Thursday, March 05, 2015

The High Art of Selling Out

[A piece written in 2011 for a now-defunct website, I was responding to what I saw as an unreasonable standard of purity when judging indie filmmakers' crossover efforts, occasioned by the tut-tut response to David Gordon Green's Your Highness, a not-very-good comedy that I liked marginally more than most critics. I've made a few minor revisions, but have mostly left the piece alone. Due to some personal upheavals, I've had to mostly step away from writing professionally (both in academia and beyond) about movies in recent years, so I haven't caught up with Green's two recent indie endeavors, Prince Avalanche & Joe, that received the same mildly supportive critical shrug that greeted Snow Angels in 2007 a respectful critical indifference that reportedly drove him to making commercial stoner comedies with his friends in the first place. Soderbergh's quasi-retirement from theatrical filmmaking makes for an interesting footnote to this piece, suggesting just how personal such idiosyncratic mainstream endeavors as Ocean's Eleven and Magic Mike really were, though the fine  TV movie Behind the Candelabra and his striking TV series, The Knick, testify to his continued ability to express himself eccentrically within the system. Linklater, meanwhile, has achieved something of a critical apotheosis in the last two years, with the one-two whammy of Before Midnight and Boyhood elevating him to pantheon status in the eyes of many critics. I've yet to catch up with Boyhood, but I did see Before Midnight, and though it's a film of considerable virtue, with moments of piercing clarity, it's also hobbled by Linklater's penchant for gawky, sentimental earnestness, so from what I've seen (including the estimable Bernie), I continue to think that the crowd-pleasing School of Rock remains his most satisfying work of the last decade or so.]

“You want to stretch—or you want to buy a house. They're all legitimate. As long as you don't try to kid yourself.” - Sidney Lumet, 2008

“I'm like a good whore, I go where I'm kicked…” – Sam Peckinpah, 197l

Sidney Lumet’s passing earlier this year marked the demise of a kind of director who is almost a dinosaur, someone who was both a workaday visionary capable of making tough, gut-punch cinema expressive of an idiosyncratic vision, and a respectable tradesman whose least personal work still betrayed evidence of high craft skillfully applied. He evoked the studio ethos of old Hollywood, the legendary 2-for-1 deal that made studio filmmaking tenable during the classical era, wherein a director got to make one for himself for every two he made for the Louis B. Mayer or Daryl F. Zanuck or Jack Warner (actually it was more like 4-for-1, and was entirely contingent on the director’s talent for making money and collecting Oscars for his studio). Of course, the genius of the system as it used to exist, and as Lumet sometimes quixotically practiced it, was that you could not always easily sort out the difference between pure sordid product and highfalutin personal testament, such were the consequences of consistent talent consistently expressed in sub-literate material over a lifetime of paying off debts. 

Whatever the gulf that existed between A Stranger Among Us and The Pawnbroker, both were Lumet movies, and over the paltry scheme of a respectable career the paycheck jobs didn't cancel out the movies that made Lumet’s reputation. In the end, it didn't balance out, because The Hill and Dog Day Afternoon and Prince of the City defined Lumet, and Family Business and Power and Gloria might as well have never existed. Of course, as long as an artist remains alive, people habitually assume that the junk provides equal counterweight to the treasures, as if A Fable matters as much as Light in August, which is why talk about selling-out and authenticity continues to carry undue weight in cinephilic chatter, especially where indie cinema is concerned. But here’s the deal: if you’re Jim Jarmusch, authenticity, and staying true to some deeply personal vision of who you are and how your craft relates to that identity matters; if you’re Eric Schaeffer or Edward Burns or Joe Swanberg, who gives a shit? In other words, what really matters is if the movies are good or if they suck, and how true a director is to some standard of purity held by himself or his audience is a matter between the director, his priest or rabbi, and his personal accountant. It’s nobody else’s goddamn business.

