Arts: I know where it all went wrong

In 1996, we celebrated 100 years of the movies. But should we really have been mourning their demise? David Thomson offers the last word on the centenary of cinema
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The Independent Culture
It has become harder this past year to go back into the dark of the movies with hope or purpose. The place where "magic" is supposed to occur has seemed a lifeless pit of torn velour, garish anonymity and floors sticky from spilled Pepsi. Forlornness hangs in the air like damp; things are so desolate you could set today's Waiting for Godot in the stale, archaic sadness of a movie theatre.

And it has seemed to me that the dark has become more than ever the retreat of restless, alienated people, the sort one would as soon not sit next to. They have not felt like productive citizens possessed by a decent need for entertainment as part of a larger life; they are uneasy, impatient, waiting for the fantasy to begin, but bitter that they no longer believe in it. Yet in their millions they have raised hollow, sneering cheers for Independence Day and its victory.

This is not just a lamentation that movies are in a very bad state. Rather, I fear, the medium has sunk beyond anything we dreamed of, leaving us stranded, a race of dreamers. This is more and worse than a bad cycle. This is something like the loss of feeling, and I blame Spielberg and Lucas.

Blame them - the wonder kids of America's modern imagination? It does seem a harsh response for two guys who have remained boyish and spiffily casual, despite picking up in the region of half a billion bucks each. Not for them the sharkskin menace of legend's movie executives. They prefer jeans, sneakers, sweaters, beards and baseball caps - and actually they have helped spread that looser garb among the new executive class. When you see those happy-go-lucky pictures of the Dream Works trio - Spielberg, David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg - you feel that the other two are taking a relaxed sartorial note from Steven. After all, he's the one who has established the shine on their corporate name - he has shown that Dream Works. He has become the most successful and famous movie-maker of our time, without having to surrender boyhood. Even the extra gravity of Schindler's List is like the most popular kid in school taking advantage of his status to recommend education.

Lucas and Spielberg have changed everything: not just the way the industry functions and directs its own ambitions, but the scheme by which film history is now perceived. For the generation in its twenties today, it is possible to believe that movies began 20 years ago with the phenomenal impacts of Jaws and Star Wars. Those were showbusiness events that identified the summer audience of kids waiting for sensation as nothing had done before. Jaws was especially telling in this respect, for in its jokey, terrorising way (and it is meticulously built and edited to goose us), it cast doubt on the conventional summer sport of splashing around in the water.

Without much plan or advance confidence (Star Wars was regarded as unpromising by its studio), these pictures pioneered the modern blockbuster, a movie rooted in fantasy or the impossible, aimed at the age range for 30 down (and well into childhood), "opening everywhere" at more than two thousand theatres in America, with a huge thrust of TV advertising, and so dominating the season that kids go back to exult in their experience time and again. And with Star Wars, above all, there was early recognition that a film could be tied to toys, merchandise and even spin-off deals at junk-food chains. They did such business that the business itself shifted its focus. As never before, it developed disdain for "small" pictures.

It's easy to imagine the look of injured innocence in Lucas and Spielberg at complaints that they should have done anything else. Opportunity is for the taking, isn't it? Oskar Schindler saw no reason to neglect business, even if times were unusual. You are going to knock free enterprise, deny the self-generating force of the market? You're going to stop kids having what they want, or deprive the business of its legitimate prosperity? (And business itself in the age of Spielberg could begin to assume the youthful good nature of a bright kid.) You're going to be a killjoy to the terrific, rollercoaster fun and energy of Jaws and Star Wars? You're going to forget or deny that everyone is in the entertainment business? Has America come to such a pitch of self-doubt that someone is going to suggest that George and Steven were anything other than new life and young invention taking over a moribund business and jump-starting it again?

