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The Artist, the Art Form and Public Taste,
This review is from: A Decade Under the Influence (DVD)
"Cinematic success is not necessarily the result of good brain work but of a harmony of existing elements in ourselves that we may not have ever been conscious of, an accidental coincidence of our own preoccupations and the public's."
-Francois Truffaut, FILMS IN MY LIFE
This quote appears at the beginning of the first of the three episodes that comprise the docudrama A DECADE UNDER THE INFLUENCE. Even before the New Wave film makers like Godard and Truffaut, however, France of course had an established film history and an established history of intellectual discourse on film that went back at least as far as Renoir (who described cinema as a state of mind). Or to say that in a slightly different way the French do not just value individual films they value cinema and revere it as an art form on par with all of the other art forms and the French over the years have evolved a way of talking about cinema and theorizing cinema in an intelligent and insightful way. Thats something that America has never really had. We've had a few interesting film critics but criticism is not the same as thoughtful analysis of an art form. If you watch a documentary about French film you are going to get a very theoretical discussion going but American documentaries can not get away from telling the history of cinema from the cash angle. It is ironic because the film makers who made A DECADE UNDER THE INFLUENCE seem to be driven by a desire to answer the question why American films in the seventies were so good and why films now are so bad, but the documentarians are only interested in those independent films that made money and thus have some kind of noteriety and so they never abandon the cash angle. In America we have a kind of blue collar ethic when it comes to the arts; we do not like elitist things and so we refuse to discriminate between "film culture" (which sounds elitist) and the "movie industry" (a phrase which does not offend American sensibilities). Americans are willing to defend the marketplace and let supply and demand decide what cultural products will be made available for public consumption but they are not willing to acknowledge that art is not created by business men. I'm not knocking America just acknowledging that what is wrong with our film culture is that we don't have one; what we have is a film marketplace.
This documentary is very good at showing who influenced the American independents. The American directors of the early seventies were influenced by the foreign films of the sixties (hence the cover art and title of this documentary). In the seventies for a brief stretch of time we did have what looked like a film culture because a lot of very interesting people, mainly film students, were making some really original work but there was never any support system for these independents save for a few forward thinking voices at a few forward thinking newspapers and magazines. Even then American intellectuals interested in film (like Sontag) talked about foreign films not American films. Whats really missing from this documentary is a discussion of why Americans have such a hard time discussing "American art" and why they are so uncomfortable with the category. Of course its not just film that suffers in the American cultural marketplace but all of the art forms (and all forms of culture and intellectual life that attempt a more thorough analysis of ourselves than the mass-market entertainments offered by Hollywood). So its fitting that an American documentary about American cinema should begin with a French quote because there just isn't any homegrown film culture to speak of that supports the film artist. I think what Truffaut is saying is that an artist can only follow the dictates of his own interests and if the public happens to be in the same state of mind as the artist then you have a box office hit. In other words its a kind of accidental harmony that brings an artist recognition by a public. Truffaut and Godard made very few hits in their day but the French film culture that they helped establish never abandoned them nor pressured them to make concessions to the public taste. In the second episode Orson Welles is quoted as saying that a film is good to the extent that it reflects the person that created it. That seems to me to be a very apt way of stating the differecne between a piece of art and a piece of entertainment. French film culture supports artists; the American film industry only supports its artists so long as they bring in good box office.
This documentary is very good at explaining just how that cash rule was momentarily suspended in the early seventies and that for a brief time there was a place for the artist in the mass market entertainment world of Hollywood. In the early seventies the Hollywood formulas no longer seemed relevant to contemporary realites and the new generation of film makers, raised on the foreign films of the 50's and 60's, decided it was time to reflect American realites on film. This dose of realism interjected by Ashby and Altman and Coppola and Scorcese was not only artistic but it also brought young people to the movie theatres. Truffaut's quote is again enlightening on this matter. In the seventies film artists made films about marginal types because as artists in America they were marginal types and so they understood what being marginal was all about. And if some of the marginal films that these marginalized artists were making became popular it was perhaps simply because in the early seventies a lot of people felt marginalized in one way or another. Whether the public felt marginalized from the government, from the capitalist machine, or from each other (or all of the above), in the early seventies marginalization was in and it sold movie tickets. So for awhile America appeared to have something that resembled a film culture but I think the reality was that it was just a coincidence that artists and public both felt alienated at the same time about the same things. That would explain the brief success of independent film in the early seventies and the reason that that success could not last because without a lively film culture to support and sustain independent films they cannot compete with Hollywood. The independent film makers were capable of giving us something to think about, they were capable of subtlety and nuance and moral ambiguity but it was only a matter of time until Americans got tired of subtlety and nuance and moral ambiguity because that was not satisfying in the long run and it was only a matter of time until Hollywood concocted some new formulas for bringing massive audiences to the theatre.
Most of the interview subjects do not offer much insight into film history and the state of the art in the seventies and now but William Friedkin and Julie Christie each prove to be very insightful.
This documentary is fairly good at telling the history of why certain early seventies films may have struck a common chord with the public but it really doesn't go very deep into the root problems inherent in American life that make (some of) us Americans fear art, subtlety, nuance and prefer crass blockbuster thrills. I think this documentary is content to just document the early seventies independent directors and stars but I think the reason many people are dissatisfied with this documentary is that they want more substantial conversations not just a collection of nostalgiac clips from great seventies films accompanied by some behind the scenes anecdotes w/ directors and stars. Plus the documentary really just deals with the big names like Altman and Coppola and Ashby and Scorcese and the big stars and really doesn't bother to try and turn us on to any names we might not already be familiar with. It also doesn't deal with film criticism of the seventies or film theory (French, black, feminist, or any other)and how these things contributed to the new kinds of directions films took. In other words its a documentary about independent cinema geared toward the public taste which means these documetarians only talk to the big names that have acquired box office clout over the years. The documentary is good but its not as thorough nor as critical as it could have been; in sum the documentary is not as bold as its subject matter.