Every once in a while a director will use their fame to pay tribute to the medium they love. Federico Fellini’s 8½ is perhaps the most famous example of a film about film: the title alludes to the number of completed works Fellini had made up to that point. These kinds of films, which tread the fine line between self-reflexive and self-absorbed, tend to come along every once in a while and attract a certain amount of critical adulation. With the exception of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, which prompted moral outrage in the British press, works like Kiss of the Spider Woman and Cinema Paradiso are regarded as artistic, personal works which are unlikely to trouble the box office.
But in the last couple of years, there has been a veritable influx of films about films which is coming to a head in the 2012 awards season. Cast your minds back to Boxing Day 2009 when Rob Marshall gave us Nine, his messy and rather naff adaptation of the Broadway musical based loosely on 8½. Since then we have had Super 8, an homage to Steven Spielberg’s early works and the medium in which he cut his teeth; Hugo, which examines the work of the Lumière Brothers and the pioneers of early 3D; My Week with Marilyn, which idolises the Hollywood studio system and one of its greatest stars; and The Artist, a modern-day silent film which look set to win Best Picture. There have been smaller efforts too (A Useful Life, for example) but all of these films have taken money and captured the public’s imagination. So why is this happening now, and what does it mean for the future?
If You Build It, They Will Come
One explanation for why these films have achieved commercial success is that most of them come from respected, well-known filmmakers. It may not mean much in and of itself, but the words ‘Steven Spielberg’ and ‘Martin Scorsese’ have more public currency than ‘Giuseppe Tornatore’ or ‘Hector Babenco’. When a director’s brand is strong enough that any film with their name on will take money, it is fair (if cynical) to assume that audiences will pay to see them do almost anything. But that does not explain the success of The Artist: Michel Hazanavicius’ only prior claim to fame is the OSS117 series of spy parodies, which were not widely seen in Britain or America.
By and large, a film will always take money if it is sold the right way. The ridiculous stories about people seeing The Artist and then demanding refunds because there was no sound only goes to prove the point. Many people who went to see The Artist went not because it was a silent film, but because the posters were adorned with five-star ratings, glowing reviews and news of its (utterly meaningless) Golden Globe nominations. People went to see Super 8 because of Spielberg’s name and the intriguing trailers, created by the master of hype, J. J. Abrams. With Hugo, it was the impressive cast list, or the perceived novelty of Martin Scorsese making a U-certificate film. These films were meticulously marketed to disguise the geeky, in-joke-y aspects and pull in the mainstream in any way possible.
This might satisfy as to why these films have taken money, but it doesn’t entirely explain why the filmmakers, and by extension the industry, chose to make them. And of course, just because a film takes money doesn’t mean it’s any good, either as a film in and of itself or as an indication of the standard of modern filmmaking. There are three possible explanations that I count for this phenomenon, which all slightly contradict each other.
Explanation 1: Nostalgia
The first explanation is nostalgia on the part of individual filmmakers. Spielberg (65)and Scorsese (69) are both at the age and point in their careers where they have achieved most of what they set out to do – whether that is awards contention, box office success, or pushing the cinematic envelope. Now they are in a position to make the kind of films they always wanted to make, but in an environment which is completely different to the one in which they started.
In Spielberg’s case, there is a strong argument that he has been trying for some time to get back to being the filmmaker that he was 30-odd years ago. Terry Gilliam commented after seeing War of the Worlds that Spielberg was “a man who makes brilliant scenes but can’t make a movie anymore.” Having tried and not entirely failed to recapture the past in Indy 4, Spielberg is now getting other director to help him make the films that he can no longer make himself.
With Scorsese, it is a little more complicated. His knowledge of cinema is famously comprehensive, including his appreciation for earlier waves of 3D. Embracing 3D with Hugo finds him simultaneously exploring a ‘new’ technology and looking back to the films which inspired him, whether it be Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder or the dual projection attempts of cinematographer Greg Toland. There has been a sense, however, of Scorsese forgetting what kind of filmmaker he was after his Oscar win for The Departed; the fulfilment of that goal created some kind of creative inertia, from which he has only recovered by looking backwards.
Explanation 2: Arguments for Co-Existence
This brings us on to the second explanation, again on the part of the filmmakers. Films about the history of cinema often make the argument for preserving or remembering one aspect as opposed to completely endorsing current trends. The Artist may be a celebration of silent cinema and the conventions of melodrama, but it is also an argument that different stories can and should be told in different ways within a given medium. The film’s resolution, with a silent actor and talkie actor working together, is a demonstration that progress or the latest technological leap need not – indeed, should not – run roughshod over everything.
The Artist, Hugo and Super 8 all appeal to the film industry to sustain and recapture the variety which explains the medium’s longevity. It took a long time for innovations like colour, surround sound and digital projection to become the norm; some innovations, like 3D, never became the norm, and maybe never will. These films demonstrate the value of what was once written off, showing that it is possible to create a genuinely great audience experience whether in black-and-white or colour, sound or silence, 3D or 2D. Super 8 is also an argument for the value of old-fashioned family films, for blockbusters that had something for everyone rather than obsessively reducing their audience to empty demographics.
Explanation 3: An Industry’s Insurance Policy
The third explanation, however, is much more sinister. The reason why these films are getting this sort of attention now, around awards season, is because they are part of a calculated move by the industry to argue the case for film as a business, in which all people great and small should invest and take notice. William Friedkin, director of The French Connection and The Exorcist, once described the Oscars as “the greatest promotion scheme that any industry ever devised for itself”. Friedkin should know, as a one-time director of the Oscars, that the Academy and the industry at large will take any opportunity to sell themselves to the public and argue the importance of films in people’s ever-busy, cash-strapped, multiple-choice lives.
The current craze for cinema about cinema is analogous to the rally around 3D when Avatar was first released. Both are examples of the film industry standing up and saying: “this is why film is still relevant.” The industry is under threat on several fronts in the 21st century – from piracy, from financial difficulties (e.g. the collapse of MGM), from a resurgence in television audiences, and from a rise in gaming and online entertainment. If we believe Peter Greenaway, director of The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, cinema has been dying a slow death since the TV remote control brought interactivity into the home. Cinema is a one-way medium, and has been struggling to adapt to audience’s desire for interaction ever since.
Back to the Future
Whichever explanation you buy into the most, the question remains: do these courses of action do either the industry or the notion of cinema any good? Despite the strength of the third explanation, the answer is a double-edged sword.
It is dangerous to take any medium, including cinema, for granted. Just as humanity will only survive on this planet by taking responsibility for how we treat it, so cinema will only remain as emotionally powerful and involving by people seeing it as something other than a business. That goes for everyone, from the executives in Hollywood to the punters who support their local independent cinema. Films like Hugo and The Artist can help people realise how important cinema is, and what an impact it can have.
But in order for this to happen, such films have to be made and delivered with an honesty about themselves as a product and about the medium they are portraying. One of the most appealing things about Peeping Tom, perhaps the greatest film about film, is its complete lack of rose-tinted spectacles about what can be a dark and ruthless occupation. There is a danger that the success of these films will cause the industry at large to become more nostalgic, to bury its head in the sand and celebrate its glory days. That would be a fatal mistake, putting cinema into a more stultifying position than it was even in the 1950s, and without the benefit of a united political front which could bring about another New Wave.
If you haven’t seen The Artist yet, you should: it’s a very fine piece of work with a lot to say about the nature of cinema. If it wins Best Picture, it may be no bad thing. But even as we celebrate where we have come from, we must not let nostalgia cloud our ambitions for the future of something we have known and loved for so long.
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