Tell us something we don’t know. Okay, I’m being mean, but Francis Ford Coppola, once so optimistic about the future of the medium of cinema, has become jaded and cynical about the studio system:
The cinema as we know it is falling apart. It’s a period of incredible change. We used to think of six, seven big film companies. Every one of them is under great stress now. Probably two or three will go out of business and the others will just make certain kind of films like Harry Potter — basically trying to make Star Wars over and over again, because it’s a business.
And, yes, this is from the man who made The Godfather III.
But does he have a point?
It’s hard to disagree. Every other movie is a sequel, a remake, a reboot or an adaptation. Comic books and old television shows seem to be the sources of choice for the ‘new wave’ of Hollywood. I wish that Hollywood would do something more original than simply spin a second series of movies off the Halloween franchise, for example, or do something more creative than offer us half-a-dozen Saw sequels. And just about everyone I know feels exactly the same way, be they casual cinema-goers or semi-professional critics.
But, seriously, what has changed in the past sixty or seventy years, really?
I was listening to the radio the other day and the critic was complaining about the rake of cheap sequels and comic book adaptations that were flooding into cinemas, asking what happened to original ideas in Hollywood. I think that statements like that belie a truth that most of us really need to start accepting if we want to wonder where the magic has gone: there are very few original ideas in the entire history of cinema.
Let’s take, for example, the top ten movies of all time as chosen on imdb.com. I don’t pretend this is the real list, but it’s worth taking to illustrate my point:
- The Shawshank Redemption (adapted from a novella)
- The Godfather (adapted from a book)
- The Godfather: Part II (also adapted from the same book; sequel)
- The Good, The Bad & The Ugly (sequel)
- Pulp Fiction (mostly original, but heavily “inspired” or derived)
- Schindler’s List (based on a book based on a true story)
- 12 Angry Men (based on a play based on a TV script)
- One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (based on the book)
- The Dark Knight (based on a comic book; sequel)
- Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (sequel)
And we probably could go on. Even the movie that seems to be a completely original idea – Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction – is instead the result of a melting pop of subculture influences which the author readily acknowledges.
The point isn’t that lack of original ideas is a bad thing and therefore Hollywood sucks, it’s that an idea doesn’t necessarily have to be an original one to be presented well. There’s an idea worth articulating here – that of the ‘monomyth’ which basically states that every story is in a way the same story. I think that takes the concept a little bit too far, but it does offer a fairly straightforward narrative which (if you look closely) you can see could fit any number of films – classic or otherwise.
Anyway, anyone who bemoans the current state of cinema ignores that fact that it has always been heavily derivative. Bob Hope and Bing Crosby had franchises before the phrase “franchise” had really been applied to Hollywood film making. Everything from The Wizard of Oz to Gone With The Wind was adapted from a book. Sure, the source of the adaptation has changed – it’s shifted towards graphic novels or television shows – but I’d suggest that anyone attacking on these grounds is a snob who has a problem with the source material rather than the end result.
I’d argue that what makes a film isn’t the story, but the vision. Take for example the wave of critically popular superhero films – Bryan Singer’s X-Men or Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins or John Favreau’s Iron Man. That’s arguably the same story each time, but the visionaried behind the script and behind the camera find a way to refresh it by offering it in a new way. That was what was so refreshing about (500) Days of Summer, that those behind the movie took an established convention and presented it in a new and startling way.
I do think it’s fair to acknowledge that we live in a world that has had cinema for decades now and innovation and unique style is harder to create (as it’s all been done), and that’s why mainstream cinema seems stale and tired. It’s easy to present a new vision when nobody else has presented their vision – yours has more chance of being unique and less chance of being influenced. I do think that any fair assessment of modern cinema owes the medium enough to keep that in mind.
On the other hand, I also think that filmmakers are rarer and rarer these days. I don’t mean directors – they are a dime a dozen, straight out of film school or from music videos. I mean filmmakers – people with vision and emotion and a notion of a story they want to tell, rather than a product that they have been instructed to produce. That’s why directors arguably interest me even more than actors – I know which of them have a unique vision and insight and that excites me about their work, even if it isn’t always to my taste.
Finally, I might also suggest that the past always looks rosy. It’s easy to look at the slate of films being released and ask why we aren’t making more classics, but that ignores the fact that we tend to define ‘classic’ as old. Maybe it’s because we saw them when we were younger and more impressionable, maybe it’s because there’s such a unanimous consensus on how great they are, but the classic films of old are… well, they are in a different league than what we see every day. It takes a while for me to add a film as classic on my internal rota – The Truman Show may be the most recent addition, and that is a decade old.
I don’t think that it is the end of cinema as we know it. I think it may change and evolve – as everything does to survive – but I certainly don’t agree the end is anywhere near nigh.