Dear Cinematic Comrades,
Not so long ago you could always tell the difference between a movie made in Hollywood and just about anywhere else. It was like they carried a watermark. No matter how banal the content, how utterly derivative the plot, how wooden the acting, the one thing you could pretty much say about any studio film made in Hollywood was that they looked really good.
That was because Hollywood had accumulated, over the course of several decades, an almost complete monopoly on the mechanics of film production. It wasn’t just about huge budgets, it was about support infrastructure, technical know how and the means of production: cinematography, editing, sound production and even sound stages, color separation, film processing and finally distribution networks.
To match that kind of out of the gate firepower would require the resources of a national government. So, with a few exceptions, most films that were produced outside of Hollywood were, whatever their latent artistic qualities, working at a huge disadvantage. They just weren’t as shiny as what Hollywood was pounding out year after year. To compete on the world stage required both money and technical resources that were inordinately concentrated in the southern end of the State of California.
And listening to the some of the doomsayers from the last awards season you would think almost nothing has changed over the last twenty years. Just lately there has been a constant lament amongst many in the industry about how the death of small and medium budget films made for people over twenty-five is upon us. That we were doomed to two binary choices—artistically ambitious but technically constrained micro-budget films (a kind of perpetual dogme 95, not by choice but by necessity) and a never-ending barrage of Hollywood summer bombast, beginning in March and ending sometime in late October.
That doesn’t seem to be the case at all, as it turns out.
Filmmaking has quietly entered a renaissance of unequalled quality and diversity. Independently produced movies have never been more interesting, beautiful, varied, and accessible. The voices that are being heard are more distinct in ethnicity, as well as class and geography, even gender, than ever before.
Even a partial list of non-Hollywood films from just the last year: ’71, Leviathan, Timbuktu, Ida, Under The Skin, Girlhood, Force Majeure, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, as well as independently produced North American films like NightCrawler and A Most Violent Year; or straight up entertainments like Snowpiercer and John Wick put lie to the idea that small to medium budget films of exceptional quality are somehow disappearing from the landscape.
The filmmakers themselves are Korean, Mauritanian, Russian, Iranian, British, French, men, women, and transgendered, outsiders, neophytes, mavericks, political radicals and absolutely beholden to no one. And you know what the best part is? We all can see these films pretty much at the click of a mouse and for a couple of bucks.
This point is often lost in the mountains of snark generated by people who often have, at most, a passing familiarity with any film that isn’t on a constant loop in their feeds. And the declinists in the room—with their moaning about how films for adults are so vanishingly rare—expose themselves for the culturally myopic whiners and curmudgeons that they are.
The problem for them seems to be that the center of gravity for this renaissance isn’t located in Southern California. It isn’t even on the North American continent. If you had to assign a geographic ground zero it would probably be somewhere in North Africa, or perhaps Eastern Europe, depending on the particular year. And from people who often mouth platitudes about diversity and the Hollywood monoculture I too often hear the words: ‘I haven’t seen that yet’.
It used to be that a lack of access was a pretty valid defense. If Hollywood didn’t pay it didn’t play but that is a red herring at this point in the game. If you’re not seeing the diversity in film that you would like to, you probably aren’t looking very hard. Just off of the top of my head, some of the most interesting films from last year were from women directors: Babadook, Girlhood, Beyond the Lights, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and Selma. And finding these films usually requires less work than making a sandwich.
The single greatest thing about the technological change that has occurred around filmmaking in the last twenty-five years is simply this: the means of production are now firmly in the hands of the content creators. Hollywood’s monopoly on production is broken and the grip it currently still enjoys on distribution is soon to follow.
So it isn’t much of a stretch these days to find all kinds of films for all sorts of tastes. More to the point, most of the cinema being produced outside of Hollywood isn’t what used to be considered art house fare: with their low budget productions and often impenetrable and esoteric narratives. And if you were lucky you might find these rare gems playing on one screen in NYC at 12:00 AM on a Tuesday.
In contrast, for me to see Ida—the Academy Award winner for best foreign language film—I had to open up iTunes on my computer and pay $5.99. To see Timbuktu I had to walk a few blocks to TIFF and see one of the most beautiful and unsettling films I have ever experienced up on a big screen—but I have no doubt that it will be available on any number of legitimate venues in the near future, as well as old school DVD and Blu-Ray.
These days the strength of much of non-Hollywood film is in its middlebrow aesthetic and its capacity to speak coherently to mass audiences while managing to avoid simply existing as product. Timbuktu is set in a foreign land that few North Americans would recognize yet it is perfectly comprehensible to even my wretchedly tarnished sensibilities—as well as beautifully shot and conventional in its narrative arcs.
Oddly enough, I tend to think this can be nothing but good for Hollywood itself. Challenged and often aesthetically overtaken these days, it will be interesting to see how the Monolith responds. My money is on a resurgence of the kind of dynamic filmmaking the major studios haven’t had much to do with since the mid to late seventies.
It isn’t always a curse, as it turns out, to live in interesting times.