Friday, February 20, 2015

87th Academy Awards – Dream Ballot

Despite seeing nearly 300 features and shorts which I qualify as being 2014 releases, the Academy has much stricter rules.  Due to the evolving landscape of cinematic exhibition (and the proclivity of genre films being rushed to VOD) many of my favorite films of the year weren’t even given the chance at contending as a dark horse:  I have seen only 87 productions that Oscar™ deems eligible for the big award.  I don’t expect these percentages to get any better as it seems doubtful the Academy will seek to accommodate for films which circumvent the box office.

I was going to do my traditional “who will win”/”who should win” thing, but I don’t want my wife stealing all my picks in our pool so I’m doing something a little different.  Here are the nominations and wins if they were selected by me, but still holding to Academy rules (with one notable exception).  I saved this document on my hard-drive as “bizarro Oscars,” so please understand this format is weird, self-indulgent and that reader feedback is highly encouraged.

(For obvious reasons I have ignored the shorts categories.  I have no idea how a film becomes eligible in these categories and even less of an idea how they are effectively narrowed down such that an individual film makes an impact.  The short film has an incredible medium called the Internet, and the Academy’s failure to recognize this is a testament to their devotion to punctilio rather than innovative artistry.)

The envelopes, please:

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Monday, February 16, 2015

The Western as Ethnographic Barometer in Gunsmoke and Deadwood

James Arness, the actor who portrays Marshal Matt Dillon in all twenty seasons of Gunsmoke (CBS: 1955-1975), had an interesting take on the ideologies behind the genre’s success. “A cowboy wasn’t tied down to one place or one woman,” he told TV Radio Mirror in 1964. “Nowadays people just don’t seem to have the intestinal fortitude to live the way they’d like. That’s why they tune in on Westerns, to get a breather from stifling conformity. They don’t want to see Matt Dillon—or any other lawman—come home and sweep the kitchen” (McBride 64).

While, perhaps, coy or playing to character, the assertion is odd given the nature of the television medium. The American Western, more than any genre, reflects the morals and cultural feelings of the era in which they were produced. However, unlike the film industry’s predication of rugged individualism dependent on the trope of cowboys riding off into the sunset, during the heyday of the television Western, heroes needed to be domesticated in recurring roles.

Arness’s ideologically ambiguous statement does any amount of cultural work. It presumes the television Western’s narrative is coded with rigid masculinity as well as insinuates its audience is (and its network would allow its program’s target to be) exclusively male. It ties (contrary to the ideological view of the very show he stars in) law and morality to non-conformity and self-government. It suggests the masculine ideal is too individualistic for community yet offers it through a social medium.

Though fragments of these assumptions share some truth with the early Western in print and film, the television Western largely subverts these assumptions through both their serial format and consumerist ideologies. Textual analysis of the first seasons of Gunsmoke and Deadwood (HBO: 2004-2006) will examine how the television Western, though employing traditional genre tropes and themes, does not perpetuate absolute ideologies but is elastic, reflecting the cultures and formats in which they were produced. As paranoid, commercial artifacts of the Eisenhower-era Cold War and the lingering shadow of post-9/11, these programs’ use of Western language exposes an ethnological rift as the culture shifts from the perspective of victor to that of victim in terms of foreign policy.

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Saturday, February 7, 2015

Thursday, January 29, 2015

My Thirty(one) Most Anticipated Films of 2015

Hey, have you guys heard they're making a new Star Wars movie?

Conventional wisdom dictates that all of the good, award-worthy movies come out at the end of the year while all of the billion-dollar popcorn movies run May-July.  Don't get me wrong, I'll consume all of that as well, but it is almost always the films that fall between the cracks that make the biggest impression on me.  Here's what I'm most looking forward to as we wave goodbye to the 2014 Oscar™ parade caboose.  For a much shorter read, check out a list of My Wife's Most Anticipated Films of 2015.

30. White God (Fehér Isten) (d. Kornél Mundruczó)
This Hungarian film opened to mixed reviews at Sundance despite winning the Prize Un Certain Regard at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival.  It looks like a pretty hokey drama but a pretty sweet B-horror.  It'll be interesting to see how the two are reconciled.
U.S. limited release: 27 March 2015

29. Seymour: An Introduction (d. Ethan Hawke)
Another audience favorite (taking second runner-up for the People's Choice Award in Best Documentary at Toronto last fall), Ethan Hawke's examination of concert pianist Seymour Bernstein is hopefully the musical equivalent of Golub.

