Notes on the Atrocities
Like a 100-watt radio station, broadcasting to the dozens...

Monday, February 23, 2004  

Movie Week

If the Oscar nominees for best picture are good for anything, it's as metaphors for where Hollywood finds itself in 2004. The movie biz is pretty healthy--indies now regularly play on the big screen, foreign films are making a comback, and in the best trend in years, documentaries are now screening regularly in suburban metroplexes. But for Hollywood, things are bad.

Until recently, Hollywood had developed a groove. Big studios made big, sugary action films--and big money. Smaller fry in the studio world made the Oscar pictures. Indies had little influence, and only occasionally moved into either the Oscar field or money race.

A couple years ago, things started to go awry. Although Hollywood had its fingers in Lord of the Rings, it could hardly be called a "Hollywood" picture in the old Universal Studios sense. The studios were busily turning out really crappy blockbusters (The Hulk, Planet of the Apes), which no one wanted to see.

Erosion happened on the Oscar-movie side of the slate, too. Their versions of art became increasingly bloated, ham-handed affairs that neither made money nor won awards. (Cold Mountain is a great example.)

If you look down the list of the Best Picture nominees, you can see Hollywood's troubles.

Foreign Blockbusters
While Hollywood timidly greenlighted TV show remakes, the blockbuster people went to see was Lord of the Rings, which has now shattered all earnings records and probably grossed more than Bangladesh last year.

And although Master and Commander didn't make the kind of bank Hollywood likes to see, it was the kind of movie Hollywood used to make. The surprising selection of M&C seems to indicate a longing among voters for that Errol Flynn yesteryear when the industry knew how to make a compelling adventure movie.

Indie Cred
I don't know how much to make of Lost in Translation. It was arguably the best film of 2004, but that hardly matters to Oscar. I don't know whether it mainly reflects how bereft Hollywood has become that it couldn scrounge up another Seabiscuit-like replacement, or if the industry has finally turned a radical corner toward quality films. In any case, the very presence of Lost in Translation is remarkable. That a funny little not-quite-comedy about culture shock and dislocation would get the nod says something about Hollywood. It may be a year or two before we know what it means.

The last little ground Hollywood seems to have carved out for itself is a style of film that seems like a throwback to the "winning" pictures of the 40s and 50s. I'm going to toss both Mystic River and Seabiscuit into this category, even though they're fairly different films. The subject of Seabiscuit is a bygone era, and the movie feels like a piece of it. It's a Horatio Alger story for the new millennium. A nation savaged by doubt and fear is inspired by the story not because we see ourselves like plucky Seabiscuit, but because we like to remind ourselves that once we were Seabiscuit.

Mystic River, for all its darkness, is also a familiar movie. It has the scenery-eating performances that recall On the Waterfront. The lesson here is the Alger shadow--a vision into the seemy darkness we must overcome.

I just watched three movies at the Portland International Film Fest this weekend. I saw a movie filmed in the Central African forest, a magnificent German movie called Goodbye Lenin, and a series of shorts. Seeing the creativity and vitality of films being produced across the globe, I have really been stunned by how dead American studio films seem by comparison. They are stylized no less than Bollywood's, nor are they any more adventuresome. Indies like Lost in Translation now boast all the production values of a big-budget picture, and contain vitality you almost never see coming from Hollywood.

2004 may be remembered as the year the tide turned and Hollywood started making good pictures again. Or, if Lost in Translation wins best picture, it might be remembered as the beginning of the end for the industry.

posted by Jeff | 8:32 AM |
Blogroll and Links