The 1990s in Film

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:23

    The Decade

    Cheshire: Was it a good decade or not?

    Seitz: I think it was an interesting decade, but an exceptional year.

    Cheshire: I think it was one of best decades of the sound era. I think it was as good as the 70s.

    White: Oh, no. It became a good decade toward the end, in '98.

    Cheshire: I thought '98 was the worst year of the whole decade.

    White: I think there were only three good years this decade?'93, '98 and '99. The rest could stand improvement.

    Seitz: I think '95, when Braveheart won best picture, was kind of the low point.

    Foreign Films

    Cheshire: One of the things that happened this decade that's reflected in statistics that came out last year is that foreign films basically fell off the radar as far as most moviegoers are concerned. It went from a high of 7 percent of the box office 20-some years ago to .07 percent. Which means that people basically aren't going to see foreign film. And if you talk to arthouse owners, they'll tell you that all of their audience is over 40. Except for the occasional Blair Witch Project, which will bring them out in droves before that movie goes to the multiplexes a couple of weeks later, once the industry has figured out what's going on.

    Seitz: That's interesting. Of course, New York may be an anomaly, but when I go to the theaters here for an evening show, to any theater that shows a lot of so-called indie films and art films, you could throw a rock in any direction and probably not hit anybody over 40.

    Cheshire: New York is very much an anomaly. These statistics reflect the nation. If you talk to arthouse owners anywhere outside of New York, the trend has been totally away from foreign films. People under 40 don't want to see subtitles. That's part of it.

    Seitz: People under 40 watch Star Trek, and that has subtitles for the Klingons, so I find that surprising.

    Cheshire: I think you'll also find foreign film's input falling off, and the interest that it holds for audiences beyond their home territories. European cinema has declined very noticeably. I think it started in the 70s and proceeded very dramatically in the 80s and 90s, to the point where it was almost off the map. The big stories in foreign cinema were Chinese cinema, which had quite a boom beginning in the late 80s and continuing into the late 90s?they tailed off for different reasons?and Iran, which has kept going until now.

    Seitz: In the case of the two nations that you mentioned, their national cinema flourished, and these were particularly repressive countries in one way or another. I wonder: For a national cinema to flourish, do you have to shut out the United States and Hollywood to some extent? There almost seems to be an inverse relationship there.

    Cheshire: I think that's definitely true. In going to those countries during the decade, mainland China and Iran, I really felt that the fact that Hollywood was so definitively shut out?and not just Hollywood, but the sort of electronic media of the West?allowed those two countries to have kind of hothouse situations for their cinemas. The conditions were very artificial in a way, but they allowed great work to be done. I think one of the reasons we may not see another national cinema equivalent to China or Iran is simply that those conditions don't exist anymore. I mean, once the barriers fall that keep the West out of certain remote countries, then you have sort of a global monoculture that is predominantly electronic media. Cinema becomes something that is outmoded in that context.

    White: I don't know. I'm less concerned with that than with the fact that films from other countries mean nothing to Americans. It seems to me that there are frequently good films from other nations, but people don't even know about them. Sometimes they don't even hear about them. I think that is a phenomenon in this decade that is more interesting and alarming than the question of why good things happen any place. Why do Americans seem not to care about films from other countries, about movies made in a different language?

    Seitz: Well, of course, one of the reasons for the rise of foreign-film viewership in this country in the first place was that there was a group of college-educated people looking for things from cinema that they really weren't getting from the movies being made in Hollywood. To some degree?and we can certainly argue about the quality of them?the American independent film movement tried to supply those things. Things like intimacy, eccentricity and certainly more control by the director over the direction and tone of the film. It didn't do them as well, certainly, but that's the way the marketplace works. Sometimes an inferior product that looks similar displaces a superior one.

    Cheshire: I think that you have several factors coming together here. One is declining quality and interest from a lot of foreign cinema compared to 20 or 30 years ago, when you had really, really strong movements like the French New Wave to the New German Cinema. The other is younger Americans going away from the idea of reading subtitles as a part of cinema. And you have what you just pointed to?market forces, which are companies deciding that they would push these American independent films rather than foreign films.

    Seitz: It's more beneficial for the American film industry in the long run to promote American-made, or at least English language, films. If you're promoting small films that have actors who can speak English fluently, conceivably they can become very big stars and work in Hollywood. The same goes for everybody else who worked on that film. It's ease of adaptability as much as any other factor. That's a market force, too.