But whenever an indie director makes the crossover move into big ticket filmmaking, Very Concerned Persons everywhere climb atop their bell towers (or log into their twitter accounts) and bellow out accusations of ‘selling-out’ for all other VCPs to hear. Film doesn't suffer from this kind of thing to nearly the same degree that popular music does (where the habit reached its reductio ad absurdum mid-aughts when Gwen Stefani’s solo success led some to lament how she had sold out the apparently oh-so-sacred cause of mediocre third-wave ska – a charge that, if true, would seem to merit a parade rather than disapprobation), but it nevertheless persists, and perpetuates a great deal of nonsense that muddies the waters when people talk and think about movies. Take the reception of David Gordon Green’s Your Highness, a film that had the look, feel, and tempo of a cash-in, which led film critics like Roger Ebert and J.R. Jones to regret the fact that the director had forfeited his sacred virtue and become a fallen auteur, never likely to attain the admirable purity that enabled him to make movies like All the Real Girls and George Washington.

Ebert peppered his review with much hand-wringing about what could ever bring Green to make a movie as insipid as Your Highness, while Jones made his point more esoterically with a comparison to the fate of classic Hollywood director Lewis Milestone, who went from directing All Quiet on the Western Front and Of Mice and Men to the rat pack comedy Ocean’s Eleven (why going from Steinbeck to Sinatra is so clearly a downfall is beyond me, but such are the mysterious mental maneuvers of Mr. Jones). The fact that nobody particularly liked Your Highness is not in itself particularly bothersome (it is not, after all, a particularly good film); that every critic felt compelled to wag a finger at Mr. Green is. Especially when that sentiment comes with the conviction that Green will not and maybe cannot ever direct a worthwhile film again. Much like the post-War American critics who lamented the fact that John Ford returned from WWII only to make a bunch of silly cavalry Westerns rather than more movies like Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley, critical consensus seems intent on establishing the rules for defining what a David Gordon Green movie should be, rules that have every chance of blinding people to what they are.

Additionally, the caterwauling of VCPs everywhere indicates a crippling idealism that ignores economic realities. Nowhere do any of these reviews countenance the larger commercial fact that the bottom dropped out of indie filmmaking at the end of the last decade. Oh yes, there was the return of that eternal myth that the film industry was immune to the consequences of the great recession, but the myth had no more validity now than it did in 1933 (when audience attendance fell by 40%). While studio tent-pole pictures did just fine, smaller indie movies essentially saw their audience disappear, and even successes, like the precious, eager-to-please 500 Days of Summer, earned a small fraction of the gross it would have received just two years earlier. (Compare the 2009 film’s $32 million payday to the $143 million that the tonally similar Juno managed in 2007). Simply put, Green found himself in world where the audience for David Gordon Green movies – literate, shot-on-gorgeous-35mm films flavored with a strong southern, working class sensibility – no longer existed. The corp of indie filmmaking now consists of variations of loose, inarticulate, shot-on-crummy-DV slice-of-life movies about the trials and tribulations of aging urban hipsters. In other words, movies which are even more remote from Green’s oneiric, romantic sensibilities than a lavish, borderline-incoherent sword & sorcery stoner comedy.

Admittedly, the shift to big studio filmmaking puts Green, a filmmaker presumably invested in maintaining some sense of authorial identity across his films, in an awkward position, and if Your Highness at least doesn't suffer from the high-minded anonymity of something like Gus Van Sant’s Finding Forrester or Milk, it also doesn't benefit from the high-gloss goofball charm of Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight or the offhand benevolence of Richard Linklater’s The School of Rock, major league moves that clearly enriched their respective directors’ filmographies. Both directors provide aspirational models for how to make the proverbial “sell-out” gesture without alienating most indie purists, and their careers indicate just how useless alt-rock derived and Festival circuit-fueled notions of authenticity really are to modern American cinema.

Soderbergh has always framed his move to mainstream filmmaking as a redemptive gesture, after the experience of directing the moody indie crime thriller The Underneath proved profoundly alienating, and the interesting but bizarre Schizopolis indicated a creative cul-de-sac. His bigger-budgeted films, starting with Out of Sight, found him making looser, funkier movies than those that made his indie rep. The relative dynamism and spontaneity of his star-driven Hollywood films helped maintain Soderbergh’s credibility as a filmmaker with an idiosyncratic style, and the ease and frequency with which he moved back to on-the-fly, low-budget filmmaking (Bubble, The Girlfriend Experience) maintained his indie bona fides. But ironically, it’s within the confines of studio filmmaking that Soderbergh has made the kind of movies that most clearly resonate with the themes and attitudes he established in the past, while in less commercial films, like Che and Bubble, his personal stamp is harder to identify.

