When was the last time you saw a film from which you emerged better off for having seen it?
I have to think very hard to remember that last really good, substantive film I saw. It was probably "Cradle Will Rock," six months ago, which despite its poor showing at the box office was a film that really made me think about history, politics, art. We are lucky if Hollywood can put out two such excellent films a year.
As a fan of alternative cinema, I was eager to see the new John Waters film, "Cecil B. DeMented." The ads and reviews promised a film which would criticize mainstream movies -- something that needs desperately to be done, given the plethora of mediocre, clichéd films Hollywood churns out like a Wonder Bread factory. I thought a renegade like Waters could actually criticize the Hollywood establishment.
But when I finally got to see the film, I was rather disappointed. Many films have a good concept but don't take it far enough. "Cecil B. DeMented" did the opposite: it took it too far. It was a great premise: a group of rogue filmmakers kidnap a famous star and force her to act in their no-budget picture. But by pushing the comedy to the ludicrous, Waters makes the "cinema guerillas" out to be uncaring idiots. The point of the picture is turned around as those who criticize Hollywood are seen to be ridiculous. These independent filmmakers are so fanatically dedicated that they are willing to kill and die for their art, and when they do, the deaths are treated so casually. As we lose sympathy for them, we also do for their message.
So how can such a film be taken as a serious critique of the Hollywood corporate system?
Maybe using humor is the only way Hollywood can criticize itself. It is a safe way wherein Waters can say, "I took on the establishment," but really threatened no one. The film may glorify movies made with "no budget," yet "Cecil B. DeMented" had a budget of $10 million. (Of course to be fair, that is a shoestring by Hollywood standards.) Although he may not have started out that way, Waters is now a respected member of the Hollywood community, able to make deals with major studios like Artisan Entertainment and big stars including Kevin Nealon and Melanie Griffith.
The characters in the movie are right when they assert that Hollywood is turning out bland and conformist films dominated by corporate interests; but ironically, the very movie itself is bland and serves corporate interests. Like that famous line in the Don Henley song, "I saw a Dead-Head sticker on a Cadillac," anti-establishment sentiment has become just one more market from which the corporations can profit.
And that may be the real problem. "Hollywood is market-driven," asserts William E. Adams, a local screenwriter. And he should know; he's spent the last several years trying to get his scripts produced, but is finding it difficult to locate the appropriate niche. His scripts are truly substantive -- I know because I have read some of them -- but the major studios are afraid that American audiences will shy away from movies which force them to expand their imagination.
For example, take Adams' "Light-Speed and Beyond," a Science Fiction movie in which the heroes, who travel faster than the speed of light, are transformed to perceive a new view of the cosmos. As Adams describes it, "Conventional scientific thinking is subject to upheaval ... [and] our modern science is turned inside-out." Surely a challenging movie that would truly be worth seeing. But the script has spent the last two years making the rounds from studio to studio, each one rightly praising its concept, but each afraid it will not make enough money.
Adams understands and explains, "You're asking people to spend millions of dollars on a major film," and recognizes studios' unwillingness to take the risk. Yet I find something disturbing in that. If really good movies cannot make a profit, what does that say about the tastes of American audiences?
Other countries don't seem to have this problem -- they can create some excellent movies such as the recent Spanish film "Everything about My Mother," or the Italian "Life Is Beautiful."
I am reminded of an experience I had a few weeks ago when I went to the video store to rent a French comedy called "The Dinner Game." When I took it up to the clerk, she looked at me like an idiot and spoke to me as if I were a ten-year-old, "This movie has subtitles. That means you have to read little words at the bottom of the screen to understand it." After explaining to her that I was actually literate, she let me rent the movie, and when I finally got around to watching it, it turned out to be truly enjoyable. I laughed hard at one of the most pleasant comedies I had seen in a long time. But the evening had been marred by the clerk's perception that only an idiot would attempt to watch a foreign film.
But the real problem was that she was right: American tastes are very bland. Hollywood caters to those tastes, but I also wonder if they aren't creating them by not offering anything more substantive. Regardless, film buffs have to increasingly look overseas to find true art on celluloid.
It seems a shame to have to do that in the very country which invented movies.