    Cheshire: One of the things that happened during the 90s that was very, very significant was that Hollywood essentially conquered the world. There was a famous Variety headline a couple of years ago that said, "Earth to Hollywood: You Win." And it's true. It used to be that the box office in most foreign countries, let's say European countries, came from their own domestic product, or from countries that were nearby and shared certain cultural traits. Now, almost everywhere, people only want to see Hollywood films.

    Seitz: That doesn't surprise me, and it also doesn't alarm me quite as much as I might have thought it would. The United States is the largest and most powerful economy in the world. I find it not the least bit surprising that we have that much penetration into every corner of the globe. I find it heartening that in, for instance, places like Japan and Hong Kong, you will see a dominance of American titles in the top-10 box office at the end of the year, but you'll also see five homegrown releases. That's amazing when you think about how much lower the budgets are, and the fact that the marketing saturation of American movies is just insane. It's a David and Goliath situation. So I see reason for optimism there rather than a reason to be depressed. At least in some countries, they're fighting the good fight.

    Cheshire: Here's the thing that bothers me most about the decline of foreign cinema: Throughout the history of cinema as an art, there has always been the Hollywood cinema and also foreign counter-ideas of cinema and its esthetic possibilities. From Russian formalism and German expressionism all the way through the 60s and 70s, those things really had a big impact on American cinema and American filmgoers. The great period of American cinema, which lasted from roughly 1969 to 1975, had a lot of European influence. If we lose that, it's only a one-sided game.

    White: I don't think that I would ever say that foreign cinema is in decline. If it happens there, it's probably a reflection of what's happening here, too. Probably cinema is in decline.

    American Independents

    White: I think that in fact, there have not been very many good American independent films in the 90s. But people like to cheer them. There have been a lot of independent films, not necessarily many good ones.

    Seitz: I would disagree. I think there have been some good independent films?a lot of bad ones, but certainly some good ones. And certainly the work that has been done in so-called American independent film has been more interesting to me generally than most Hollywood stuff.

    I wrote an article in about '93 about indie films. I'd read all these comments from young directors about how they were making films for $7000 and selling their bodies to science and putting their families in hock and all this other stuff to get the film of their dreams made. But the goal of all that was to make a film that would ultimately be described as a "calling card." The goal was to get noticed in Hollywood and go work in Hollywood. I wrote that, very soon, what we called independent cinema was going to be annexed as a farm team for Hollywood. And that is exactly what has happened. And not just that: it's almost kind of become a resort spa for Hollywood, where big stars can go back and reorient themselves, get their bearings, maybe do a little acting, then go back and do something like Armageddon. It only proves my point that in the big action films of the past few years, the eccentric supporting roles have been filled by indie film regulars. Guys like Steve Buscemi are working a lot. Good for them?you've got to make a living.

    But I see a lot of difference between what was called independent cinema in the first part of decade and what we call independent cinema now. Just as the gap between the highest-earning Americans and the lowest-earning has increased dramatically in the 90s, you see the same kind of schism in cinema. It seems that when you go to, say, the Angelika, probably most of the films there are going to be ones that have fairly substantial budgets, budgets that would be unthinkably high by the standards of '91 or '92, if you were an independent filmmaker who wasn't affiliated with one of the mini-majors, some kind of boutique division. On the other hand you've got extremes of poverty like The Blair Witch Project or American Movie. Something that is really, truly low budget. I wouldn't call something like Shakespeare in Love an independent film. It's distributed by Miramax, which is a Disney arm, and they spent around $40 million on it.

    Cheshire: And it was coreleased by Universal. I think that the whole phenomenon of independent cinema has been both business and esthetic, and in too many situations the business has come to drive the esthetic, and drive esthetics out of films. People forget that the independent cinema isn't something that just came around. It's been around since the 50s or 60s. John Cassavetes was making independent films 40 years ago.

    Seitz: Roger Corman, for better or worse.

    Cheshire: Exactly. But it was the skyrocket success of sex, lies and videotape in 1989 that made Sundance such a big feeding ground for Hollywood. During the decade, you saw an arc. At the start of the decade, we saw this idea of the independent as being truly independent, an alternative vision outside the scope of Hollywood. Basically, the definition was Cassavetes. The definition by which Steven Soderbergh made sex, lies and videotape was much the same. But as soon as that type of film got to be very successful, and there were Oscars and lots of money around, the whole nature of the game began to change very quickly. Sundance and the independent cinema became something that people looked to as stepping stones to Hollywood, and Hollywood looked to independent cinema as a place to find talent that they would bring directly into their system. A lot the independence and independent cinema got driven out during the decade. And yet, at the same time, I think tremendous amounts of good stuff was released. I have been very critical of independent cinema during the decade, and I still am. Yet I think it was one of the most interesting and vital areas.

