Monday, February 18, 2008

When Foreign Films Were Cool

If you want to read more about one of my favourite movie-related subjects -- the creative collapse of the American film industry in the '60s -- you should read Mark Harris's book Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood, which I read over the weekend. Harris's subject is just about perfect: he looks at a single year, 1967, one of the most important years in movie history (though not necessarily one of the best), and focuses in particular on the five movies that were nominated for Best Picture that year.

These five movies provide a perfect cross-section of the movie industry at the time: two movies that represented what Hollywood had been doing through most of the '60s, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (well-intentioned but stodgy message picture) and Dr. Dolittle (hugely expensive roadshow film), two "New Hollywood" movies heavily influenced by the European movies that kicked the Americans' asses creatively in that decade (Bonnie and Clyde, written by two New Wave-obsessed guys who wanted Francois Truffaut to direct it, and The Graduate, a mish-mash of every movie Mike Nichols had ever seen in the past five years), and one movie that was sort of in-between and turned out to be the "safe" choice for the Academy that year (In the Heat of the Night). By mostly talking about those five movies, how they were made, how they were marketed, and how they were received, the book is able to convey an idea of how the American film industry was on the verge of huge changes, both in a business sense and a creative sense. And there are plenty of anecdotes to be found along the way; I never liked Stanley Kramer's movies much, but I do feel a bit of sympathy for him on reading about his disappointment and bitterness on realizing that nobody took his movies seriously any more. And of course he talks about Fox's ability to use its industry clout (and its large roster of people under contract) to literally buy Best Picture nominations for movies that nobody liked, like Dolittle and, later, Hello, Dolly!

One subject that I don't think anybody has written about at length, but which I would like to read about -- I don't know enough about it myself -- is how the '60s was in some ways the last hurrah for European movies. Not that there haven't been great movies that came out of Europe after the '60s, but in the '60s, as I've said many times before, many European countries had better technicians, stars and studio facilities than the Americans, and were not only leading the world creatively but had at least a chance to overtake the Americans in popular entertainments. France, Italy, England and other countries didn't really keep this up after the '60s, and it's not really a question of individual filmmakers losing their touch (though I do think there were an strangely large number of French and Italian filmmakers who did all their best work before 1969 or so) but these countries' producers didn't really seem to build on their '60s success to create a stable, well-functioning movie business, and so by the '70s they were right back to the old ways, where their audiences mostly wanted American imports and home-grown movies couldn't support a movie industry. (Again, I'm mostly talking about the Europeans here; there are plenty of other countries that do have fully-functioning movie industries.) I think there have been some books about the implosion of the British film industry, but other countries ran into similar problems around the same time.


Jim said...

This one's not a national cinema that anyone looks back on with any fondness (apart from maybe fans of Peter Alexander musicals - and You Tube has plenty of clips should you be curious, they're not especially bad as such) but there's an interesting article here on the death of the Austrian film industry almost a decade earlier

John said...

Google the 1967 Swedish film "I Am Curious (Yellow)" to see the background on the European movie that really dealt the final death blow to the old Hollywood Hays Code and ushered in the current motion picture rating system, which expanded what could be shown in Hollywood films.