28. Mad Max: Fury Road (d. George Miller)
His first non-Happy Feet movie in almost two decades, George Miller's return to roots looks like the best kind of over-the-top, Drive Angry, grindhouse exploitation.
U.S. release: 15 May 2015

27. The Look of Silence (d. Joshua Oppenheimer)
Danish documentarian Joshua Oppenheimer has won huge accolades on the festival circuit with his sequel to 2012's The Act of Killing.  This is sure to be harrowing.
U.S. limited release: July 2015

26. Ned Rifle (d. Hal Hartley)
The third, final and-- if it lives up to the hype-- best chapter in Hal Hartley's extended Henry Fool trilogy casts Parker Posey alongside Aubrey Plaza.  The film is scheduled for screening at the Berlin International Film Festival in February and will hopefully get a limited U.S. release by the summer.

25. 3 and 1/2 Minutes (d. Marc Silver)
On the heels of #blacklivesmatter, Marc Silver's documentary debuts at the Sundance Film Festival and recounts how gun culture and racial bias culminated in the 2012 death of 17-year-old Jordan Russell Davis at a gas station in Jacksonville, Florida.  Like last year's Citizenfour, this appears to be a timely, relevant and uncompromising historical document and, hopefully, work of art. 

24. Round Up (d. Sufjan Stevens)
This is a weird Sufjan Stevens "documentary" that appears to be an environmentalist art installment of a slow-motion rodeo.  Maybe this one is only for me, and who knows if I'll ever even be able to see it.
Release: It'll probably show up on Vimeo in like three years.

23. Killers (d. Kimo Stamboel and Timo Tjahjanto)
This seems like a crazier (and probably more straight-genre) version of I Saw The Devil.  Brutal.
U.S. limited release: 23 January 2015

22. It Follows (d. David Robert Mitchell)
This looks like a really stylish genre piece in the vain of Starry Eyes and The Guest.  This is the kind of thing that seems fit for VOD nowadays, but I hope I can see this somewhere outside of FilmBar.
U.S. limited release: 27 March 2015

21. High-Rise (d. Ben Wheatley)
The prolific Ben Wheatley has given us Kill List, Sightseers and A Field In England all since 2011.  I don't even know what this movie is about; I'll be there.

20. Mistress America (d. Noah Baumbach)
Baumbach has found his muse in Greta Gerwig in what looks like a combination of mumblecore and screwball comedy.  #mumblescrew
Release: I'd guess limited late-summer

19. The Witch (d. Robert Eggers)
Sundance darling that apparently sounds like exactly what it is.  You had me at "witch."

18. Spring (d. Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead)
In their follow-up to the genre-bending Resolution, Benson and Moorhead return with a "romantic horror" which looks to buck convention while making me real uncomfortable.  This is a lot of what I loved about Under the Skin and Trouble Every Day, so I have high hopes for this one.
U.K. release: 17 April 2015; hopefully U.S. will follow suit

17. Nie yin niang (d. Hsiao-Hsien Hou) 
His first feature since 2007's Flight of the Red Balloon, marking his longest professional hiatus by some distance, this film-- which I know nothing about (including pronunciation)-- is on here by reputation alone.  It's currently listed on IMDb as in post-production and sounds like the kind of thing that will debut at Cannes and half of the audience won't be into it.  

16. The Sea of Trees (d. Gus Van Sant)
I'm hoping this is Van Sant's return to form (like "Death trilogy" form, not self-congratulatory crowd-pleasing form) in teaming with Matthew McConaughey and Naomi Watts in something that sounds an awful lot like Gerry.  Gerry with trees.

15. Z for Zachariah (d. Craig Zobel) 
I can't say enough good things about the under-recognized Compliance, but where Zobel turned huge performances from a non-recognizable ensemble cast, his latest currently credits only Margot Robbie, Chris Pine and Chiwetel Ejiofor who are, possibly, the last known survivors on earth.  This title may compete on my short list of "favorite Z-titled films" alongside Zelig, Zero for Conduct, Zero Dark Thirty and a few Zatoichi pictures.
Danish release: 16 April 2015.  Thanks, IMDb.

14. The Duke of Burgundy (d. Peter Strickland)
Technically, this thing is already out.  From the guy who brought us Berberian Sound Studio and the Björk: Biophilia Live concert film, the unofficial prequel to Anchorman.  
U.S. limited release and VOD: 23 January 2015

13. Kamakura Diary (Umimachi Diary) (d. Hirokazu Koreeda)
A domestic drama adapted from the manga of the same name, this thing seems to be right up the alley of Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda (Still Life, Nobody Knows).  I wouldn't be surprised if this thing debuts at Cannes as it's set to open in Japan a month later.
Japanese release: 13 June 2015 

12. Love in Khon Kaen (d. Apichatpong Weerasethakul) 
From Thai director Weeransethakul's website, Love in Khon Kaen "tells of a lonesome middle-age housewife who tends a soldier with sleeping sickness and falls into a hallucination that triggers strange dreams, phantoms, and romance." Sounds par for the course for the guy that brought us Uncle Boonmee.

