Got the car, did the kid thing, wrote a column, finished the Diner, etc.
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Okay. Well. This is screedblog material, but I’m too tired to set up the links – that page is a pain to do, for small simple reasons. So you’ve been warned. Since it’s very late I have not had the chance to edit this; it’s another fat slab of blather, a blurt of brain-gas best ignored.
But if you insist:
Quote in today’s paper: “The world’s least free place for making movies is the US, because it has a fixed model.”
Ang Lee. Ang Lee. So how’s that Saudi distribution deal for “Brokeback” going, eh? I suppose he’s correct in the sense that our “fixed” model includes a certain amount of story, coherence and profitability, but Hollywood regularly rewards people who shrug at all three. If there are “fixed” models for certain genres – such as “movies based on comic books are exciting” or “cowboys, as a rule, tend not to cuddle” – they’re celebrated most when they’re inverted.
Now, I can imagine a few folk are nodding their head in assent at Mr. Lee’s remarks – the dynamics of the modern movie biz, from an overemphasis on opening large to the lack of gritty 70s style auteur movies to the focus-tested anodyne drivel the studios pump out to fill the seats between the holiday tent-pole features. It’s a business, and as such the dollar sign demands the artist assume certain postures, follow the stations of the crass. In one sense, that’s true; on the other hand, however, Hollywood turned out some of its best product when the rules were made of chromium steel, and even the lesser B-pictures still have class or charm or rude force, depending on the genre. I’ll take a second-class Warner Bros. 30s movie over a grindhouse 70s post-Easy-Rider film any day, simply because the former will have a measure of competence and dramatic unity. The high-profile 30s musicals were the very definition of a fixed model – the audience might well have thrown candy bars at the screen if all the basic tropes weren’t present. The lawman is foiled in a way that doesn’t undermine the rule of law, the banker is reconciled to the ways of the flesh, the headstrong couple who just want to croon and hoof find fame, the good gal pal nabs Mr. Nibs and the bad girl is left sputtering well I never. Cue the dancers! That’s a fixed model. They must have made 30 pictures with those premises.
It’s not an original argument, and I’ve just given a crude sketch of the various positions. It’s also a pointless, if enjoyable, argument; there is gold and dross in every era of cinema, regardless of the models, despite the models, because of them. But see how we’re not arguing the real curious note in his quote?
“The world’s least free place for making a movie is the US.”
It’s possible he said “In one sense, America provides the greatest freedom to a filmmaker, because there is no government board to approve your funding, no government censor to shut you down, no hordes of ignorant people who call for your death if you show a woman’s ankle. But in a certain rarified artistic sense, well, within the structure of Hollywood – and I use that term to mean both the studios and the distribution networks, which have their own economic dynamic – it’s really the least free, because because it has a fixed model of expectations. Most executives are hesitant to greenlight a movie like ‘Brokeback’ because it won’t open wide at 2000 plus theaters. So if you’re looking for major player participation, you face difficulties you would not get in France. On the other hand, smaller studios, a larger pool of investors, and alternate distribution channels, combined with a free press and DVD afterlife, tend to ensure than nearly any film that needs to get made will get made. And many that don’t.”
Maybe that’s what he said. Probably not, since he was speaking in Hong Kong.
How’s that biopic of the guy who stood in front of the tanks shaping up? Heard about the Falun Gong feature going into turnaround; condolences.
Why did this quote appear in the paper?
Well, because it was said, I suppose. Food for thought, and all that. I suppose if an author went to Russia and said that the United States was the least free place to write a book because of fixed models, we’d print that too. Does the emphasis on making Oprah’s list stifle free expression? Discuss! That would be nonsense, of course, and Lee’s remark is nonsense as well. But I can’t shake the nagging feeling that some people – yes, the dreaded indistinct some people – noted that quote, nodded in assent, and felt that small warm glow you get when your worst suspicions are echoed by high-profile people. Because these are, after all, terrible times. Dark times. The lights are guttering out all over the land, and only the wise silent souls can see the truth. Wise, because they went to college; silent, because dissent is crushed daily as a matter of state policy.
