Film Shits I, Why Mainstream English and American Films are No Good Any More

1 Apr

Thematically speaking, this short piece – I will readily admit it is opinionated –  belongs with the earlier post (“Analogue Days in Soho”) which was an attempt to summarise the traits of publishers.  Now that I turn to the film industry, my weary jibes at publishers retreat into bleached insignificance. As the film producers walk onto the stage, their feet drum against the boards like thunder. Behold, the gods are coming in! And they’re angry. They want us to know how important they are!

Film is a rule to itself, and by that I mean an absence of rules, a chaotic state of burning desire, jealousy and thievery. The principal reason for this, as we shall see, is that film is administered by business people who passionately believe in their creative drives and even genius. Producers are keen to bring hits to the screen, but they will keenly defend the notion that a commercial film can also be a work of originality and artistic excellence. This is the reason for the current preponderance in the media of cartoon heroes in capes, masked villains, robots, vampires, zombies… then of course an endless progression of syphilitic or divorced police detectives in pursuit of terrorists or serial-killing psychotics. Is it the zeitgeist that we are all terrifically interested in these things, or are we being force-fed like geese in preparation for the extraction of our brains?

Occasionally a producer comes along and makes a grainy film about mammary glands, and is immediately hailed as a genius. But fundamentally the need to be derivative defines everything that film does. The first problem for the screenwriter is that producers will tend to lie about this. Most producers actually believe that they are making worthwhile cultural products. Some would say, of course, that there is something dichotomous about the idea of a “cultural product”. How can something genuinely cultural, reaching into our lives and speaking for us, also be a mass-produced product distributed across the world to the Chinese, Indians, Tibetans, Mexicans, Russians, Egyptians and Serbs? By definition, the whole thing is skewed. Culture is a very specific thing, it touches each person differently. The idea of global cultural products is bogus, it’s just something for the empire-builders, the salesmen. The desperate hunger for “product” leads to every possible book, cartoon and cereal packet being optioned and “worked up” into a film. The hunt is on and, make no mistake – the object is profit.

Almost everyone who works in film, whether a producer, director, editor, gaffer, actor or catering assistant, has a strong belief in the existence of something they will reverentially refer to as “the script”. Most of them will even feel they have an idea for a script. But when we turn our heads and look at the scriptwriter, this maligned and kicked-about little beast, we should ask ourselves how this poor suffering mini-shit manages to live his/ her life? How much creative freedom does the scriptwriter really have? And in the same breath we have to admit that if scripts are no good, if scripts are not expressions of individuality and experience, then what are they? And how can they be the basis of a good film?

In the last 40 years or so, Hollywood and later everyone else too began to create a sort of superhighway of ideas to which we’ve all now been magnetized. When the grand old Hollywood crew of Spielberg, Lucas and Scorsese were emerging, they were inspired by the French New Wave, Italian neo-Realism and Scandinavian and/or Russian Melancholy. They wanted to apply these approaches to American film-making which had been caught up in the stiffness of a studio system that no longer created contemporary films. That was how the modern US/ European film-making era began, with “Easy Rider” and “Taxi Driver” and “Jaws”. Forty years later, the outcome, which I would argue points to the end of Hollywood as a creative force, are films like “The Hurt Locker” or Clint Eastwood’s 2011 movie “J.Edgar” about the life of FBI supremo Hoover. American cinema has not understood that the world no longer cares so very much about its icons. What’s required in American film-making is political awareness, but it’s simply not there. More or less every war film coming out of America, and every political thriller, is pathetically sentimental about brave American soldiers/ spies/ diplomats doing what they have to do and paying the price. Deeper questions such as “why did their government start a war/ send soldiers/ bomb the country?” are not asked. It leads to dumb audiences, in fact, one senses the stiffness and naivety of the 1950s reimposing themselves.

There was a brief, brief American dawn in the 1990s with independent cinema, but Miramax and New Line and Zoetrope and most of the other independents were bought up by the big daddies, the studios. Essentially it was a sell-out. The rebels joined the Empire. And you can’t be alternative if you live at the Four Seasons Hotel and have a chauffeur. You can only be weird, in the sense that a big-name rapper is weird. Champagne, gold and Armani – yet songs about the gangs and the streets.

Of course this has very little do with “Film Shits” although it is loosely related. Because in the wake of American and European film-making over the last few decades, a style of screenwriting has emerged that I would loosely call “the School of Mechanisation.” Basically, this is the systematic creation of a story with a certain shape, while the writer’s unique vision no longer holds decisive importance. A good computer could do it. Robert McKee, possibly the most famous writing tutor of recent years, used to begin his famous seminar by clarifying that he was not teaching a formulaic way of creating stories. But of course as soon as he opened his seminar with this denial, one immediately knew that he was doing precisely that. Why not call a spade a spade, Mr. McKee? You have created an absolutely formulaic system for writing screenplays. Producers, all of them shits, are only too happy to accept the formula that has a proven record of pulling in the crowds, filling cinemas and keeping the balancing sheets in the black. This is done by inflating drama, introducing gratuitous and melodramatic “intensity” in the form of struggle, violence and frequent bouts of sexual frenzy. It’s dreary, it’s irrelevant, it has nothing to do with the world I know.

McKee is not completely mistaken. Some of his tricks can be useful and any half-decent writer will occasionally make use of them, but in the end McKee is a traitor to his own craft – a second-rate magician who stands up and explains his tricks, because he is not true enough to simply perform and be a magician. His efforts ultimately create a pool of imitators who have not learned their craft by their own efforts alone. Thus, when the proper writer – by that I mean a writer who has fought his/her way to a sort of position – presents a work to a producer, this producer is very likely to have read a number of Syd Field screenwriting books and taken a couple of Robert McKee seminars and read Vogler’s “The Writer’s Journey” about mythic structures in storytelling. Immediately the writer is faced with a person who knows very little in a practical sense about writing, while at the same time being solidly versed in pseudo-intellectual notions of what a story is. Its meaning. Its intention. Its purpose. Interference will follow as the spark flies.

Producers are always shits. It’s unavoidable. It’s inevitable. They interfere. They think they know better. They can’t write the story themselves but they will always tell you how to improve it.

My suspicions about producers began to grow while I was living in London. I noticed that producers felt obliged to do things as if they were producers – I mean in a referential way. Hence the ordering of sushi by telephone for delivery to the editing suite or Foley-stage. I sometimes wondered if these producers actually liked sushi? Would they not have preferred bacon sandwiches and cups of tea? Answer: no. Because English producers don’t eat bacon sandwiches. They are learning to be American, that’s why, and American producers eat only sushi. Everyone knows that, right? It’s a sort of basic entry ticket to Harvey Weinstein’s helicopter. This is a pity. England always had its own flavour until it was overtaken by American culture. The English have become so blind to themselves that they seem to view James Bond as an English character. In fact Bond’s Englishness is an artificial projection for American audiences. The English sold the silver at some point but they’ve forgotten what the silver was. I can tell you in one word: authenticity.

Now they are proud of the high-budget overseas productions that come to film in their studio complexes – a development started by the Americanised Scott brothers, who also had very little to do with being English. The English were always great chameleons, that’s why they have good actors. They don’t much like their country because it doesn’t really work any more. It’s not even a country, really. It’s layers and layers of class pressed into a weird sandwich: anchovy, jam and pesto on rye.

Available at the River Cafe. Alas.

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