    Seitz: I find it ironic that Miramax was such an indie beacon 10 years ago, or even five years ago. But today, it appears that all their work was leading up to the replication of the old studio system in some ways. They have a stable of stars that they groom, and they're betting on them to pay off big. Gwyneth Paltrow is a perfect case study. They put her in, what, six or seven films that didn't make money? Then she was in Shakespeare in Love and they felt they hadn't wasted their time and money. In some ways it seems like Miramax has gone around the block twice to get to the house next door. They pursued this independent ideal and they've ended up with, I don't know, Columbia in the 40s.

    White: Are you saying Gwyneth Paltrow is the equal of Rita Hayworth?

    Cheshire: No. Just in terms of having a star in a stable of stars. That's not something any independent film company was doing a few years ago.

    Seitz: They couldn't afford to.

    Cheshire: Miramax has created this 40s-like system where they have their writers, their directors, their stars under contract. We're not saying Gwyneth Paltrow equals Rita Hayworth. Armond, the top film on your decade list is Short Cuts. Most of Robert Altman's films in this decade were produced independently. I think you have to recognize that the whole independent phenomenon has been really important in terms of producing some of the most vital films of the decade.

    White: Well, Altman is a great independent filmmaker. He was one before the term "independent" became a marketable one. He preexists it and he will outlast it.

    Seitz: Godfrey, are you asking Armond to praise independent cinema for economic reasons even though he denigrates its artistry? I mean, in the sense that Robert Altman could not have made Short Cuts without money from a mini-major?

    White: Altman could have made Short Cuts, period. He has proven that for decades. He knows how to get the job done.

    Seitz: I don't know if he could have made something with the scope of Short Cuts, with a cast that size

    White: He did it 20 years earlier.

    Seitz: When the studios were supporting that kind of work.

    White: A studio didn't make Nashville. Altman made Nashville. For a million dollars. And it was picked up by Paramount.

    Seitz: You don't think the economic conditions of the mini-majors have been beneficial for filmgoers like yourself? I mean, made it easier for guys like Altman to get films made?

    White: Oh, there have been benefits to it. But mostly, independent films have stunk. The indie movement has been not much more than a commercial movement. A commercial label. It has allowed a lot of untalented people to get their home movies in the market. You have exceptions, of course. But for the most part, you have people who are not ready for prime time making movies. The Blair Witch Project has been a cultural disaster. But under the delusion that the independent film movement means something, people have been praising it as art. I don't think it is remotely art.

    Seitz: I don't want to get into The Blair Witch Project with you?

    White: But that's a fine example of the phenomenon I'm talking about.

    Seitz: I will say that you vastly overestimate the importance of The Blair Witch Project to American cinema.

    White: I don't overestimate the importance of it. I personally think that it has no importance.

    Seitz: They why do you seem to be so furious about it?

    White: Because the culture has embraced it and approved it, and it's the kind of film that should be locked away in a basement with the junk. It's a terrible film. It's not a film. It's not art. It's a juvenile home movie. It's the delusion of independent filmmaking that permits people to praise something as shoddy as that.

    Seitz: I think you completely misread that movie. The point is, like Slacker, the circumstances in which Blair Witch was made and the form that it took were both so distinctive that nobody can get within miles of it and not be dismissed as copying it. Even the people who made that film have said that it's essentially non-repeatable, although they've agreed to make a sequel for the money. Everybody seems to know it was a one-shot fluke, like a meteor hitting the Earth. It's the 1999 freak experience.

    White: Considering that it was a poor imitation of things that were done before, I don't think it's right to say that it's a phenomenon that was non-repeatable. Also, nobody called it a fluke. Everybody called it the future. And that's the problem. To me that demonstrates the lack of hindsight and foresight of our indie film culture.

