, now? The box office is up this season, boosted by the smash success of "Superman II" and "Raiders of the Losk Ark." Sundry other films, from "The Cannonball Run" to "The Great Mupper Caper," are also performing well.
Yet discontent rumbles in the background. Critics complain that the new hits are mindless. Filmmakers give up on older viewers, devoting themselves entirely to the teen- age trade, or flee the Hollywood establishment altogether. Nobody knows when the summer films will fade, returning us to teh doldrums of last spring -- when nearly every screen was filled with a reissue, a second-rate sequel, or a piece of "shoxploitation" trash.
In the June issue of American Film, critic David Thomson gives a preview of his new book about "the crisis in American filmmaking." Much seems gobbledygook to me, peppered with half- thought-out theories and strangely worded assertions. Still, the article embodies a feeling that's current among many observers of the movie scene -- a sense that things can'tm continue this way much longer.
More than one factor accounts for this gloomy attitude. In the golden age of Hollywood, plenty of garbage was churned out, but it could be largely overlooked in the sheer volume of movies produced. Today, with more and more resources poured into fewer and fewer films, it's hard to hide from their general lack of quality. There's also less excusem for that poor quality. Technically at least, cinema is out of its infancy. A modicum of maturity seems a reasonable thing to ask.
Between peculiar pronouncements on the nature of film and video, critic Thomson puts his finger on a couple of further problems in his Americam Film article.He is right that Hollywood has taken a tremendous risk in hitching its wagon to an audience as fickle as it is young. And he's right to worry about what will happen when that audience wanes: The distribution companies, largely owned by conglomerates, will cheerfully transfer their money and energy to the home-video market, leaving the great tradition of moviegoing in the lurch.
There's a good case that we don't needm moviegoing if it means nothing but sleazy junt like "Stripes" and "History of the World Part I." But even today, there's hope for the beleaguered film lover.
That hope is based on the usually forgotten fact that you don't havem to spend of the Secaucus 7" for about $60,000. It ran nearly two hours, as Thomson notes , and it looked pretty good. Most important, it was seen by plenty of people in plenty of theaters -- that is, it was no labor of monastic devotion, but a real movie with a real audience.
With varying results, similar stunts have been pulled off by Claudia Weill in "Girl Friends," Jeff Kanew in "Natural Enemies," and David Lynch in "Eraserhead, " which is still drawing crowds on the midnight circuit. Like countless other "regional" films made across the United States, these are home-grown productions that made it to commercial distribution.
There's even a chance that the mavericks will reinherit Hollywood from the buffoons and epicmongers. After the dark "Eraserhead," after all, David Lynch won Oscar nominations for "The Elephant Man." After the feminist "Girl Friends," Claudia Weill made a splash with "It's My Turn." After the personal "Hot Tomorrows," young Martin Brest directed three venerable stars in "Going in Style."
We needn't look only to the hinterlands, though, to find signs of hope for the cinematic future. Today's growing discontent is shaking up some thinkers within the establishment itself, and leading some of the most gifted -- the most brilliant, even -- to pull up stakes and search for something more meaningful. In fact, the current rage among the wealthy Wunderkinderm is to set up their own moviemaking shops outside the purview of the studio moguls. In such ideal surroundings, it is hoped, a brave new filmic world will come to pass.
This turns out to be a tough proposition. Francis Ford Coppola has hit a number of false starts and dead ends -- all widely publicized -- with American Zoetrope, intended as a utopian "umbrella" organization for all sorts of visionary filmmaking. So far, the actual results have been mixed, from the sprawl of "Apocalypse Now" to the sublimity of "The Black Stallion." More evidence is due soon, including "Hammett," by Wim Wenders, and Coppola's own "One From the Heart," which he reportedly regards as a "sketch" for an epic he will someday make.
In the meantime, Coppola is to be commended for putting his company's money and prestige into the distribution of such offbeat (and dubiously commercial) pictures as "Our Hitler," by Hans-Jurgen Syberberg, and the silent "Napoleon," by Abel Gance. Coppola is also experimenting with new methods of planning, rehearsing, and shooting films, based on insights from Syberberg and Jean-Luc Godard. Clearly, he cares passionately about movies, and not just his own. A child of Hollywood, he's also something of a trailblazer. And he may yet succeed in raising a solid alternative to methods and systems that were once considered unshakable.
The latest movie wizard to break his ties with Hollywood is George Lucas. And when a young titan like this goes his own way, it's sure sign the old order is ending, whether or not a new one arises in its place.
Lucas wrote and directed "Star Wars," the most lucrative movie of all time. It and its sequel, "The Empire Strikes Back," have earned more than $900 million so far. Other projects bearing the Lucas name and the Lucas tough range from the hit "American Graffiti" to the current "Raiders of the Lost Ark," on which he is credited as executive producer and coauthor of the original story.
According to a recent interview in the New York Times, the fabulously successful Lucas has been resigning a lot lately -- from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Writers Guild, and the Directors Guild. Heading off on his own, he is building a $10 million "working retreat" for filmmakers, a "backyard film studio" he will share with congenial writers and directors. In tandem with his special-effects company, Industrial Light and Magic, this will constitute his own cinematic kingdom in northern California.
It is expected that Lucas will share his domain with such figures as Michael Ritchie, Philip Kaufman, John Korty, and the creative team of Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins -- some established talents, other still hoping to make their reputations with widely accepted work.If their projects flourish, says the Times , money will be sunk into other enterprises to finance further filmmaking activity. Sounds a little like a conglomerate, except that Lucafilm will support the overhead of the studio complex -- as opposed to the Hollywood system , where "the filmmakers support the corporate entity."
Nobody knows how this bold experiment will work out. A couple of big-budgeted flops in the "Star Wars" series, or a couple of overfinanced duds by underinspired proteges, and Lucas could find himself as broke as Coppola was when he reportedly mortgaged his house to fund the last scenes of "Apocalypse Now."
Then, too, Lucas hasn't made his millions with unflinching experiments. He gave those up after his first feature, the unconventional "THX 1138," fell on its face. Movies don't come any more commercial than "Star Wars," and Lucas has always seemed happy in the big-money frame- work of mass-audience features. His budding empire could turn out as stale and conservative as Hollywood is today -- though, in a recent Film Comment interview, Lucas reveals a continuing interest in experimental "nonlinear" film, which he might follow up on a personal and (most likely) noncommercial basis.
But if the project does stay fresh . . . if new talents and new visions keep the Lucas and Coppola studios alive with ideas and innovative ways of approaching film . . . if other moviemaking centers spring up in other regions . . . if fledgling producers find ingenious ways of making a film look great for less than a million dollars . . . if mature and filmwise moviegoers respond to this activity and return to the theaters in droves. . . .
It's a lot of "ifs." Put them all together, and they spell possible good times in the movies ahead. The future of film as a high-quality medium is in the hands of the mavericks and the young millionaires. It'll be fascinating to see where they take us.