When Is Film Art?

Films, not movies, are out there, but chances are you won't find them if you're sitting through 23 coming attractions and eleven commercials.
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When is film art? The question might be better phrased as "When is
ANYTHING art"? But I've specifically pondered this film-as-art
quandary. It's kept me up at nights, leaving me wide awake at
daybreak, munching Xanax and counting sheep, masturbating furiously,
draining sour mash whiskey bottles, red-eyed and sleep-deprived.
It's a damnable question that has served to ruin my life and forced
me to become a cross-addicted, cirrhotic, obsessed aesthete with skid
marks on my dick. Perhaps writing about it here will allow me a nod-
off and a handful of deep winks.

When I was a budding teenaged bohemian back in the 1960s (cue Jimi's
"Star Spangled Banner" here), film was -- along with music and drugs --
one of my primary forms of consciousness expansion. We'd ceased to
even utter the phrase "go to the movies" because it demeaned the
experience. We loved FILM. F-I-L-M! "Movies" meant Irwin Allen
disaster flicks and Julie Andrews musicals. We were into Performance
and Walkabout and Don't Look Now (the latter three by my hero,
director Nicolas Roeg) or any cinema in a language other than English
or underground shorts by Kenneth Anger and underground epics by
Jodorowsky. We wanted messages and complexity and contradiction and,
most importantly, originality. We didn't care who the stars were.
We learned through the jungle drums of the underground press what the
heavy ones were, the must-sees whose power was not reflected in the
Variety box office charts, but by the number of fellow hippies
smoking dope in the theater. Grass and psychedelics were synergistic
with the thinking-freak's cinematic adventure. Virtually every
friend of mine had seen Kubrick's 2001 on acid. It was a rite-of-
passage, like toilet training or crossing the street without the hand
of one's mother.

As chronicled in Peter Biskind's book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, the
lunatics were running the Hollywood asylum of the '60s and early
'70s. The noun "auteur" was actually bestowed on American filmmakers
like Robert Downey Sr. (the father of Junior), Hal Ashby, Arthur
Penn, Jerry Schatzberg, Paul Mazursky, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin
Scorsese and the great Kubrick. For my taste, the finest film of the
era was 1969's Midnight Cowboy, directed by John Schlesinger, a Brit
working in the U.S. The buddy story of male hustler Joe Buck and
street grifter Ratso Rizzo was the ultimate example of anti-heroicism
and we were all anti-heroes. We recognized that life is not a
Hollywood movie in which the leading man gets the dame and all is
wrapped up neatly with a bow on top. We saw that "decent" men gave
us Vietnam and war crimes and that those in the lower rungs of the
class system often embodied real decency, potentially more so than
the clean stereotypes Hollywood had previously foisted on the marks.

These epiphanies were not the result of mere agit-prop by the
filmmakers. They experimented, engaged in flashbacks and dreams,
broke the fourth wall. THEY DID NOT FOLLOW THE RULES. All great art
is created by artists who break the rules and allow their imagination
free reign.

Then one day we woke up: Reagan was president and films were movies
again. There are exceptions (the fab Coen Brothers), but even most
of the exceptions lack the ferocity and vision of a Roeg. Spielberg
and Lucas spewed out childish and manipulative crap for a dumbed-down
and subdued nation. What had been a B-movie in terms of story was
now the blockbuster. It was morning in America again and we were in
mourning. As for Hollywood, there are many reasons for this descent
into mediocrity. Beyond the country turning hard-right, accountants
and agents had replaced eccentric, dope-addled businessmen who, while
not exactly Abbie Hoffmans, were nonetheless willing to take risks.

Again, all great artists take risks.

Jean-Luc Godard once said, "The politics of a film is the budget of a
film." I worked on-set as a music supervisor for Hollywood movies
and saw the obscene millions spent on screenplays written by dullards
and vetted by committees of accountants whose bottom line was the
bottom line of profit. Experimentation, playfulness, risk-taking,
all got in the way of appealing to the largest possible audience.
I've also wasted much of my life writing screenplays, only to be told
"flashbacks are so '60s" and asked "why do we care about the leading
man?" because I'd crafted my characters to have layers and to live in
the real world of ambivalence and shades of morality.

Where the lunatics once ran the asylum, the bureaucrats were now back
in control.

To paraphrase something Coppola noted years ago, the great hope of
film-as-art remains with a fourteen-year old girl holding a cheap
digital video camera. She won't have to answer to accountants and
her personal vision will be available for download on the Internet.
The artist will prevail.

When is film art? When artists -- not compromised and spineless
yuppies -- make films. They're out there, but chances are you won't
find them if you're sitting through twenty-three coming attractions
and eleven commercials.

I think the skid marks are starting to heal.

A truncated version of this essay ran in the April issue of Artillery magazine.