11. The Lobster (d. Yorgos Lanthimos)
From the crazy Greek who brought us Dogtooth, here's hoping that The Lobster follows the recent European arthouse tradition-- alongside Attenberg and Borgman-- of confounding fever dream.
U.S. limited release: March 2015

10. From the Dark (d. Conor McMahon)
Irish creature-feature which casts only two actors.  From the director of Stitches.

9. Crimson Peak (d. Guillermo del Toro)
"But basically what it is is a really, really, almost classical gothic romance ghost story, but then it has two or three scenes that are really, really disturbing in a very, very modern way. Very, very disturbing, it's a proper R rating. And it's adult."
— Guillermo del Toro
So, basically, Pan's Labyrinth with Jessica Chastain?  This could skyrocket close to #2 on my list, but my excitement is tempered by my disinterest in returning to Pacific Rim
U.S. release: 16 October 2015

8. Green Room (d. Jeremy Saulnier)
I'm looking for Saulnier to catapult to the forefront of American directors (genre or otherwise) after the exceptional Murder Party and Blue Ruin with this killer tagline: "A young punk rock band find themselves trapped in a secluded venue after stumbling upon a horrific act of violence."  Starring Imogen Poots and featuring Patrick Stewart as a Neo-Nazi. 

7. Darkness by Day (El día trajo la oscuridad) (d. Martín De Salvo)
I've been excited about this movie since I first heard of its existence and it still has no U.S. distribution.  I hope someone picks this up before it hits Latin American torrents.

6. Yeezus: The Film (d. Hype Williams)
No one knows anything about this movie, including if it even exists.  Kanye released a teaser trailer last February.  Expect me to be camping out if this gets a theatrical release.

5. Tomorrowland (d. Brad Bird)
The next in the proud tradition of theme-park related films, Brad Bird will again play King Midas to something that would sound like a dumpster fire in anyone else's hands.
U.S. release: 22 May 2015

4. '71 (d. Yann Demange)
Full disclosure:  I've seen this one and it rules.  I don't expect this to play well this side of the Atlantic, but it should further flex Jack O'Connell as an A-list actor where his last few American features let him down.
U.S. release: 27 February 2015

3. The Hateful Eight (d. Quentin Tarantino)
Tarantino continues his foray into historiological metafiction through redemptive violence and blissful cinematic commentary.  Inglourious Basterds was no mere Dirty Dozen knock-off, Django Unchained re-Americanized the essence of the spaghetti Western, and we have every reason to believe The Hateful Eight will play genre in a way that pays healthy respect to, but completely transcend expectation and source material of, its Magnificent Seven reference.  I mean, look at that poster.
U.S. release: 13 November 2015

2. Midnight Special (d. Jeff Nichols)
Jeff Nichols may very well be the next true American auteur.  Midnight Special seems to follow familiar themes in Take Shelter and Mud of the disillusionment of childlike wonder and the seams where the fabric of paternal leadership begins to tear.
U.S. release: 25 November 2015

1. Knight of Cups (d. Terrence Malick) / Untitled Terrence Malick Project (d. Terrence Malick)
I'm cheating by ending this list with a twofer, but it is an unprecedentedly exciting place in cinema where the short distance between 2011 and 2015 can produce as many Terrence Malick films as the previous 39 years.

What do I know about Knight of Cups?  Very little.  I don't even understand what the title possibly refers to, and I'll keep it this way.  Remember when The Tree of Life was coming out and people were touting how it took Malick a long time to balance the harsh representation of fatherhood with the developing technology which made the dinosaurs look legitimate?  There was no way to wrap my mind around a statement like that without actually seeing it, and my visceral and emotional connection was heightened by this ignorance.  I know Christian Bale is in it.  I know Natalie Portman is in it.  I know Imogen Poots, Cate Blanchett and Nick Offerman are in it.   I know '70s posterboy Ryan O'Neal adds Terrence Malick to his already crowded résumé of New Hollywood directors he's worked with (including Stanley Kubrick, Peter Bogdanovich, Blake Edwards, Norman Mailer, Richard Attenborough).  But I'm not convinced any of them could even tell us what it is about at this point.

I know even less about the second feature.  Including its title.  I know it has a slightly improved cast (if that can be fathomed) with a few carryovers and I know the two films were shot, more or less, concurrently. Maybe Untitled will come out in 2015?  If not, the recent trove of Malick will hold me over for a lifetime.

