Thursday, January 22, 2009

Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? Syndrome

Sorry for the absence of posts lately. This isn't exactly a full-fledged post either, but: after the Oscar nominations are announced, with their yearly celebration of what Hollywood insiders think of as a great movie, I always think of what might be called the Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou? rule. This is named not for the Coen Brothers movie but the serious social-problem movie Joel McCrea was trying to make in Sullivan's Travels. And the rule is basically this:

If a Hollywood movie is the dream project of a successful commercial filmmaker, writer or actor who wants to do something "smart," "provocative," or "meaningful," it's not a great movie and may not even be watchable.

Yes, that's glib and reductive, but it explains so much. It explains Crash. That movie is exactly what you'd expect to get if the creator of Walker, Texas Ranger got to make his dream project. But the problem isn't Paul Haggis; as we saw from the simple fact that it won Best Picture, a majority of Hollywood people really think that aspiration = achievement, that all you really need to do to make a great movie is to tackle important issues. (The late Manny Farber built his whole career as a critic on trying to teach people that this ain't so.) It's not like Preston Sturges invented the Joel McCrea character out of thin air.

Another reason why "dream" projects turn out so boring so much of the time is that the filmmakers spend so much time trying to get them made that they over-think them. I don't have the exact quote, but Frank Capra once said that the reason for his decline after It's a Wonderful Life (a movie that actually does hold up as having something important to say, but not a "big issue" type of movie) was that he started over-thinking things, that because directing involves making so many decisions so fast, the key to directing is the ability to make snap decisions and not worry too much over each one. "Prestige," "issue" or "dream" movies all imply that the filmmaker has been thinking way too much about what he wants to say with this film, which leads to boredom or, worse, Gandhi.

A related point I've been thinking of lately is that I tend to think that we won't know what the great movies of our time really are until ten, twenty, maybe even more years have passed. Who really knew in the '40s that the enduring classics included a bunch of low-budget crime dramas with dim lighting, or that It's a Wonderful Life (nominated, but lost) would be the most culturally significant movie of 1946? I don't know what the new classics are, but I doubt that most of them are Oscar winners or even nominees. I actually like that a lot. It's great to watch a movie gain near-classic status (who knew The Big Lebowski would be the Coen Brothers' most famous movie?) and watch another, big, prestigious picture fall off the face of the earth. It's like watching cultural history develop in front of us, instead of having it get written by the critics and award-givers of the time.


Anonymous said...

Two decades ago the consensus was that only one actor of the time would be remembered a century later: Jack Nicholson. How does that theory play today?

Mark said...

Who's Jack Nicholson? Didn't he play golf?