Thursday, February 24, 2011

Another Week, Another Stupid List: EW "Reveals" the Best Film Directors Working Today

So another week has come and it has not yet passed without another insipid and stupid “best of” list making its debut on the screens of American cyberspace. The latest “best of” list comes from EW, Entertainment Weekly, during their leadup to Oscar night. EW calls their list the “25 Greatest Working Directors” (EW Online, 22 February 2011, http://www.ew.com/ew/gallery/0,,20311937_20346922,00.html).

So here’s the list:

1. David Fincher
2. Christopher Nolan
3. Steven Spielberg
4. Martin Scorsese
5. Darren Aronofsky
6. Joel and Ethan Coen
7. Quentin Tarantino
8. Terence Mallick
9. Clint Eastwood
10. Pedro Almodovar
11. Paul Thomas Anderson
12. Guillermo Del Toro
13. Roman Polanski
14. Danny Boyle
15. Kathryn Bigelow
16. David O. Russell
17. David Lynch
18. James Cameron
19. Peter Jackson
20. Edgar Wright
21. Spike Lee
22. J. J. Abrams
23. Brad Bird
24. Mike Leigh
25. Wes Anderson

There are several things to note about this list specifically the dominance of American directors on it, the dominance of Hollywood directors on it, and the absence of prominent art cinema directors, including directors who have been working since the 1960s and who have influenced virtually everyone on this list (Godard, Rivette, Resnais, Wenders, Loach) and contemporary practitioners of cinema as art (Kiarostami, the Dardennes, Kaurismaki, Garrone, Sembane, Maddin, Egoyan, Weerasethakul, Angelopoulos) on the list. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised about any of this since EW is, by and large, a shill for contemporary Hollywood and its commodities.

And that is what these “best of” lists really reveal? They actually tell us more about the people putting together these lists and their social and cultural contexts (including aesthetic) than they do about any supposed universal aesthetic truths ("best" directors, "best" films). So what does this list tell us? Well EW’s list tells us, as I have already implied, something about America in the post World War Two period.

It was after World War Two, specifically in 1948, that American federal anti-trust regulators finally broke up the Hollywood monopoly on film production, distribution, and exhibition. This anti-trust action opened up the American market to cinema from outside the US, particularly cinema from Continental Europe. Independent distributors arose to distribute films by art cinema giants like Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, and later the enfant terribles of the French nouvelle vague (Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Rohmer, Rivette, Resnais, Varda) to independent cinemas in the US market place.

And people came. When I was a student in Bloomington, Indiana in the mid-1970s and early 1980s I could see a “foreign” film every night of the week by directors like Godard, Truffaut, Rivette, Fassbinder, Ozu, and Weir. The showings as one might expect, given that Bloomington is a classic college town, were always well attended. Foreign art cinema even began to influence products coming out of an economically ailing Hollywood. This influence ranged from the direct—-Godard and Truffaut were asked to direct “Bonnie and Clyde” and Truffaut actually worked on the script of that film—-to the indirect—-Bonnie and Clyde was clearly impacted narratively and mise-en-scene wise by the French nouvelle vague while art cinema enervated a new generation of Hollywood film makers and the American independent cinema, including the American avant garde.

It took a while for Hollywood to find an answer to all of this. Ronald Reagan helped. Reagan, who assumed the presidency in 1980, ushered in an administration less interested in anti-trust than in bringing about a new gilded age of large American mega corporations who, through vertical and horizontal integration (called synergy in the opaque doublespeak of the era), could and would come to dominate the American and global marketplace. What this meant for the American film industry was the reemergence of the Hollywood monopoly over production, distribution, and exhibition making it difficult if impossible for non-Hollywood films to get distributed and exhibited. Hollywood, in fact, would eventually gobble up independent film producers and distributors in the name of niche marketing making Robert Redford’s attempt to save the independent film, Sundance, virtually irrelevant. Hollywood would also buy up foreign product and either sit on them or remake them usually in a much less interesting and far more film by Hollywood numbers way. But perhaps most of all it was the emergence of a new generation of directors, mega directors and producers like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, who eventually brought Hollywood back from the dead by using new technologies and the action adventure films stylistics and narrative forms to bring back the Hollywood blockbuster with a vengeance, a Hollywood blockbuster aimed particularly at the teen and tween, physically and mentally, market. One commentator aptly called them the "movie brats" at the time. Hollywood has ever since been fixated on teens, tweens, and the action adventure cinema (including action adventure science fiction and fantasy). A metteur-en-scene like J.J. Abrams seems like the perfect avatar for this new "juvenile" Hollywood.

So what does all of this have to do with EW’s “best working director” list? The list, like the American cinema marketplace itself, reflects a parochialism that is at the heart of American life. Academics often refer to it as “American exceptionalism”. And while the US is not really exceptional—-the US shares much socially and culturally with Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and Great Britain, for instance—-the belief common among many Americans that America is unique is a factor in how Americans think about themselves, how they act, and what they think about American made goods, including those produced by Hollywood. So it should not be a surprise that the EW list is dominated by Americans and Hollywoodoids.

This parochialism has even come to dominate, as critic Jonathan Rosenbaum noted, American “art” cinema. As Rosenbaum notes over time foreign films and foreign auteurs were driven (aesthetic cleansing?) from of a marketplace that would once again dominated by Hollywood product. American “art” directors arose who were allowed to hover around the edges of American film culture and the American film marketplace by Hollywood corporate giants and were sometimes even hired to work for the "independent" arms of Hollywood mega corporations. Take David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino, for example. The pop surrealist Lynch is pretty much an American Luis Bunuel, probably the most well-known and longest lived director who worked in surrealism. Few American moviegoers know this, however, since most of them have never heard of or seen Bunuel's films outside of cinephiles who live in college towns and culturally elite American cities with their art cinema revival houses. It is also worth noting the differences between Bunuel and Lynch because they reflect two aspects of American intellectual culture in the twentieth century version of the fin-de-siecle. Unlike Bunuel, whose surrealism was political, Lynch's surrealism seems be characterised by a surrealism for surrealism's sake. Surrealism, in other words, in rather postmodernist fashion, seems to have become its own point of reference, its own simulation. Tarantino, of course, is a latter day Godard (the name of Tarantino’s production company, A Band Apart, references Godard’s famous and infamous 1964 film “Bande à Part”). Godard, like Tarantino, was fixated on the hard-boiled noir gangster theme for years. My European wife said it all when after seeing “Pulp Fiction” she expressed surprise that the film had garnered such critical attention and intellectual cult adoration since what Tarantino did in “Pulp Fiction” (hard boiled meets the narrative avant garde) had been done at least since the late 1950s in the European cinema of Bergman, Godard, Truffaut, and Resnais. Check out Godard’s jump cuts in “À bout de souffle” and compare it with the classic Hollywood cinematic style of “Pulp”. But again most Americans don’t realize any of this because ahistoricism is at the centre of contemporary mass film culture in the US. And that is exactly how Hollywood with its built in obsolescence and its cult of nostalgia about itself wants it.

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