Is Hollywood capable of 'thinking' movies?
Two veteran critics discuss box-office numbers, subtitled films, and some bright spots.
Have the movies lost their magic, as some critics claim? It seems that way sometimes. Pundits regularly announce the death of artistic filmmaking and the hopeless vulgarity of media entertainment. The loudest case in the other direction comes from consumer-guide reviewers who hoist enthusiastic thumbs over multiplex blockbusters that are all but forgotten a few weeks later.Skip to next paragraph
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Few commentators take thoughtfully balanced looks at today's movies, and two of the best have recently published important new books that encapsulate their views.
Critics love to disagree, and these two have differing views on many films and issues they've written about over the years Â- Jonathan Rosenbaum for the Chicago Reader, a weekly newspaper, and Stuart Klawans for The Nation, a national magazine.
What's more striking are the ideas they have in common, supported by long experience and a shared desire to help the movie world realize its possibilities.
One area of agreement is a conviction that Hollywood's bloated advertising budgets have a degree of power way out of proportion to the products they peddle.
"By and large," Klawans told me in a recent interview, "Hollywood controls everyone's viewing agenda," making even mediocre productions into "event pictures" while elbowing most independent and international releases off the screen.
"We hear a lot about the Internet and other new communication tools," Rosenbaum said in a separate conversation. "But the money spent on publicity by the major [film] companies counteracts everything else, at least for casual audiences."
This explains the large box-office take of a movie like "Star Wars: Episode One Â- The Phantom Menace" (1999), which Rosenbaum cites as an example of Hollywood marketing at its most manipulative. Klawans also sees it as Exhibit A, describing it in his book as the kind of picture "that everybody knows about and nobody enjoys."
The unrivaled power of studio advertising lies behind one of Rosenbaum's greatest concerns: that audiences would embrace a wide range of international movies, and learn more about our complicated world, if Hollywood's tunnel- vision mentality didn't crowd them out of consciousness most of the time.
"I'm sometimes criticized for writing about films that nobody's heard about," Klawans says. "But this just means the films don't have big advertising budgets Â- and when I do write about hard-to-get films, I get lots of e-mails from people who want to know more about them."
Rosenbaum is also irked about limitations Hollywood places on itself as a result of test marketing and unexamined biases.
"They say audiences don't like subtitles," he complains. "But most [young] people haven't seen subtitles, so how can they dislike something they haven't seen? And what about 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,' which was a hit with subtitles? I guess people don't like subtitles Â- except when they do!"
This doesn't mean the studio system can't produce fascinating pictures anymore. Rosenbaum says his favorite movie of last year was "A.I. Artificial Intelligence," directed by Hollywood prodigy Steven Spielberg from a project developed by American expatriate Stanley Kubrick before his death in 1999.
Klawans also cites "A.I." as evidence that Hollywood can still produce movies with "complex and problematic" personalities.
"What an astonishing picture that was to foist on the public," he says with a smile. "There's so much terrific filmmaking and real talent at work, even if it doesn't all hold together...."
A key theme in much of Klawans's writing is a sense that good movies take account of the real world we actually live in. They often blur strict boundaries between fiction and documentary, allowing viewers "to coexist with them, as you live with buses and parks and friends," he writes.