I also know To The Wonder is my favorite film of 2013, and I know The Tree of Life is my favorite film of my lifetime.  That's all I need to know.  By all means, watch the trailer.  But I haven't.

U.S. release: 11 December 2015 (Knight of Cups)

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Friday, January 9, 2015

The 40 Best Films of 2014

What does the cultural barometer tell us about ourselves in 2014?  I think our films tell us that we are resilient.  Look at Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper and Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken: these films aren’t Jessica Chastain crying in the back of a military transport, they’re about heroes doing heroic, American things.  Funny, then, that the latter is a story of forgiveness that never gets to the forgiving, and the former is a tale of war-caused PTSD which ends before its real-life protagonist’s life is cut short by a veteran with PTSD.  They’re jingoistic smoke and mirrors with the guts to only look at the smoke.

A recurring theme in this year’s films is the uncanny valley: doppelgangers abound, enemies disguised as ourselves, emasculation of and prescribed heroes and, in the case of Doc Sportello, learning he couldn’t see the mirrors for the smoke.  We need the movies not for, as Detective Rustin Cohle says, the “transference of fear and self-loathing to an authoritarian vessel,” but to see what is ugly about ourselves and why this demands we approach others with grace.  This bumper crop projects our lives back upon us, reminding that sometimes what is hardest to watch is the most necessary.  Our resilience was never called into question, only its cost.

With no intention of being contrarian, my list avoids the much fawned-over Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel and Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue or Ignorance) and I find much of their praise misguided herd mentality.  The best of the three, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is a hell of a gimmick, but a gimmick nonetheless and one that would be better served with a more cohesive through line and character depth.  Writer Guild and ACE editing nominations belittle much of the work on my list which didn’t have the luxury of twelve years.

I used to be an unabashed, card-carrying member of the Cult of Wes Anderson and still hold The Royal Tenenbaums and The Darjeeling Limited in my top 100 films of all time.  Crushing to me is that, since the naval-gazing increased with his last two features, he has finally achieved universal acclaim.  His work has become a parody of itself and leaves me hollow where it was once edifying.  The notes are pristine, but they ring untrue.  The Grand Budapest Hotel is ramshackle, fun and a throwback to classic screwball comedy—kind of in the same way Woody Allen’s Magic in the Moonlight is a throwback to classic romantic comedy.  One is seen as a shallow disappointment, one has bloggers lobbying behind it for Best Picture nominations.  Both lie somewhere in the middle.

Birdman is another beast altogether.  Perhaps the most critic-proof of the three, the film attempts to both vilify Hollywood’s franchise inclination (a lazy critic’s m.o.) and eat its cake too, lecturing a one-dimensional critic.  Embarrassing, then, that Captain America: The Winter Soldier, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Guardians of the Galaxy, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and Godzilla are all better and more human films.  The indictment on critical herd mentality isn’t unfair, only misplaced: the critic’s job is to trace culture’s de Broglie-Bohm theory.  To express what is objective, in our souls, about the arts.  To expose pretention and put words to the poetic ineffable.  Birdman, as it turns out, is indeed quite effable.  Eff Birdman.

The punchline is all of this is likely moot as far as the Academy is concerned, for The Imitation Game certainly looks most like a Best Picture™.  Kudos for being honest enough among the contenders to eponymously name its feign at art.

I initially intended to wait to compose my list until A Most Violent Year grew legs into the Phoenix suburbs.  As it turns out, that won’t be until at least January 23.  It is with a heavy heart that the film joins a short list of contenders which I found no way to see in 2014: A Girls Walks Home Alone At Night, National Gallery, Citizenfour, The World of Kanako, Stray Dogs, Mommy and three films which have yet to find distributors: Darkness by Day, The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga and Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait.  I hope this working list is usurped by a few of these in the year to come.  Conversely, it was hard to bite my tongue and leave Yann Demange’s ’71 off the list as it is due for U.S. distribution in February.  Even with spots reserved for the possibility of two Terrence Malicks, it’s assured a top ten finish in 2015.

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Sunday, January 4, 2015

Best Short Films of 2014

Before I wrap my list of favorite films of the year, I thought I'd highlight a few of my favorite short films from 2014.  Academy Award nominations will frustrate completists in a couple of weeks and I feel safe in my prediction that, not only will none of these compete for a prize, their online availability proves that (sorry, Academy) the Internet is the most viable medium for the format.

10. Sean (d. Ryan Reichenfeld)

SEAN from Ryan Reichenfeld on Vimeo.

