For those of you who were expecting a dissection of Lars “call me Adolf” Von Trier’s latest work, the brooding apocalyptic fable “Melancholia,” I’m afraid you’ll have to wait for another week or so. Instead, for the moment, I want to lead you down an altogether different route, out of the art-house and into the mainstream.
You see, this week I went to two cinemas and watched one film, yet both experiences have gotten me thinking, once again, about the state of mainstream cinema at the start of film’s second century. The first event which has prompted this consideration was an evening at the Phoenix Cinema in East Finchley on Friday night, where film critic Mark Kermode delivered a talk concerning his new book, which addresses, in an idiosyncratically witty way, the problems with mainstream cinema at the present time. The talk, and indeed the book, reiterates many points Kermode has already raised in a vocal and vociferous way in his radio podcast, and which have also been variously dwelt upon in this column: namely the superfluous nature of 3D film, the lack of ambition in British and American cinema, effects replacing actors as a major selling point, the over-reliance upon marketing films as event movies rather than actually making good films, and the deterioration of the theatrical experience of film-going. Kermode is always highly entertaining, and is pleasingly adamant and indefatigable in his identification of the many problems with how mainstream films are currently made and marketed, but crucially identifying the problem is not the same as solving it. This isn’t Kermode’s fault; on the contrary the fact that he has published a book dedicated to expounding upon the myriad dissatisfactions of mainstream cinema is in itself an attempt to address the problem, but it doesn’t go far enough in analyzing why Hollywood in particular has gone so far wrong.
The second cinema-going event of the week which has really inspired me occurred on Sunday night; when I took myself down to see the sixth greatest film ever made at the Prince Charles Cinema on Leicester Square: “Casablanca.” For me, the mark that defines a film as truly great, rather than simply being a very good film, is the ability to offer the spectator a slightly different experience with each subsequent viewing, both yielding rich gems within the fabric of the film which have never before been truly appreciated, and contributing to the feeling that the work has transformed before your eyes into a completely different piece. In terms of the former idea, I had never fully appreciated how good the supporting cast was in the film. I’ve always felt that Claude Rains was the unsung hero of the film, managing to be unscrupulous, sinister and hilarious in one fell swoop, but Sydney Greenstreet is wonderfully slimy as Ferrari, Peter Lorre is brilliantly shifty as the sniveling Ugati, Dooley Wilson is of course lovably grounded as Sam, and the actors playing Carl, Yvonne and the pickpocket further contribute to a gloriously rich and colourful rogues’ gallery, which leads into the second idea that a film can seem like a different piece every time you see it. I had always appreciated the giddy, solid perfection which every aspect of the film seems to have embellished within it, and this is a work in which the parts are every bit as good as the whole, but I had never quite realised how seedy and sinister the world of Casablanca at that time, as an embarkation point to the freedom of the Americas in WW2, has been portrayed by the film. The city is hot and dry, caught between neutral France, Vichy and the imminent onslaught of Nazi Germany, and in this sweltering melting pot simmers a thriving black market built upon blood, money and murder, with opportunistic criminals and morally dubious characters capitalizing upon every chance to profit by the war and the desperation of its victims: “vultures, vultures everywhere.” As Captain Renault, Claude Rains may be impartial to the point of being infuriatingly self-serving, but his position of authority and influence means he can benefit from bribes and the charms of young women willing to go to any lengths to secure exit visas: pretty much in every scene he’s in reference is made to Renault’s atrocious womanizing. Rick Blaine is no less an opportunist: although his womanizing is more cynically hedonistic than manipulative misogyny, his bar exists on the surface to give people a release from the troubles of the city, when beneath this subterfuge it allows Blaine to once again profit enormously from those around him. Encountering Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa again in many ways forces Blaine to directly meditate upon the folly of his selfish bitterness and the way in which it has rendered him morally bankrupt, and his ultimate admiration of Ilsa and Laszlo prompts a three-pronged redemption which elevates him above the murky city: first in allowing the young couple to cheat the roulette and buy their freedom, second in facilitating Laszlo’s escape and so aiding the French Resistance, and third by deciding to leave Casablanca and join the War effort proper.
So there is depth, darkness and complexity in a film which beyond its flawless construction and iconic elements is often perceived as a charged but straightforward wartime romance. In fact the film is much more cynical, bitter and realistically pragmatic in its approach to love in a time of war, but that’s not what’s important. What’s important is that no-one approached “Casablanca” from the perspective of creating a groundbreaking piece of cinema. The film was not auteured, but placed in the safe hands of Michael Curtiz, who had mined the grand romance of the Errol Flynn swashbucklers in the previous decades. The script was at the time an unremarkable affair, a simple attempt to convert a play into a rousing and optimistic romantic adventure which could both raise the spirits of a country newly entered into the ongoing conflict, and to give audiences an exotic piece of escapism without leaving the cosy confines of a studio soundstage. Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman are retrospectively remembered as two of Hollywood’s greatest stars and finest actors, but at the time of “Casablanca” were regarded very differently. Bogart was a character actor recently graduated from the heavy to the cynical anti-heroic lead by Huston’s “The Maltese Falcon,” and Bergman was a young, beautiful and European-sounding starlet: both were contract players who simply provided an easy best-fit for the characters of the script.
The point I’m trying to make is simply this: “Casablanca” was a solid piece of mainstream cinema creatively controlled by the film studio as opposed to the creatives, who were merely given the room to do what they naturally did best. Of course I’m not expecting every piece of mainstream Hollywood filmmaking to have the miraculous magic of “Casablanca,” but studio filmmaking is now so abysmal that one is left wondering why seventy years have passed and the set-up has so deteriorated.
Think about it: there are some incredible pieces of mainstream cinema that have been created over the past few years, but in each case the success of these works lies not with the creative abilities of Hollywood studios, but in the freedom it has given to talented filmmakers. Christopher Nolan’s work is a prime example here: he is the auteur of his films, not Warner Brothers, and his films are in essence no different from independent art cinema, save for his hijacking of the Batman franchise for his own intelligent and artistic ends providing him with a bigger canvas, a bigger easel, and a bigger pot of paint.
In the era of classic Hollywood, when the studio system was in full swing, the Moguls were not cold businessmen obsessed with marketing a film as an event to tempt audiences into cinemas to see sub-standard fare, using the promise of 3D and CGI to erroneously spotlight a film as being unmissable, with crowds helpless to stop the financial juggernaut once their tickets have been bought. The likes of Meyer, Zanuck, Selznick and Thalberg knew talent when they saw it, encouraged it, and made profits by attempting to make their studios’ films the crème de la crème. That is why when Hitchcock was lured to Hollywood he was given projects which allowed him to build upon the successes of his British films; when Orson Welles came to Hollywood from the Theatre he was given creative carte blanche before having it unjustly snatched away; when sound developed so too did the screwball comedies, the gangster thrillers, and the horror films. Technical innovation was channeled into creative endeavours, not into marketing ploys.
The question we must ask of contemporary mainstream cinema does not concern the validity of 3D and CGI, or the reasons behind the rueful drought of originality and audacity, or the ease with which creative talents bend to the whims of accountants who do not view film as an art form. The question is in fact why such profit-minded people will go to so much effort making money from bad products, when historically they would be met with greater financial and artistic success if they concentrated on making the products good.