December 1999
s m u g
feed hollywood
by Brian Thomas

Ars Gratia Artis: A Confession

I'm known generally, to those that know me somewhat well, as a guy that will watch anything. This is largely untrue, but I understand the perception. Many times I've been watching a movie and someone will walk in and ask not "What are you watching?", but rather "What the hell are you watching?!?"

This doesn't happen because I lack taste. It's because I love movies and I want to see everything. And also, I must admit, have a habit of holding on too long - movies, jobs, relationships - I tend to stick with situations past the point I would have been better off letting go. I feel that I've made a commitment, and I take commitments seriously. That's why I'm a bit in shock right now, even weeks later: I walked out on something.

It was an acclaimed art film called Julien Donkey-Boy. Oh, excuse me - that's julien donkey-boy. It was made in Europe as part of something called "Dogma 95". As I understand it, a bunch of filmmakers got together and challenged themselves to make films conforming to a certain list of restrictions. They must shoot on video, they must use only natural light, they must work barefoot, etc. This is fine with me - I even applaud their spirit. It's a fine exercise in discipline and they'll all probably become more resourceful filmmakers because of it.

Fine, you kids go experiment. Experimentation is a wonderful thing. If Albert Einstein hadn't experimented, he never would've discovered the polio vaccine - but that doesn't mean I want to drink a big mug of the stuff.

The last movie I can remember walking out of was probably Supergirl, and that wasn't even my idea. Personally, I was getting off on watching Helen Slater run around in that little costume, but my companion didn't share my opinion. Sure, it's an awful movie, but I would've stayed anyway.

julien donkey-boy starts with a murder. The title character, it becomes immediately obvious is mentally challenged. He was challenged and gave up long ago. Let's just say he's what they used to call a "dummy" in less enlightened times. He gets overexcited while playing at a pond with a buddy and accidentally kills the kid. Not knowing what else to do, he buries the body in the mud, and goes about his business. After introducing his dysfunctional family, it's implied that Julien may have impregnated his sister.

I don't know if that's true. I don't know if the murder is discovered in the end. I don't know if one of the rules of Dogma 95 is that you must include many long, repetitive, shaky shots of people shuffling along a street, or sitting and humming to themselves. All I know is that it was dull and pretentious and I prayed for death to release me. But instead of dying, I got the idea that there was no reason I had to stay, really. So I walked out.

Now understand me - this is NOT a condemnation of the film. It's not even really a review. I refuse to review a film I haven't seen. For all I know, the last 60 or 65 minutes of julien donkey-boy are the greatest, most entertaining and provocative ever put on film (or blown up from video, as it were). That would be my loss, ladies and gentlemen, and I'll just have to suffer for it. What I do know is that it failed to convince me that I could possibly endure any more of it.

Does this mean I prefer Hollywood schlock product to Art Film? Yes, indeedy.

The other day I saw an independent film called Dreamers, written and directed by Anne Lu. It was a fairly simple story about Midwestern boys named Ethan and Dave who go to Hollywood to follow their dreams of making movies like The 400 Blows. When they get there, they find that the glamour is all an illusion, that they're expected to make compromises to make their movie, and that The 400 Blows was actually made in France. Dreamers is kind of depressing, full of clichés, and has a weak "twist" ending, but it also has its moments. It's well made and makes a good point: no amount of films like it will dissuade people from coming to Hollywood to get in movies.

At one point in the film, Ethan goes to meet with a distributor (played by the great Paul Bartel) that may invest in the completion of their film. He tells them the secret of making movies: "Every four minutes, something has to happen." It doesn't matter so much what happens - what matters is that the story moves along. Later, it is revealed that the distributor deals in (gasp!) pornography. He's treated like he's a total asshole for even suggesting that events take place on screen. It may seem like a betrayal to artistic vision, but it makes total sense to me. If I wanted to watch something about nothing happening, I'd tune in to C-SPAN.

Later, a housewife tells Dave she'll finance the film in exchange for a small part (and a small part of Dave). When an excited Dave tells Ethan about the offer, Ethan absolutely refuses to change a single thing. It's ridiculous - what, he couldn't put her in a nurse uniform and have her sit next to the doctor in one scene? He'd rather risk losing everything they'd worked for?

The truth is that Hollywood films are not, for the most part, actually made by committees of air-headed executives. They're made by a lot of hard-working artists and craftsmen, who at the very least give us something pleasant to look at, even if the dialogue that goes with it is abominable.

This past year has been a remarkable one for movies. There have been a lot more interesting films released, many by first-time directors, writers and stars. The difference between so-called Art Films and studio films is that Hollywood only makes the same old dull crap only for as long as it's profitable. Art Films aren't expected to be concerned with making money, so they'll always be good, bad, or indifferent no matter what. This year, the studios decided to go with good stories over 'proven' stars. Next year, who knows? We may be seeing a lot of 15,000 dollar Blair Witch Project clones pushed with 70 million dollar advertising budgets.

There will always be art for art's sake, but there will also be art for money's sake. As long as there's art, who cares if some of it makes somebody some cash? Now excuse me while I get back to my screenplay. I'm doing a treatment for a sequel called The 401 Blows.

what disturbing social trends have you seen in the movies lately?


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