Yes, I am suggesting all of those things, and I'm going to propose that the impact and its damage were all the greater because Lucas and Spielberg were young, industrious, hopeful, smart, well-intentioned and, in their way, brilliant. For there was a sweet illusion in the late 1970s that a generation of film students and fanatics had indeed taken over the corrupt business from the older, reactionary brand of semi-gangsters that kids liked to regard as "Hollywood". No one thought to warn the kids about being co-opted by all the things Hollywood trades in - money, fame, power, glory and America in your lap. These kids knew movies, maybe, but they'd never studied history or business or the various ways in which youth betrays itself. As anyone who had much to do with teaching that generation of movie brats must admit, there was a danger all along that these hot kids knew only movies and trusted everything else in the way of knowledge to how it had been portrayed in old pictures.

Youthfulness, you will concede after the summer of 1996, has not only abided, it has settled, hardened and grown into a boisterous armour of immaturity. Immaturity can mean lack of character, lack of story and cheerful incoherence; it can suggest again for a younger generation yet that the world must be very simple. And so betrayal spreads. For one destiny set up by the journey begun by Jaws and Star Wars has been Mission Colon Impossible, Twister and Independence Day. And let me stress this link over the 20 years or so between seasons. Last summer's prodigious and ridiculous hits (for no one believes these films deserve their bounty) are stories that could not happen. In the case of Mission Colon Impossible you'd have to be able to fathom the story to realise that, but consider only the dynamic nonsense of the train finale to recognise things that would never pass in life and which could not be photographed "straight". In other words, what we are seeing is less cinematography than an intricate set of rigged effects. With Twister and Independence Day, that reliance on process is all the more apparent, and it is palpable in the vacancy of the acting, the way in which the players are reacting less to drama or human interaction than to the vague notion of effects that will be laid in later.

Let me take you back to a time just before Jaws and Stars Wars, to what I suggest was the last golden age of American film, and maybe the last we are ever going to get. There's no need in passing to claim masterpiece status for every one of these movies. Several have serious flaws or limitations; all are cast in the uneasy mix of fantasy and reality that is American film. Still, from the late 1960s, for seven or eight years, America produced a group of remarkable, reasonably adult pictures, many of which showed healthy profits. As you read the titles, consider how their characters seem to have struggled with larger, untidier lives than film characters know today. Bonnie and Clyde, Point Blank, The Wild Bunch, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, both parts of The Godfather, The Last Picture Show, Five Easy Pieces, The King of Marvin Gardens, The Conversation, Klute, The Parallax View, McCabe and Mrs Miller, California Split, The Long Goodbye, Nashville, Fat City, Badlands, Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Chinatown, Shampoo, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, All the President's Men.

I look back on the time of first seeing those films as one of wonder, excitement and passion. It was bracing to face such candid, eloquent dismay; enlightenment does not have to be optimistic or uplifting. In many cases, compelling human stories deepened naturally into a sense of a larger America. So a film like Chinatown, say, seemed to vindicate the power of popular entertainment to achieve meaning. There was a grace or beauty in many of those films that was as cinematic as the best in Renoir, Ozu or Welles. They involved actors looking at other actors in some potent, creative enterprise where we felt pity, terror, amusement and love, as well as the stealthy fascination of being voyeurs to such drama. For they were photographed, and the thing seen felt like life.

By which I mean that when an actor had played a scene, he or she knew what it was, how it felt and what it might mean. And if those scenes were, say, Michael and Kay in The Godfather, Gittes and Evelyn in Chinatown, Travis and Iris in Taxi Driver, Bree and John Klute in Klute, then they were at the level of how troubled adult people behaved in crises, and of the best drama and literature America had made.

Such movies were not comfortable or boyishly cheerful but neither was the America of the early 1970s. It was far too much to say that Hollywood was conscientiously mapping its age - and the system was at the same time making many far worse, far sillier films - but an attempt was being made, and its partial success was adding to the discourse and ferment of the country.

Lucas and Spielberg were both touched by that darker awareness of the early 1970s. Lucas's debut picture THX 1138, made in 1971, was a grim look forward to a 1984 where all humans looked numb and alike, and love and sex had been banned. It was naive, despondent, and a serious failure such as Lucas vowed to put behind him, or to smother. And so, starting with American Graffiti, he helped inaugurate an orthodoxy in which all American movies must be good humoured, positive and big bucks.