Ryan Reichenfeld of Justin Timberlake music video fame has created an oddly philosophical everyman piece about a teenage Jack In The Box employee from Lake Havasu, Arizona: a naive nihilist in the land of Spring Breakers.

9. Breathe (d. Laron Murray)

Eric Garner BREATHE from Laron Murray on Vimeo.

Turning a dying man's pleas into a spoken word call to justice and solidarity, the brevity of Laron Murray's Breathe is harrowingly self-referential.

8. Are You Okay (d. Bret Easton Ellis)

Following the ever-growing trend of blurring the line between short film and music video, Bret Easton Ellis's cut of Dum Dum Girls' "Are You Okay" certainly benefits from one of the finest dream-pop songs of the year and from Dee Dee Penny's long-established persona of grindhouse feminism.  (see also Sky Ferreira's "I Blame Myself" with similar bubblegum-goth, L.A. subversion in another of the best music videos of 2014).

7. Verbatim: What Is A Photocopier? (d. Brett Weiner)

Brett Weiner's New York Times Op-Doc is a word-for-word historical recreation highlighting the unintentional humor of legal deposition.

6. Kid Danny (d. Andrew Cohn)

ESPN's best "30 for 30" short film of the year catches up with Danny Almonte who-- amidst a teenage Miguel Tejada scandal--  threw a perfect game in the 2001 Little League World Series.  Typical of the best ESPN films, it is both sappy and redemptive in the best way.

I've fought with ESPN's video player for the whole year, so it is of no surprise that their embed feature doesn't work now.  The film can be viewed here.

5. Jack London's 'A Piece of Steak' (d. Travis Mills)

Jack London's A Piece of Steak - Clip - 52 Films in 52 Weeks from Running Wild Films on Vimeo.

The pinnacle of Travis Mills's "52 Films in 52 Weeks" project (though closely followed by Ring Lardner's 'Harmony'), the adaptation of Jack London's 'A Piece of Steak' (quotations added to avoid an awkward insult) is a one-man highlight reel put on by Jonathan Medina.

As the only film on the list not currently available online (I suspect Mills is curbing his proliferation in preparation for his upcoming "Lose Yourself"-moment in his next film, Durant's Never Closes), keep an eye out as this will be available again at some point in the year.

4. The Dream (d. Errol Morris)

The best of Errol Morris's trio of Op-Doc "Peace Films," the biographical documentary of Nobel winner Leymah Gbowee avoids schmaltz and approaches profundity.

3. Gan-Gan (d. Gemma Green-Hope)

Gan-Gan from Gemma Green-Hope on Vimeo.

The heir to Joseph Cornell.  A Scott Stark contemporary without a shred of pretension.

2. The Time-Eaters (d. Harry Dodge)

The Time Eaters—Harry Dodge from Futurepoem on Vimeo.

A Kierkegaardian Before Sunrise re: hydrophilic chemistry, the cremasteric reflex and pie crusts.

1. Too Many Cooks (d. Chris "Casper" Kelly)

I initially wrote this off as a clever (and musically brilliant) meta riff until it subverted my expectations so many times I could no longer keep track.  There's a serial killer (the only uncredited character) who stands in for us as we demand these characters live out this hell in a piece that finds commonality between "Roseanne" and Lars von Trier's The Kingdom.  It's a condensed, Internet-era marriage of Chris Elliott's "Action Family" and T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland which manages the impossible: it is sincere in its irony.

It also understands itself to its core: an Adult Swim "infomercial" that I only wish I discovered while awaking from a hangover, on the couch, at 4:30 A.M.  I want to meet the person who unknowingly walked into that nightmare.  I Am A Strange Loop, indeed.  (See also their follow up-- and cousin-- Unedited Footage of a Bear).

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Friday, August 22, 2014

The Golden Age to the New Hollywood Era: Hollywood post-World War II

Hollywood’s Golden Age—an era bookended by the christening of sound motion pictures and the Supreme Court’s anti-trust verdict in United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. —was a time of vast proliferation in terms of studio output and tremendous profit for a handful of vertically-integrated production companies who dominated the market. Even if per capita attendance never again reached the heights of the silent era (Pautz 83), the coincidence of monopolistic business practices and the prominence of cinema as the dominant form of media ensured that the Golden Age was the industry’s most profitable era (Dirks).

