Monday, April 1, 2013

Some Random Musings on the End of American Cinema and the Death of American Television or How Buffy Saved the Media World

Oz: “Today’s movies are like popcorn. You forget them as soon as they’re done…”

I don't recall when I wrote this diatribe. Four or five years ago I think. I wrote it after experiencing again and again looks of derision from colleagues, from students, and from friends, whenever I mentioned how much I loved Buffy the Vampire Slayer. So I decided to write a piece in which I took out my frustrations with so many people and which connected my love of the world's art cinema to my love for Buffy. By the way, the story about the student who hated Buffy but had never seen it is absolutely true. I also once had a conversation with a young woman who hated the Coen Brothers but who had never seen a Coen Brothers film. Perhaps we should be talking and thinking more about the death of higher education and the death of analytical thinking than the death of the American cinema or American television. That I could get on board with.

The notion that films and TV programmes are all surface and no depth, all I-don’t-know, the accidents of the moment and not the product of aesthetic choice, is apparently a common one in the United States. It‘s a notion I find quite interesting and it’s a notion I find perfectly understandable given the broader contexts we live in, in the United States. After all we in the United States live in a nation where most cinema and most TV is indeed all surface and little depth. Friends, for instance, is all surface and no depth though it must be admitted that most American sitcoms have really never tried give intellectual heft to their surface silliness. We in America live in a country where the only thing that really matters in the final analysis is the bottom line, whether a film or television show makes money at the box office or from advertising or not.

American and foreign cinemas are, to some extent, different from each other. Yes, the French and Germans, to take two examples, do produce “product” that is not that different from Hollywood and is aimed lowest common denominator, “entertainments” are aimed at a mass audience. However, the French, Germans, Italians, Swedes, Danes, Iranians, Chinese, and Japanese also produce what used to be called “art cinema” in the days when Hollywood, reeling from anti-trust actions in the late 1940s, no longer had the ability to keep foreign film product out of the American market.

I came of film age during this so called “golden age”. I grew up with film artists—and I want to emphasise the term artist here—like Ingmar Bergman, whose most recent film Saraband actually did play in the American market if only for a week—Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette, Alain Resnais, Claude Chabrol, Federico Fellini, Dusan Makavejev, Akira Kurosawa, and others. These were film artists who were recognized by film critics and film scholars alike for what they were, artists whose colours were those of the entire cinema palette. They made films which were more than simply special effects laden shoot em ups. Bergman gave us a meditation on identity, Persona. Truffaut gave us a film which explored the ravages of growing up, Les quatre cinq coups and a film which investigated the evanescence of bohemian love, Jules et Jim. Resnais gave us two seminal films he co-wrote with two prominent literary artists of the time, Hiroshima mon amour with Marguerite Duras and L’annee dernier a Marienbad with Alain Robbe-Grillet. Hiroshima mon amour, which critic Pauline Kael damned along with the eggheads who went to see it in that formulaic anti-intellectual way of hers, explored the relationship between a French woman and a Japanese man terrorized by the realities of the atomic bomb. L’annee explored the role of memory and narrative structure.

The United States, on the other hand, because of the tendency to equate films and TV programmes solely with entertainment and commerce has given us a film world where the quality of films and television programmes are determined largely by the market place. Aesthetic value, in this meaning system, equals box office success. Commodity aestheticism. Films are successful, in other words, if they make money. TV programmes are successful if they garner huge ratings and more importantly advertising revenue.

There was a time when this commodity aestheticism crassness wasn’t so crass. In the 1960s, at the same moment when foreign art cinema became a significant force in the United States, American cinema freed from the domination by the studio system, offered viewers films such as Bonnie and Clyde, a film significantly that had been offered to Truffaut and Goddard who had both turned it down. Arthur Penn ended up directing it and produced a film heavily influenced by the same French nouvelle vague that Truffaut and Goddard represented.