Spielberg also began with feelings of paranoia that have never deserted him, and which surely animate much of Schindler's List. His debut, Duel (1971), made for television but given a theatrical release because of its sizzle, concerned an ordinary motorist who becomes hounded by an immense, hostile truck, the first monster in Spielberg's work. It was a penetrating fancy, executed with extraordinary panache. And it was photographed, granted with the services of expert drivers and stuntmen. There was as little artifice in Spielberg's next film, The Sugarland Express, about a young couple so intent on reclaiming their child from adoption authorities that they kidnap a cop and become the object of a vast police pursuit. Sugarland is a good film (Spielberg is a very accomplished director of the sort that follows when a man has the instincts and sensibility of a great producer), funny, touching, crazy, very American. And it has a sombre ending; the father is shot down and killed by the police.

That was the proper ending; and in 1974 that's how American films ended. But Spielberg has never risked that tough an ending again, and he has seldom had to live with the merely modest success of Sugarland Express (Even Schindler's List became viable as a big American movie because of the providential heroism of Oskar and the way that could be played to offset the hitherto unmitigated horror of the material). The police pursuit in Sugarland was real, carefully mounted; it was derived from a recent incident in Texas. The dilemma of the film arose from the humble case of inept, criminally inclined parents who are told they do not deserve their son. One year later, in Jaws, the threat was made out of rubber, myth and an electronic guidance system: a truck-sized shark that had the mind of a villain but which proved so fussy and unreal in the water that the shooting was a nightmare of delay and tedium. Jaws was a story that could not have happened in which the eventual triumph of two of the three lead characters was the more jingoistic because the shark was such a contrivance (though every instinct guessed that the shattered fish might be back for sequels).

Spielberg had discovered his calling, or his special art. Close Encounters of the Third Kind, ET, Always, Hook and Jurassic Park are fantasies that put increasing burden on the magical light show that can deliver plausible images of things that cannot be photographed. The fascinating Poltergeist - credited to Tobe Hooper but closely supervised by Spielberg - should certainly be added to this list, and we have to note that in Close Encounters, ET and Jurassic Park it is a list that includes three of the most momentous commercial films of all time. That income shows in the mounting refinement of effects. For Spielberg has moved from the light show of Close Encounters and the model in ET to Jurassic Park, where computer-generated imagery has surpassed our awareness of effects and made a photo-like rendering of things that cannot be. As if Richard Nixon were talking to Lee Harvey Oswald, say (the effects do stroke paranoia), we have dinosaurs of such wicked, merry spirit that the human beings in the film seem closer still to stooges or props.

George Lucas was even more directed by special effects than Spielberg. Star Wars, his first bonanza, introduced the work of Industrial Light and Magic, the great factory of special effects which Lucas would establish and which eclipsed his own interest in directing. He was "only" executive producer and overlord on the Star Wars sequels - The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi - presiding over their terrific box-office, their elaborate artifice and the marketing of toys and spin-offs. No one doubts Lucas's leadership at ILM and his nearby Skywalker Ranch, or his involvement in projects, but he has not directed since Star Wars.

He has become a producer and a studio. His most significant business action was the partnership with Spielberg that made Raiders of the Lost Ark and the two Indiana Jones sequels, Temple of Doom and Last Crusade. All three Indie films were directed by Spielberg, and they relied far less on special effects than the Stars Wars trilogy. Indeed, their makers liked to think of them as a throwback to old movie styles. But their sense of drama and character came from Star Wars and that comic-book approach. They are films fit for children - a profound commercial strength, but a large dramatic limitation.

The Star Wars and Indiana Jones pictures made a phenomenal package: no other six films have ever grossed as much or had such an effect on the culture of film. For the two series were aimed at the slavish following of children. Before Lucas and Spielberg, no one - not even Walt Disney - had grasped the relationship between arousing narrative violence and the self-satisfaction of little boys. And just because these films are so well done, so heartfelt, they mark the true debut of the child artist in America, or of the man who is oblivious to his inability to grow up.