Well. We always have our catastrophists and hysterics; there will always be people who sit in cafes and bitterly complain about the impending revocations of personal freedoms – and then dutifully go outside to smoke a cigarette in the cold, because that’s the law now. (It would be an act of civil disobedience to light up in the café, but it wouldn’t be cool. Your girlfriend’s sister has asthma.) What’s unique – and maybe I’m wrong; happens daily – is that the entire America experience past and present is now irredeemable. For a while the present was okay, because the right people were in charge, and there was a change we could attain Utopia with the right pieces of legislation. When that was the case, it was understandable to unload on the old benighted past, because that led up to this, and this would absolve the land.
(I never understood why 18th century America was castigated for not manifesting the values of the 20th, even though 18th century America held forth ideas that would be radical to 20th century Africa, and paved the way for those 20th century American values to exist and flourish. We’re always held up to the most peculiar standards. Our motives are base, our freedoms illusory or rationed or insufficient. It matters less that a freedom was granted in 1920; what’s truly illustrative of this rotten house is the fact that it wasn’t granted in 1871. As thought the world has always been free, kings died when the first Caesar was stabbed, Papal bulls since 500 AD have boiled down to “oh, whatev” and the entire world was a grand placid Sweden, where civilized people nibbled on crackers and tried to ignore the rude Yank on the lawn firing off his blunderbuss for no particular reason. You can site a hundred stories about French racism all you like, but it won’t matter because they applauded Josephine Baker’s nightclub routines in Paris in the 20s.)
But now there’s no hope of absolution. The tipping point is past. Darkness falls. The mask is off. The rough beast slouches. Cliches accumulate. The weight of the past swamps the boat, and faith in the future drowns alongside the ability to take pleasure in the present. “The world’s least free place for making movies is the US.” How true, how true.
What’s the Keats line? Half in love with easeful death. It is easier and more satisfying to number yourself among the elect who mutter the funereal rites than stand up on a box and shout dammit, we’re still alive! We enter our fourth century taking for granted freedoms that were unimagined in our first.
This argument will seem quaint in 20 years, when people look back at the 90s as the equivalent of the repressive 50s, because gays could not marry. For those who want Utopia today, yesterday is always a villain. Regardless of how it made tomorrow possible.
A little faith, that’s all I’m asking. Faith and perspective.
On Boingboing.net the other day – great site, highly recommended – Cory Doctorow reviewed a book called “Farthing,” an alternate-history novel about an England that had made peace with Hitler. “Britain barely tolerates the Jewish refugees that have come to its shores,” he notes.
“The story opens with a weekend on the Farthing estate in 1949, and Lucy, the sole surviving child of the family that owns the estate, has come back to her girlhood home with her husband, David, a Jewish banker who escaped Hitler's France. David is cordially loathed by all present -- the Farthing set -- who nevertheless tolerate him with hypocritical good cheer.
Then the architect of the peace with Hitler is found murdered in his bed in Farthing manor, and all suspicion turns to David. Even those who suspect that this is a setup nevertheless choose to believe that it isn't, preferring to blame the interloping Jew to one of their number.”
It is, of course, a damning commentary on our own age:
“’Farthing ‘is clearly a parable about Britain and America in the wake of the 9/11 and 7/7 attacks, when commonsense, humanism, and a commitment to liberty and justice has been easily set aside in a fury of bloodlust and a dismal, shrugging apathy.”
Did I miss the part where we nuked all the Islamic cities and interned Western Muslims in death camps? Did I miss the memo that established Muslims as the new Jews, minus the whole Euro-sponsored 6 million-dead part? Am I insufficiently sophisticated to see how deposing a tyrant is the same thing as striking a separate peace with him?
Perhaps; I am obviously unaware or unconcerned with the wholesale setting-aside of common sense, humanism, and a committent to liberty and justice. Empty words now; ashes in our mouth. Ang Lee’s statement is simply more proof.
There are rumors he will direct “The Calligraphy Code,” based on the book that denies Muhammed’s divinity and accuses Islam of suppressing women. I’m sure the Danes will fund that one. If we’re the world’s least free place, it stands to reason they’re more free.
The shooting begins in Copenhagen next month. Or the stabbing. They’re still working out the details.