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Michael Simmons

Michael Simmons

Posted: March 12, 2008 05:45 PM

When Is Film Art?

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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.