Shower the screen with popcorn
Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Exeter, Philip Hensher was among Granta 20 Best of Young British Novelists in 2003. The author of six novels, a collection of short stories and an opera libretto, he has won numerous prizes including the Somerset Maugham Award and the Stonewall Journalist of the Year. His 2008 novel, 'The Northern Clemency', was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Commonwealth Prize. A regular presence in the British media, alongside his Wednesday column for The Independent, he writes for The Spectator and Mail on Sunday.
Friday 14 May 1999
Actually, I saw last year's Willis-in-his-combinations movie at the local flicks on a wet Saturday afternoon. I find it difficult to believe that people were laughing any more in Cannes than they were in Brixton at this incredible pile of rubbish.
These days, the American film industry seems to spend most of its time and effort swathing its products, pre-release, in the utmost secrecy; an operation designed less to guard intellectual property rights, and more to hide the appalling, unspeakable horror of this week's SFX extravaganza. The longer the studios can keep a film from an audience, the longer they can keep themselves from having to admit that it is the most complete load of crap. The new Star Wars movie has been guarded like Fort Knox, and is already universally acknowledged to be rubbish.
So much talent and ingenuity, in fact, goes into the protection and marketing of these films that you wonder why they don't divert some of it into the actual making of the film. I mean, if they're capable of devising new strategies all the time to sell a film, you wonder why once in a while they can't devise some new strategy for telling a story.
The American film industry is in a truly awful state. The release of the new Star Wars movie is a moment to wonder why - because Star Wars is probably the single reason for its decline.
There is a story, much told in Hollywood, about a preview of Star Wars. Brian de Palma is said to have come out and told George Lucas that he had just made the worst film in history. That's as far as the story goes, and the moral Americans draw from it is that de Palma was spectacularly wrong.
But it seems to me that de Palma had a point. However many people have seen the movie, however many revoltingly vulgar little plastic dolls of Darth Vader have been sold, that in itself doesn't stop the movie being completely terrible. That's like arguing that McDonald's or Burger King are the best restaurants in London because that's where most people eat.
I remember when Star Wars came out thinking that it was more or less OK, but embarrassingly predictable and third-hand, without any of the sci-fi inventiveness which has always made Star Trek, say, so enjoyable. The special effects were thrilling, of course, but there was a repulsive vein of American whimsy running through the whole thing setting your teeth on edge.
Everyone at the time, I remember, responded much more enthusiastically to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and I've never met anyone who thought Star Wars and its increasingly cutesy sequels was anything more than generally OK if you had nothing better to do. What I remember best is how loud it seemed. And after the deafening spectacle of Star Wars, American films grew louder and louder. You started to wonder whether this was a deliberate ploy to drown out rude comments from the stalls.
One terrible movie hardly matters, but you have to remember that before this freak cynical movie, the American film industry was making Five Easy Pieces and Apocalypse Now. Afterwards, everything was high-concept and low-IQ.
The biggest talents were ground down by the studios; Coppola carried on for a while, but was never allowed to reach the pinnacles he had scaled in the 1970s. Spielberg's promise was dissipated in money-making sub- Star Wars whimsy.
Even Kubrick, in the end, could not escape an industry whose only conviction was that a film ought to make as much money as possible in the first weekend, before the word-of-mouth killed it; a conviction based on the frank recognition that its products were rubbish, and resented by its public, and how such an industry can possibly survive is a matter of some mystery.
Though Cannes has been deprived of its moment of triumph, I think we all ought to acknowledge that we have a duty to be critical. So the next time you find yourself watching some deplorable sequel to a sequel, alternating hi-tech SFX with interludes of nauseating whimsy, don't sit quietly. Blow raspberries at it; laugh; throw popcorn; or just jolly well don't go. We owe it to ourselves as Europeans, and we owe it to the pathetic tattered remnants of the American film industry too.
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