That golden age of post studio adult American cinema, a gilded age determined, in large part, by the decline of the old studio system, was fleeting. It ended in the 1970s with Stephen Spielberg’s Jaws and especially George Lucas’s Star Wars. Both of these films presaged a new type of American cinema, an American cinema big in budget, big in special effects, big in action adventure, big in its fast food toy tie ins, big in its toy tie ins, big in its clothing tie-ins, big in its celebrity stars, big in its interest in the youthful demographic of mostly of teenage boys. With Jaws and Star Wars, though it seemed that film school whiz kids were in control of the film asylum, the opposite turned out to be true. It was really Hollywood who was once again in control of production, distribution, and exhibition throughout the US. It was really stars, celebrities masquerading as actors, those manufactured brands who were believed by the powers that be in Hollywood to be the bankable brands, that sold movies to audiences, who were in control.

The rise of Hollywood from the ashes of anti-trust legislation also meant that Americans were no longer given much of a chance to see any foreign alternatives. This, by the way, tells us, something about what American corporate barons really mean when they speak of “globalization”—i.e., opening up world markets. Globalisation to them means selling American product around the globe and opening up world markets to American corporations and, of course, the ablility to exploit cheap labour around the globe including interns here at home.

Americans still have film options. We can still see films made by our own home grown "independent "artist filmmakers. We can watch films made, often with studio money or studio distribution, by Woody Allen, by David Lynch, by Quentin Tarantino, by Joel and Ethan Coen, and by Martin Scorcese. Ironically, many of these American "independent" filmmakers were heavily influenced by the European art cinema they were able to see in their cinephilic. Most Americans today, however, don’t recognize this because most of them have neither a memory the American film past or an education in the history of cinema. But even here, in the American art cinema, most of these so-called art films reflect the shallowness and surfacyness of their big budget counterparts. Woody Allen’s films have long been heavily influenced by the films of Fellini and Bergman. David Lynch’s dreamlike surrealism seems to me to pale in comparison to the work of Luis Bunuel who had been playing in film surrealism since the 1930s. Tarantino's Pulp Fiction with its "experimentations" with narrative appears simplistic in its narrative play next to the more sophisticated L’annee. That Americans find the films of Lynch and Tarantino "innovative" says something about the American lack of sense of cinema history and its film watching parochialism—a parochialism, by the way, that is much broader than cinema. By the way, my criticism here does not mean that I don’t like Annie Hall or Pulp Fiction. I do. It just means that I find them all somewhat derivative and overly praised by critics whose memories of film culture past are almost as bad as American audiences. Of Tarantino’s films I much prefer Jackie Brown, yet another Tarantino homage to Elmore Leonard, to Pulp Fiction.

Of the new “auteurs” of the American cinema Martin Scorcese occasionally stands out to me. Scorcese, unlike most Americans and American directors—who can forget Kevin Smith’s remark that he had never seen a Bunuel film?—is quite knowledgeable and forthcoming about World art cinema and it influence on him. He is, in fact, an expert on the work of the British auteurs Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger. Scorcese’s best film in my opinion, the The Age of Innocence with its intentionally haunting yellow palette, is one of the best of recent American films in my opinion. Still I have to admit that I long ago grew bored of Scorcese’s seemingly endless mining of the mafia and gang genre, a thematic concern of his to which he returns again and again and a genre that also makes him money. It is unfortunate that his fascinating if failed Last Temptation of Christ got little other than critical praise from those critics who don’t shill for the studios these days and animosity from born again Christians who likely never even saw the film.

Film is not the only place to look for artistic achievement in the United States. With the creation of several new TV networks in the 1980s and 1990s and their need for programming, spaces were opened up on American television for TV programmes with intellectual depth and artistic merit. The new Fox network gave us Married…with Children, The Simpsons, and the X-Files. The WB brought us what I think is one of the supreme artistic achievements of all time in either film or television, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Joss Whedon, the Wesleyan educated creator of Buffy and later, Angel, and the brilliant, Firefly, gave us, in his feminist oriented Buffy the Vampire Slayer a serious show about serious subjects. Buffy is a bildungsroman, a telenovel about growing up, the importance of friendship—Buffy, the slayer, is supposed to fight alone without friends or family but she almost always gets help from friends and family throughout the show, something which saves her life on several occasions—the power of redemption—both Angel and Spike gain souls and struggle through their heinous pasts and troubled presents to do the right thing—and the social ethics of responsibility—Buffy, Willow, Xander, and Giles choose to fight evil rather than lives of mundane and banal normality.