Soderbergh has always been a behaviorist in mannerist’s clothing, and the principle benefit of moving into big-budget filmmaking was the opportunity it gave him to concentrate on star-driven cinema, and thus lead him to concentrate on the beautiful absurdities that occur when big egos are forced to navigate around each other. Like his debut film, Sex, Lies, & Videotape, the best of his big studio productions feature detailed portraits of neurotic, shallow egocentrics vying for control against one another, a dynamic that came to the fore in Out of Sight,and the three Ocean’s movies. The Ocean’s sequels are fairly clear-cut examples of house-buying pictures, there because of the money involved and because no one regretted making the first one, but the resulting products, even at their most shambolic, look for all the world like what Harlan Ellison has called honest hack work, guided by a genuine desire to entertain and without any obvious urge to condescend too egregiously to the audience.

A similar drive keeps Richard Linklater’s mainstream work honorable. Richard Linklater’s big break as a bankable filmmaker came with The School of Rock, and like Soderbergh’s Out of Sight and Ocean’s Eleven, the resulting film proved redolent of Linklater’s sensibility and tastes, particularly in its affection for characters at their most disreputable and its fondness for observing slightly strung-out personalities engaged in the thrilling business of keeping each other company. Even the remake of The Bad News Bears indicated both a consistent sensibility and a straight-up desire to entertain while cashing in, and proved consonant with the scope of Linklater’s viewpoint as expressed in his 90s films. Like Soderbergh, Linklater has moved back and forth between mainstream filmmaking and indie productions, but nothing he’s done since School of Rock has been quite as good or quite as evocative of the discrete joys of Slacker and Dazed and Confused. The indie work, from Fast Food Nation to A Scanner Darkly, betray efforts to compromise his sensibility with source material and audience expectations that prove far more limiting to his personal vision than his hypothetical desire for a fat paycheck.

Ultimately, for all its flaws, Your Highness remains an idiosyncratic film marked by its director’s influences and his stylistic signature. In its portrait of a world made in the image of a fractured fairy-tale, with fraternal rivalry and paternal affection at stake, the movie echoes 2004’s Undertow. The film’s more eccentric details, from a well-endowed and very horny Minotaur to a pedophile muppet, suggest a genuinely warped way of looking at the world. And as critic Glenn Kenny pointed out in his review, there aren’t any other stoner comedies in 2011 that reference movies by Dario Argento and Walerian Borowcyck. Your Highness, while admittedly mediocre, is still very much a film by David Gordon Green. But Green’s bound to look compromised when compared to the filmmaker who most obviously influenced his first three films (and produced his third, Undertow), Terrence Malick. Malick provides a particularly extreme model of a career based on an uncompromising commitment to a deeply personal philosophy and aesthetic, and while I find each of his films extraordinary (and let’s not forget the Malick as the ultimate ideal-of-auteurist-chastity narrative is complicated by some of his screenwriting-for-hire work in the early 70s), I also kinda wish he had made more movies over the years, and don’t think there would have been any great degradation in the prospect of Malick making additional films like Badlands, still his best work and also film that adheres most closely to standard genre conventions and the commercial expectations that shape them.

Your Highness, along with Pineapple Express, indicates that Green has no interest in being the second coming of Terrence Malick, but rather intends to pursue a career that looks a lot more like Sidney Lumet’s, thus producing a crowded filmography filled with its share of paycheck gigs and misfires, but with every third-or-fourth-or-fifth film revealing the same off-kilter, swooning strangeness that marked his early films. That means he won’t ever acquire the same kind of semi-mystical status that Malick has maintained over the years, but it also means that David Gordon Green will likely make more movies in the next ten years than Terrence Malick managed in the past forty. And given the weight of all the available evidence, I suspect that will ultimately be a good thing.

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