The fallout from the Paramount Decision necessitated change in theatrical exhibition and, as television began to replace the cinema as the dominant form of media, the Hollywood film industry was strong-armed into diversification. The Big Five and Little Three (who dominated as much as 99% of the annual movie market share in 1964) caved to media conglomeration for capital but saw their market shares consistently drop throughout the New Hollywood Era (Finler 40). This era saw Hollywood engage new practices in business and aesthetics partly in response to legislation (both theatrical exhibition and decency regulations changed due to the Supreme Court’s Paramount Decision and its overturning of its 1915 Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio ruling in 1952, respectively), but mostly to jockey for competitive edge. If cinema was to no longer be the dominant media platform, deviation from the Classical Hollywood Style in terms of content, form and business practice would vie to get audiences back in seats and to obtain fragmented pieces of the leisure dollar as modes of exhibition evolved.

The ramifications of the Paramount Decision are what ultimately changed the course of the Hollywood industry forever. The Golden Age of Hollywood was so prolific and profitable because of the stranglehold a handful of studios had on the production, distribution and exhibition arms of the industry. In 1948, the Supreme Court found the eight Hollywood production studios “conspired to and did restrain and monopolize interstate trade in the exhibition of motion pictures…and that their combination of producing, distributing and exhibiting motion pictures violated §§ 1 and 2 of the [Sherman] Act” (United States v. Paramount Pictures 131). This conspiracy demanded exhibition houses charge minimal admission prices, elevating quantity over quality. 

A significant portion of income for Production houses during the Studio Era came from block-booked lineups and major studios created B-movie units to round out pre-sold double bills with low-budget productions. As Hollywood studios retained the rights to production and distribution but no longer had control of exhibition, B-movies decreased in value. Exhibition houses demanded films of higher quality and B-units from the major studios were phased out. Production values (and costs) increased as a result of more discriminatory booking and the prolific number of Hollywood films (many of which, B-movies) produced during the Golden Age quickly dropped.

To capitalize on their smaller number of films, production companies began to distribute their big budget films through roadshow exhibition, protecting their assets by moving away from long-term contracts with movie houses. Studios travelled their elite programming and charged higher rental fees to independent theaters who, in turn, charged more per ticket for big-budget productions. Pouring huge budgets into roadshow features proved to be a gamble for production studios; while 20th Century Fox’s extravagant The Sound of Music surpassed Gone with the Wind as the all-time rental leader in 1965, the production costs of Cleopatra almost bankrupted the studio two years earlier despite being the highest grossing film of the year (Hefferman 424). This would not be an isolated event. Roadshow features were culturally safe (often historic, biblical or literary) to appeal to large audiences, epic in scope to present an awesome spectacle television couldn’t provide, but extravagantly—sometimes irreparably—expensive.

Higher rental prices may have, for studios, offset the loss from producing fewer films, but exhibitors had to innovate new strategies to fill seats as attendance declined into the 1950s. The advent of drive-in theaters captured new youth and family-oriented baby-boom markets, particularly in rural and suburban areas. Though something of a novelty, the drive-in created a new experience which juxtaposed the intimacy of a car’s private space with the camaraderie and spectacle of public entertainment. Films even became secondary as some drive-ins featured shuffleboard, miniature golf and dine-in areas. 

Pre-show drive-in shuffleboard
Inner-city theaters—once the hub of cinema in the Golden Era—struggled as “confiscatory rentals and extended first runs in large suburban theaters meant that last season’s hits began their subsequent runs in the inner city virtually played out” (Hefferman 419). These exhibitors stayed afloat by targeting specific audiences with their programming: they reran kiddie fare, played niche sci-fi and horror films to a growing cult of genre, and even targeted its ethnic crowd with social problem pictures (Hefferman 419). Niche programming became key for several small and second-run theaters and, although the Paramount Decision freed exhibitors from studio pricing, it wasn’t until another Supreme Court decision came in 1952 that exhibitors could take advantage of a new trend in foreign and independent cinema as the loosening of the Production Code made such a cinema of attractions possible.

The second Supreme Court decision that forever tousled the Hollywood industry as it moved toward the New Hollywood Era was the 1952 overturning of its initial ruling on 1915’s Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio. In order to consolidate concerns of state-mandated censorship boards following the 1915 ruling that denied the extension of First Amendment rights to motion pictures, and to repair a poor public image of Hollywood lasciviousness due to off-screen scandal, Hollywood executives forged a trade association to protect its economic interests. In 1922, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America began work on a Production Code which went into effect in 1930 and ran through Hollywood’s Golden Age. This self-policing found Hollywood studios willing to abide by zealous mandates against portrayals of miscegenation or sexual inference to prevent a bad apple from spoiling the bunch.

The Production Code prevented any major studio from exploiting indecency in an effort to elevate the cinema as legitimate in the public eye and, with vertical integration still intact, the Code was “enforceable because of the lock the five majors had on first-run exhibition. Film lacking a Code seal could not play in affiliated theaters. Barred from the lucrative first-run market, it was economic suicide for the majors to make films that would not be granted Code approval” (Schaefer 381-2). The Production Code was, therefore, more a matter of economic security than morality; studios abided by the rules to jibe with exhibition as well as to guard the public perception of trade credibility.