Independence Day is only the most notable heir to this kingdom, for it is an obvious recipe of Close Encounters mixed with Star Wars, of interplanetary awe crushed by that old paranoia. Indeed, when pilot Will Smith promises his rapid mastery of the alien spacecraft, kids in the audience are with him - they know these zippy little fighters from Star Wars, they've all had hours on them in the video games. If director Roland Emmerich is a lot less than Spielberg, still he has learned to appreciate the audience fashioned by Lucas-Spielberg, not least in the five-days-a-week Nickelodeon cartoon series, Steven Spielberg Presents Loony Toon Adventures.

"Presentation" is close to the hearts of Lucas and Spielberg. Though Lucas remains shadowy and recessive as a person, he has made ILM and his splendid post-production facilities a haven for other film-makers. And he has been a patron. He and Francis Ford Coppola, Lucas's own sponsor once, helped Akira Kurasawa finish Kagemusha; they funded Paul Schrader's Mishima; and then, in 1988, Lucas was executive producer on Coppola's Tucker. By that time, Coppola was a warning example of recklessness, while Lucas was a model for film capitalists.

But Lucas seems like a functionary and an enabler, a man content to head a very large operation that has many secrets still in the burgeoning area of special effects. (There is even a chance of doing away with the actors altogether.) Spielberg is far needier, and more intriguing a figure. As well as all the other things mentioned so far (at the age of only 49, Spielberg has directed 15 films), he has been a patron to Robert Zemeckis, who was put in charge of that essential trio about sustained adolescence, the Back to the Future films, who directed maybe the most beautiful and subtle film to bear Spielberg's name and authority, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (the true sequel to Chinatown and a beguiling mystery about the difference between real and 'toon life). Zemeckis then went on to give America its most awesome and idolised example of the child-man, Forrest Gump. In his near-total dedication to impossible stories made sweet by special effects (and audience gullibility) Zemeckis is as much Spielberg's brother-in- arms as Lucas.

Spielberg was executive producer on all Zemeckis's films before Forrest Gump. And there are yet other things he helped along, like Gremlins and Arachnophobia. But three times now Spielberg has stepped beyond himself, into lofty drama and something much closer to realism, to make "statements", "more personal works", or his shot at Oscar and Nobel. There was the dire The Color Purple, the remarkable Empire of the Sun (his best film and the most scary portrait of how a child can be deformed by cultural context), and the endlessly problematic Schindler's List. Among other things, that last film shows a tense, unresolved kinship between Spielberg and Schindler. The businessman proclaims himself a master of presentation; he is a showman who somehow stumbles on a side entrance to the kingdom of heaven. Or is he just a brilliant opportunist, a kid playing grown- up?

This is no place to go deeply into that film, except to remark that it is at the same time deeply felt and distinctly contrived. The very control is sinister, as witness the one disastrously jarring special effect, the child's red coat, a small but sufficient indication of the unwholesomeness of the venture, and of the cultural degradation inherent in making a film like Schindler - even if you're peddling the enamelware of Jurassic Park at the same time. In his power and facility Spielberg has an eerie touch of the inhuman. In no artist we have known before is there such gravity and indifference proceeding in concert. It is as if, finally, we emerge unable to trust sincerity or art itself.

The great age of movie-making was founded in the delicate faith photography kept with reality. One's soul shifts with the movements of the camera; motion is emotion. The narrative movie required the appearance of people, together with one another, in a way not too different from the stage - except that movie added shifts in vantage in which the people being seen never noticed the shift.We saw without being seen. I'm not sure how much of that is art, or just voyeurism. And there have been momentous films that wondered if photography itself might not be too special, or tricky, an effect - like Vertigo, Bergman's Persona, Welles's F for Fake, Powell's Peeping Tom.

And now? You could not get a Chinatown made today. Its real author, Robert Towne, was not able to make its sequel, The Two Jakes. But he wrote some of Mission Colon Impossible - if that is writing. Taxi Driver would be unthinkable. The search for seasonal blockbusters, for dreams that work - and how! - the stress on things that no one has ever seen or experienced and the subsequent inflation of budgets, to say nothing of the dreadful play upon children, leaves a deadly question. Was movie-making ever really an art - or a show just for showmen? Is it dead? If not, where is that stink coming from?

! A longer version of this piece appeared first in American `Esquire'.