    Seitz: I would agree with you on that point. I think there is an inclination on the part of the media to vastly overestimate the importance of everything. There was a story in Entertainment Weekly just a few weeks ago about movie year 1999 and how it pointed the way toward the future of movies, and how it was such an important year in terms of how the stories were told. The techniques this writer cited and that the people he interviewed cited were being done 20, 30, 40 years ago. What the writer probably did?and I'm just guessing here?is say to his editors, "Hey, 1999 has been a hell of a year for movies. Let's do a story on that." And they said, "That's not big enough." This kind of hype inflation is really central to the movie culture now. It's not enough that a film is interesting, it has to be a masterpiece. It's not enough that a film is flawed, it has to be horrible and some kind of menace to society. It's not enough that we can have a good or bad year for movies. According to the critics, who I think have been pretty shameful this decade, every year has been the worst year ever for cinema.

    Hollywood in the 90s

    Seitz: There is a school of thought, particularly among directors who started out independent and moved into the mainstream, that any film that is done with a fair degree of artistic independence counts as an independent film, whether it's by somebody like Steven Soderbergh in sex, lies and videotape days or Steven Spielberg in Saving Private Ryan. Is that just defensive, or is there some truth to it?

    Cheshire: That's an interesting point, I will definitely grant you that. That's what you're looking for in filmmaking, and in artistic quality in general. Control. Unless you're Steven Spielberg and you own the studio that you're working for, relatively few have it. That's why there's been so much vaunting of independent cinema as being apart from Hollywood?because that's one of the very few areas where filmmakers have control. I think largely that is still true of independent cinema. It's independent because you don't have people interfering in the process before, during and after.

    White: The example is Altman. He is an independent filmmaker because he has an independent vision, not because he's under 30 and went to Brown.

    Cheshire: Certainly the walls that used to exist between independent cinema and Hollywood have become a lot more porous.

    Seitz: They've installed sliding doors?to use a Miramax title.

    Cheshire: One of the things that was good about independent cinema was that it introduced a lot of new talent, a lot of new ideas, and kind of kicked Hollywood in the butt. It amazes me that, for example, last year three of the films that were on my 10-best list were released by major studios?The Thin Red Line, The Truman Show and The Butcher Boy.

    Seitz: None of those films fits the marketing plan.

    Cheshire (to White): What's your perspective on what has happened and what has changed in Hollywood in the past 10 years?

    White: That Spielberg has made the most moral and politically innovative American films.

    Cheshire: Spielberg has definitely been the most important American filmmaker of the past 10 years.

    Seitz: Purely in terms of his cultural force, there's no question. But also artistically. He's managed to find an interesting balance between a really intense, uncompromising style, in the case of, say, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan and Amistad, and a very accessible manner of storytelling. I think the respectability of Spielberg and the embrace of Spielberg by the critics generally, in this decade, has been one of the big stories?not for how it relates to Spielberg, but how it relates to Hollywood.

    White: Spielberg has not been embraced by critics this decade. Only the subjects of his films have been embraced, not him as an artist.

    Seitz: Are you asking critics to get behind him personally? Because they've done a pretty great job of getting behind his movies.

    White: No, critics embraced Schindler's List because of its subject. They embraced Saving Private Ryan because of its subject. They did not, by and large, embrace any other Spielberg film. He is like the great Satan to critics.

    Cheshire: Is there anybody else in his class?

    White: Not in America.

    Seitz: It's striking to me that many American filmmakers have done exceptional work this decade but haven't had nearly the critical or market penetration of Spielberg. Altman is an example of that. He's done a string of really interesting films this decade but the audiences have not responded as strongly. They're never going to respond as strongly as they would to something like, say, The Lost World. But, Jesus, I would have thought The Player and Short Cuts would have done better than they did.

    White: But in a very important sense, if you have a film as penetrating and revelatory as Short Cuts, and the critics were decent to it, and the very next year, as if it had never happened, critics flipped for something as artificial, "fantastic," non-penetrating, non-revelatory as Pulp Fiction?that says to me that Altman has no effect on critics. They see a film as important as Short Cuts, then they turn right around and swallow fat.

    Seitz: It could also be that the unspecified critics to whom you refer might be catholic, small c, in their tastes, and found something to like in each film.

    White: No. That so many people flipped for Pulp Fiction says to me that they learned nothing from Short Cuts. It revealed nothing to them. They embraced Pulp Fiction because it's upscale Hollywood trash.

    Cheshire: I think Short Cuts is not a very good film, and Pulp Fiction is a very great, groundbreaking film.

    White: There's the rationale behind the critical non-reception of Altman.

    Cheshire: Altman made films that were very high on my 10-best lists during the years, such as The Player and Cookie's Fortune, but I don't think the fact that I embraced those films means I can't like any other particular kind of film. I don't vote a party line according to any director.