However, the judicial stance on decency changed, coinciding with the Paramount Decision. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas stated in 1948, “‘we have no doubt that moving pictures, like newspapers and radio, are included in the press whose freedom is guaranteed by the First Amendment,’ opening the door for a challenge to motion-picture censorship” (Schaefer 382). This challenge would come four years later in the case of Burstyn v. Wilson which overruled 1915’s Mutual Decision, defanged the Legion of Decency and allowed theaters—now unbound by monopolistic tendencies—the freedom to exhibit edgier foreign and independent films without a Production seal.

Jack Valenti, MPAA President 1966-2004
With the Production Code increasingly difficult to enforce, censorship growing passé with evolving cultural mores, and new art-house and genre audiences to exploit, the major studios reframed regulation in the form of the MPAA rating system to again protect their economic advantage. A statement by MPAA president Jack Valenti in 1968 (the same year the new rating system went into effect) does rhetorical work in distancing the stance of the production studios from the now culturally unpopular connotation of “censorship” while preemptively self-policing to avoid government intervention. Valenti asks, “Can censorship cure the portrayal of violence in the media? …I would have a larger question. I would ask: Can censorship curb violence in the society? I think it’s a truism that movies are not beacons but rather mirrors of society” (Valenti 71). That is to say, censorship under the Production Code did not cure societal ills, but the new market could be legitimized. The resulting MPAA ratings system was the best of both worlds for the production studios: the R rating allowed grittier content forbidden on television and “became a gateway to the legitimate film marketplace: a code of production, distribution, and exhibition serving the major players in the industry” (Sandler 258). Just as it would have been “economic suicide” to release a film without the Production seal during the Studio Era, the MPAA phased out their X rating—bowing instead to censorship—to avoid legal injunctions preventing exhibition. The MPAA’s X rating would become New Hollywood’s economic suicide, while the legitimized R rating would become immensely profitable as it allowed for thematic and formal variations on the Classical Hollywood Style.

As exhibition increased its independent and foreign fare, and the MPAA legitimized boundary-pushing content with its R rating, the Hollywood industry saw audiences return as they altered thematic and formal content. The Godfather was one such success story which was “a critical and commercial smash with widespread appeal, drawing art cinema connoisseurs and disaffected youth as well as mainstream moviegoers,” pulling audiences away from their televisions and correcting a 7-year skid in box-office attendance (Schatz 292). What this statement presupposes is that, though the narrative tendencies for films which would come to be known as “blockbusters” were always at the forefront of studio concerns, art-house crowds and “disaffected youth” were significant audiences to consider. The success of The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider in the late 1960s indicated to studios that genre revisionism with auteurist sensibilities could be profitable despite their shift from the Classical Style (Grainge 409). Though films of the Studio Era often had a distinct house style, directors—considered employees rather than artists—perpetuated an invisible style in both sound and visuals. As studios began to terminate long-term staff contracts following the Paramount Decision, it also grew increasingly difficult for a director to retain familial crews to develop a singular look. Films of the Classical Hollywood Style were, therefore, enterprisingly corporate and stylistically invisible.

John Cassavetes directing Faces with hand-held camera
The curio that was art-house cinema along with disaffected youth receipts led studio executives to take a gamble on the auteuristic tendencies of New Hollywood directors. Many of these directors employed distinct visual style and reflexive genre play which ran contrarian to Classic Hollywood invisibility. Robert Altman innovated overlapping dialogue through use of multi-track mixers, John Cassavetes experimented with handheld cameras, long takes and deliberate pacing and Woody Allen authored films of non-linear narrative, all on the studio dime. Where deviations from the Classic Style toward the end of the Studio Era came in the form of novelty to rival television viewership (the inherent reflexivity of CinemaScope and 3D), reflexive tendencies in the New Hollywood Era were framed as singular, artistic visions.

The profitability of the auteur style, however, was unsustainable despite the promise of a “new cinema” that came with corporate conglomeration at the end of the Studio Era. Horizontal integration would encourage the prominence of the blockbuster as synergistic output could incorporate returns throughout a wider media spectrum. Certainly studio executive always preferred homogenized entertainment in times of economic depression. Declining attendance in the 1950s encouraged safe, pre-sold releases and epics and musicals from pre-existing material dominated the box-office throughout the decade. Strangely enough, when the majors began being absorbed into corporate conglomeration—beginning with MCA’s takeover of Universal Pictures in 1962 during another studio depression—low-risk homogeny wasn’t their primary concern.

