Monday, 7 February 2011

The cult of the new

The above title could be for any number of topics, because the "new-ness" of something (a film, a movement, a genre) is more often than not either exaggerated by critics and historians or invented, because apparently if something isn't new it isn't all that interesting. While at the same time, some things that are new are not understood or appreciated. It's a strange phenomenon.

What I wanted to discuss today though is "New Hollywood" or "New American Cinema" (or whatever the pop-term for it is) since I've recently re-read Peter Biskind's silly book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. When it came out in 1997 I took a slight dislike to it, and didn't even read all of it since it seemed unnecessary to do so. For those that haven't read it it's a book about American cinema in the years 1967-1980, based on interviews with many of those that were involved at the time; actors, producers, directors and writers. The argument Biskind has is that a new generation of filmmakers saved Hollywood from impending doom, because they were young and could connect with the audience and the cultural context, whereas "old" Hollywood had lost it's touch. But, at the height of their success, the new filmmakers either succumbed to drugs and booze or suffered from hybris and made colossal failures that ruined them, and that a new era of blockbusters was ushered in, with mind-dumbing effects and reactionary politics aimed to sell as many tickets and as much popcorn as possible.

As a snapshot of a time and a place it has some validity, but the book is so oversimplified and un-historic that it is sometimes laughable. It's written in what might be called magazinese, a special kind of language for glossy magazines, and there is anecdote after anecdote about who slept with whom, who's girlfriend never wore underwear and who through up at who's party. It's actually not at all interesting, and more in line with a British tabloid than a book. But the main problem with the book can be summed up thus: when Biskind writes about Steven Spielberg and the making of Jaws (1975), he first says that Spielberg was more interested in trade journals than art, and that he had no wish to be an auteur, a Fellini or a Godard, but a couple of pages later Biskind writes that Spielberg wanted to be an artist, an auteur like Antonioni. What's it gonna be? Did he or did he not want to be an auteur? Does Biskind know? Does he care? This is but one of many example of blatant contradictions and it sums up the main problem with the book because it gives the impression that Biskind doesn't know what he's doing, and writes whatever suits him at the particular moment of writing it, without contemplating of whether it makes sense or is even true.

But why get worked up about it now, almost 15 years later? Because people still talk about it and write about it and consider it a good book (some critics have called it the best film book ever written), and you will find it on reading lists and you will see it quoted here and there. This all begs the question if these people also believe that Perez Hilton has the best film blog today.

The thing is that as film history, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls is pretty bad, bordering on useless. Besides making contradictory claims, it's too narrow and has no concept of what came before 1967. Something though that isn't really unique for Biskind's book, but true for many articles and books about American cinema. The reason to start with 1967 is that Bonnie and Clyde came out that year, and it is often seen as the beginning of "New Hollywood", influenced by European cinema and la nouvelle vague. But choosing 1967 or Bonnie and Clyde seems to me somewhat arbitrary. It's not like there had been just musicals and Doris Day/Rock Hudson-films up until then. A year like 1964 saw films such as Lilith, The Pawnbroker and Mickey One, films arguably as "new" and "European" as Bonnie and Clyde. The beginning of the 1960s also saw John Frankenheimer visualizing his paranoia in films such as The Manchurian Candidate (1962), 7 Days in May (1964) and Seconds (1966). Mike Nichols had made Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf in 1966, Don Siegel made a number of films, such as the frank and disturbing The Killers (1964), as had Sam Fuller, with Shock Corridor (1963) and Naked Kiss (1964), audacious and thrilling films, albeit outside mainstream Hollywood. A case can perhaps be made that Bonnie and Clyde was important in that it was such a huge success, but it wasn't the biggest hit in 1967, The Graduate had a larger audience, so maybe it should be seen as the definitive film of 1967. (1967 was also the year John Boorman made the very odd and unsettling Point Blank.) Additionally, it could be argued that Bonnie and Clyde was a belated off-spring of the wave of gangster bio-pics that became popular in the late 50s, beginning (I think) with Don Siegel's Baby Face Nelson in 1957 (which I actually prefer to Bonnie and Clyde).

It is also said that "old" Hollywood had lost its way, and the films they made were not any good anymore. But Hitchcock made Psycho (1960), The Birds (1963) and Marnie (1964), all good as well as all modernist and experimental. Wilder made The Apartment (1960), Kiss Me Stupid (1964) and The Fortune Cookie (1966) and a few more, Ford made The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and Minnelli made one of his very best films, The Courtship of Eddie's Father (1963). Preminger made Advise and Consent (1962) and The Cardinal (1963), and, well, I needn't go on. The 60s was a very interesting time in American cinema, and there were enough great films made to question both the assumption that Hollywood needed to be saved, and that there was something new and especially exciting happening towards the end of the decade. There was an explosion in, not violence, but blood in the last years of the decade, as in the end of Bonnie and Clyde, but is that enough to get carried away? However, I would argue that (the bloodless) Five Easy Pieces (1970) has a fresh and new style, one that I like very much.

Something that has been attributed to Bonnie and Clyde is that it took the part of the outlaws, the criminals, and that this was new and fresh. I don't understand that at all, especially not since it had a long line of predecessors, such as You Only Live Once (1937), They Live By Night (1948) and that fantastic masterpiece Gun Grazy (1950).

I'm not saying that this wasn't a difficult times for the film studios, they were going through a lot of agony and anxiety, due to huge shifts in demographics, hobbies and ideologies, as well as a crumbling business arrangement. But still a massive amount of rich, strange, unsettling and magnificent films were being made in the 1960s, as well as in the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. Even if there was a corporate crisis, there wasn't a creative, artistic crisis before Bonnie and Clyde.

And the new guys that came along, towards the end of the 60s and early 70s, they were not exactly young. Many of the "new" directors were over 40 and some had been making films and/or TV since the 1950s.

Another flaw with Biskind's book and one of his main argument, is about the decline and fall of this era and the men who participated in it. Films like Sorcerer (1977) by William Friedkin, Apocalypse Now (1979) by Francis Coppola and Heaven's Gate (1980) by Michael Cimino are used as examples of how things got out of hand and horribly wrong. But these are all great films, and Sorcerer and Apocalypse Now are arguably the best film their respective director made. It's true that they went way over budget and that Heaven's Gate more or less ruined United Artists, and at least Cimino's career as a major filmmaker came to an abrupt end (even though Year of the Dragon (1985) has its defenders) but many others continued to flourish, Spielberg and Scorsese for example, and in the 80s a new generation appeared, so the drama is perhaps overstated.

All I want is a more a more nuanced and complex approach or view of film history, and how it works, because who benefits from this constant simplification and sillification of film history, indeed any history?

But enough already. Now I'll leave you with the trailer for Sorcerer:


  1. I agree with almost everything you say here in this nice summation Fredrik.

    All criticism should be open to the nuance of film history and not just look for ways to artificially group things together in movements or trends.

    "All I want is a more a more nuanced and complex approach or view of film history, and how it works, because who benefits from this constant simplification and sillification of film history, indeed any history?"

    If it was up to me, you'd get your wish(!)

  2. Yes...his equally simplistic "Down and Dirty Pictures" can be summed up thus: Robert Redford and Harvey Weinstein are the devil. (Which is not to say that I didn't enjoy it. But film history? No.)