    Seitz: I think what chaps your hide about that, Armond, is that critics generally are conditioned to praise and rebuke particular filmmakers in particular years because they have the hype steamroller behind them. What the critical response to Spielberg and Altman has in common is that the critics have not absorbed those movies. Perhaps they are not really as excited about them as their words might indicate. They are responding the way they think they are supposed to respond. It's a herd mentality. That's great when it benefits an artist that we personally happen to like. But there's an insincerity about it. There's a market mentality to it.

    Cheshire: I don't think so. I don't disrespect the mass of critics' opinions. I don't think there's a herd instinct to anything. But I think one thing that's healthy to what we're talking about is that people respond to individual films, rather than thinking that every film by a certain director is going to be a great film.

    Scorsese, Spielberg, Lucas, Malick, Lynch, De Palma, Coppola, you could name others. These are the film generation, and they're all in their 50s now. Altman is the one exception?he's older. These are the people who basically came on the scene around 1970 and are still our great directors. I don't see Hollywood either producing or perhaps allowing subsequent generations to have such strong voices. When these guys are over the horizon I don't think you're going to see replacements of similar stature and cultural impact.

    Seitz: Three Kings, The Matrix and The Iron Giant. That's my answer right there. These are three relatively new filmmakers?

    Cheshire: I don't see Spielberg, Scorsese, Altman in those three films.

    Seitz: They haven't been working as long as those guys.

    White: No one lets you have a strong vision, Godfrey. You either have it or you don't. Most independents don't have it. Paul Thomas Anderson and Harmony Korine?some fools are financing their movies, and they don't have strong visions. That's the curse of the independent movement, that amateurs like those are masquerading as film artists.

    Cheshire: Hollywood was always a system that ran itself for itself. It is never there for the director's vision and the act of artistic creation. But it seems that now it is harder for a director to have that vision. Altman and Scorsese and those people came along in the early 70s, that rare time when Hollywood was in disarray and it allowed people to break through into the system. They established themselves as a brand name, and people came to them for the kind of cinema that they produced. I don't see that as being nearly as likely under the present regime.

    White: I don't think it ever was easy to have a personal vision. Back in the 70s, Peckinpah never had an easy time of it. Remember also, back in the early 70s, the great year of 1974, people weren't going to Thieves Like Us, Badlands and Sugarland Express. They were going to Blazing Saddles.

    The Future

    Cheshire: We're coming out of a year that I think all of us feel was one of the best years of its decade. Does that bode well for the future or not?

    Seitz: I honestly have no idea. At the beginning of the year I would have argued that the new technology, the presence of the Internet and all these other factors would still not change the fact that people want to see a good story that lasts between 90 minutes and two hours and 20 minutes. But I don't know. There are different art forms for different eras. I don't know what the future is going to bring. It could be that the new, preferred storytelling form will not be the feature film, but something else. Maybe it will be the maxi-series, something like The Sopranos. Or it might be the music video. Or it might be something else we haven't seen yet.

    I was struck by one of the pieces you wrote recently, Godfrey. I think it was the Antonioni piece, the documentary about him that had a shot of him handling strips of film like he was an old master or something?

    Cheshire: It was actually the guy that restored the film.

    Seitz: Well, it was the idea of film, which just 100 years ago was considered so miraculous, being sort of a relic. We're getting to the point where nobody will physically cut film or restore film.

    Cheshire: This is true. The digital conversion already happened in sound. It happened in editing.

    Seitz: Not to mention writing and casting.

    Cheshire: Now we're going to see film basically go away. Within the next decade, that's going to happen. It could be that the next 10 years will be very interesting, because it's going to be thrown more open, and people will be trying all kinds of different things.

    Seitz: When I look at film sections of newspapers, I think about those standing heads that say "Film," I think, "Hmm. Interesting. Are they gonna keep that?"

    Cheshire: People are calling things films now that are not films. When I wrote my Toy Story 2 review, I made a point of using movie rather than film.

    Seitz: A whole host of phrases that have become common coin are going to be the equivalent of "Don't put all your eggs in one basket" or "Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?" Things that have no real-life reference point for the vast majority of the people on the Earth. "On the cutting room floor"?there is no real-world equivalent of that anymore, almost anywhere, except maybe in Spielberg's company?people who still have the economic luxury of doing it that way.

    White: I have nothing to say. Let the future come.