Michael Cimino amid shooting one-million feet of film for Heaven's Gate
In an attempt to reach a youthful audience with youthful leadership, the media conglomerates largely replaced studio dinosaurs with “brats” who also saw promise in the art-house and disaffected youth crowds. Noel King describes this New Hollywood as “a brief window of opportunity…when an adventurous new cinema emerged, linking traditions of classical Hollywood genre filmmaking with the stylistic innovations of European art cinema” (268). Such adventure from a wider pool of resources would also bankroll such big-budget auteur flops as William Friedkin’s Sorcerer in 1977 and Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate in 1980—the latter bankrupting United Artists—to increased studio anxiety. Even “brats” like Francis Ford Coppola whose prior work had been highly successful at the box-office saw their directorial power fade. Much like the industry’s treatment of Orson Welles at the height of the Studio Era, the New Hollywood Era saw the climate grow tenuous between single-minded directors and big business.

Screenwriter William Goldman summed up the corporatization of the film industry by saying, “Most of the studio guys I’ve met are really smart, but they don’t care much about the movies. As slots, yes. As merchandising tie-ins,—oh my—yes. As theme-park rides, you betcha! And that’s the problem. They are mostly ex-agents or business school types. They care about slots and profits and product and Burger King cross-promotions” (King 271). On the surface, this is undeniably true: the entrenching of the high-concept blockbuster demands larger budgets to films of broad appeal with the promise of large returns across multiple outlets through horizontal integration and cross-promotion. The fallacy of Goldman’s quip is the presupposition that “film as film” has ever been a primary motivating concern among studio executives.

The Studio Era’s vertically-integrated control of exhibition and its shift to roadshow distribution weren’t about “film” any more than the Production Code (or subsequent MPAA rating system) was about morality. Blockbuster films of the New Hollywood Era may be high-concept and pre-sold (like the adapted epics of the 1950s), but they aren’t diametrically opposed to auteur cinema of the late-’60s and early-’70s: both were considered low-risk in their time and exploited a welcoming demographic. The diversification of media left the film industry with no choice but to invite corporate conglomeration. Legislation pulled the rug from their monopolistic strength in Hollywood’s Golden Age, and the competition for post-World War II leisure dollars made it impossible for the industry to sustain itself as it had at the beginning of the Studio Era when, in 1929, it earned 83 cents of every entertainment dollar spent in America (Mintz). As public consumption of media evolved, Hollywood diversified its market into the New Hollywood Era. Any industry concern for “film as film” cannot be divorced from the shrewd economic practices which define its history.


Works Cited

Dirks, Tim. “The History of Film: The 1940s.” Filmsite. AMC Networks, LLC., n.d. Web. 9 Aug. 2014.

Finler, Joel Waldo. The Hollywood Story. London: Wallflower Press, 2003.

Hefferman, Kevin. “Inner-City Exhibition and the Genre Film: Distributing Night of the Living Dead (1968).” Film Histories: An Introduction and Reader. Ed. Paul Grainge, Mark Jancovich and Sharon Monteith. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007. 418-434.

Grainge, Paul, Mark Jancovich and Sharon Monteith. Film Histories: An Introduction and Reader. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007.

King, Noel. “‘The Last Good Time We Ever Had’: Remembering the New Hollywood Cinema.” Hollywood Film History. Ed. Kevin Sandler. New York: Pearson, 2009. 267-278.

Mintz, Steven and Sara G. McNeill. “The Formation of Modern American Mass Culture.” Digital History. Digital History, 2013. Web. 11 Aug. 2014.

Pautz, Michelle. “The Decline in Average Weekly Cinema Attendance: 1930-2000.” Issues in Political Economy, Vol. 11 (2002): 70-87. Web. 23 Nov. 2013.

Sandler, Kevin S. “CARA and the Emergence of Responsible Entertainment.” Hollywood Film History. Ed. Kevin Sandler. New York: Pearson, 2009. 267-278.. 249-264.

Schaefer, Eric. “The End of Classical Exploitation” Film Histories: An Introduction and Reader. Ed. Paul Grainge, Mark Jancovich and Sharon Monteith. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007. 380-391.

Schatz, Thomas. “The New Hollywood.” Hollywood Film History. Ed. Kevin Sandler. New York: Pearson, 2009. 287-306.

United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. 334 U.S. 131. 131-180. No. 79. US Supreme Court. 1948. Web. (9 Aug. 2014).

Valenti, Jack. “The National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence.” Screening Violence. Ed. Stephen Prince. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2000. 62-75.

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