Buffy, though many were tricked by the title of the show into thinking it was a kids programme, was never really aimed at a mass audience though it did do well enough with niche advertisers to survive on the WB. Whedon created Buffy to be a show which, he said, had to be watched by the passionate few rather than the limitedly attentive many. Whedon intended Buffy to be serious and to be taken seriously. In an interview Whedon, talking about Buffy's writers, said “…[we] think very carefully about what we are trying to say emotionally, politically, and even philosophically while we’re writing it [Buffy]…[I]t really is…deeply textually layered episode by episode…” And emotional and philosophical it is. Joss has spoken about the influence of Sartre and Camus on Buffy and his other shows. In his commentary to the Firefly episode "Objects in Space"—a very existentialist title—Whedon talks about how influential both Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus were on his intellectual development. The influence of existentialism on Joss and Company is also apparent in Buffy where Angel is shown reading Sartre’s La nausee in French and this is not an accident.

Buffy’s themes and its dialogue are not the only things that Joss and Company take seriously. Its mise-en-scene is also deeply thought about. Just look at any frame in the brilliant episode "The Body", the finest media representation of real death not its Hollywood simulation. Any attentive viewing of Buffy will inevitably come to the recognise that BtVS is shot in such a way as to replicate the verbal structure of the show, that it has the rhythms of commercial television down to a fine art.

Over the course of seven seasons and 144 episodes Buffy has shown just how good TV, novelistic or serial TV can be. That many have chosen to judge a book by its cover is a sad testament to the banality of the modern world and, in particular, the humans who populate its increasingly simulated world.

Many, many who, by the way, have never or only limitedly seen Buffy, will not, I suspect, concur with my assessment of the programme. That these many have also, for the most part, ignored the documentary record relating to Buffy--I had one person, who upon learning that I liked Buffy, tell me he hated Buffy though when I interrogated him more he told me he had actually never seen it--tells you something about how humans approach both film and television in the brave new world of the new millennium. In the final analysis there is no replacement, if you are going to argue that Buffy is noting more than typical fluff and mindless American TV for investigating the evidence. And that means attentively viewing each and every episode of Buffy. And it means coming to grips with the fact that Buffy has become a favourite of academics in North America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. No TV show has generated as many academic articles and academic books as Buffy. The show has an academic website devoted to it and has generated hundreds of heated analysis. It is hard to believe that this academic interest in Buffy is simply a product of mass hysteria or academics finding something in Buffy that really isn’t there.

What I have said about Buffy is, of course, not a monopoly of that TV show or of TV in general. Nor is it a monopoly of World Art Cinema. One can find intelligence and depth even in films made in the heart of the Hollywood studio between the 1930s and 1960s. The films of Alfred Hitchcock, for instance, have considerable depth and have been deeply though through. In fact, Hitchcock storyboarded his films before he made them—and we have many of his storyboards. This, of course, means that Hitchcock had control over the final editing process though he did not edit his films.

One criticism I often hear of Buffy is that it isn't realistic, as if every TV show, even a fantasy one like Buffy must be realistic. The notion that it if a film or TV show does not replicate “reality” it is open to criticism is, to put it bluntly, a ludicrous one. Fictional films and fictional TV shows—the operative word here is fiction—are not documentary accounts of how individuals and collectives act and operate. Even documentaries from the cinéma vérité school are not documentaries in the positivist sense. The presence of the camera invariably changes how people act. TV shows, like Buffy, are dramas, comedies, melodramas, romances, tragedies. They are not real life. That said, they can and sometimes do, as in Buffy, achieve a tremendously moving and emotionally intense sense of emotional realism. Buffy brought incredilbe and realistic emotional pain and it brought incredible and realistic emotional joy.

So whenever I think that in American film and television is dead I think of Buffy. And while Buffy hasn't and doesn't restore my faith in Hollywood it has made me realise that writing an obituary for Hollywood is perhaps a bit premature.

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