In the history of cinema, certain works radically alter the industry, its aesthetics, audience expectations, and the possibilities for making money. D.W. Griffith’s A Birth of a Nation (1915) changed the course of film style (it’s much debated how so it did, but that’s a debate for early cinema scholars) and certainly introduced a narrative thrust to film that wasn’t there before. The Jazz Singer (’27) brought us sound and a whole new set of production methods had to be adopted. Certain films just made a whole lot of money – Gone with the Wind (’39), aside from its technical innovations, might be considered one of the first precursors to the blockbuster.
These landmark films always engender a certain amount of controversy. Many felt that, for example, before the introduction of sound, film was closer to an art form like painting or photography. Some felt that adding sound made film more like photographed theater, especially since the new sound technology brought about a range of stylistic restrictions that weren’t in play before. The new cameras were cumbersome and everything had to be shot in the studio – the self-reflexive Singing in the Rain (’52) classically details some of the problems encountered when sound was first introduced.
In other words, filmmakers and critics felt that a film like The Jazz Singer was destroying film as an art form. And although there are plenty of classic films from the golden age of Hollywood that attain the status of “art,” it is quite true that these films aren’t highly regarded because they are stylistically expressive or individualistic (with some exceptions, like Citizen Kane – but Welles’ film wasn’t a commercial success). They are praised more often for being part of a system that film scholar Thomas Schatz, to cite one example, describes as “genius” in his book The Genius of the System. A set of stylistic rules were established and for most people who aren’t attuned to slight variations in editing, camera distance, exposure, etc., Hollywood films made from the beginning of sound up until the ‘60s look more or less the same – taking into account technological advances like color and widescreen. It wasn’t until Breathless (’60) that filmmakers could be more expressive and break the rules in commercial narrative cinema. And, in fact, in Hollywood it took even longer for things to loosen up – Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (’67) was the first commercially successful film in Hollywood to break the classic rules in a significant way.
In short, few today would actually say that sound was a bad thing for the sake of cinema as a form of artistic expression. It certainly pushed a certain kind of filmmaking into the realm of avant-garde, but that is a different matter. At the same time, one can readily see why the success of a narrative sound film like The Jazz Singer may have restricted the creativity of directors working in Hollywood.
So for the most part we can unequivocally agree that The Jazz Singer is a landmark film whose advances in film technology didn’t necessarily hinder cinema as an art form. Generally speaking, technical advances might bring about some resistance, but in the long run only open up new possibilities – this is certainly the case with digital video. But in the history of moving pictures there are a handful of films, as much as we like some of them, that undoubtedly are largely responsible for not only the general crumminess and mediocrity of Hollywood today, but also the state of independent cinema.
It is a sad thing, perhaps, but each time a film that falls under the broad category of “art” cinema, or even when a more mainstream film is hugely successful, it is potentially harmful for the sake of cinema as an art. As opposed to technical advances (which are sometimes a factor too), these films make economic advances in that they redefine what it means for a film to be profitable.
In the history of cinema there are clear antecedents to this kind of film, Gone With the Wind being one example, alongside other large scale productions. Along with the break-up of the studios in 1948 (the major studios lost their control of their respective theater chains), these films pushed Hollywood towards bigger productions and the overall output of films was reduced because more money was put into each project. This tendency actually resulted in a slow decline in quality for Hollywood, and that is why for the most part no one cares very much about Hollywood films from the ‘60s.
Amidst this decline in both quality and eventually profits, Hollywood was in a state of crisis by the ‘60s. For this reason, a new era of producers and filmmakers were able to make their films, and the studios took chances on young talent. Bonnie and Clyde, written by two unknown screenwriters and produced by a newcomer, ended up being an immense success and paved the way for people like Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, William Friedkin, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and others. But as these young filmmakers became successful and made hit films, such as The French Connection (’71), The Godfather (’72), The Exorcist (’73), and The Godfather: Part II (’74), pretty quickly the economic stakes became higher and the studios began to want more control of their output, thus restricting the creative freedom of directors.
Then Steven Spielberg (who in my opinion, as great as some of his films might be, is a little evil) made Jaws in 1976. It blew up and became our first true blockbuster. A year later another evil filmmaker named George Lucas made Star Wars, and that made even more money. From a purely aesthetic perspective, neither of these films are horrible or awful. Jaws is very entertaining, if trite, and Star Wars is laudable for a slew of reasons, even if it is morally reactionary and simplistic. The terrible thing about these two films is that they simply made so much money that there was no way Hollywood was going to take chances on creative, personal films anymore. The era of the blockbuster officially began, and we’re still in it today. It didn’t help that the production of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (’79) was a huge debacle and that Michael Cimino’s bloated and expensive Heaven’s Gate (’81), ostensibly a relatively serious art film, was one of the hugest flops in cinema history. Peter Biskind sensationally documents the history of ’70s cinema and its gradual decline in his book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock-‘n’-Roll Generation Saved Hollywood (’98).
In the ‘90s, a similar thing happened. An independent movement emerged in the ‘80s and finally earned wider attention with the release of Steven Soderberg’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape (’90). Other notable indies from the early ‘90s include Todd Hayne’s Poison, Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (’92), and Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game (’92) – the list goes on. These films were independently produced and/or distributed by people like the Weinstein brothers of Miramax and other burgeoning producers. These moderately successful films are not unlike the cinema of the early ‘70s; they received a good deal of critical attention and made some money – but not so much that they altered the stakes.
In 1993, the Weinstein brothers merged their company, Miramax, with Disney. Soon, other indie companies did the same, and that is why we have things like Sony Picture Classics, Focus Features, Fox Searchlight, etc. – they are all the so-called “indie” divisions of major studios. In 1995, under Miramax, Tarantino released Pulp Fiction and it made 100 million. It was like the Jaws of the indie world, and it altered the course of independent cinema. Suddenly, these kinds of films were far more profitable, and the studios did the worst thing possible for the sake for cinema as art: they became more involved. In a follow-up book of sorts, Biskind documents the rise (and eventual decline) of independent cinema in his book Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film (2004).
So in the same way that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg are evil, so is Tarantino. Pulp Fiction is undoubtedly a masterpiece for its writing, its film buff intertextuality, and New Wave like innovations. But after making 100 million dollars, the world of independent cinema became a lot less independent, and it continues to be that way today. The success of Pulp Fiction created not only a sort of business model for filmmaking, but in some sense also an aesthetic model too (Steven Soderberg, for example, made a gangster film clearly inspired by Pulp Fiction, The Limey, in ’96). With the possibility for profits so great, studios wanted more control over their output. This meant that if a studio was actually involved in production, it exerted more control over every aspect of the filmmaking process, and if a studio bought the rights to a film that was produced independently, it made more cuts and edits (Harvey “scissor-hands” Weinstein was notorious for this).
In effect, the term “independent” with regards to cinema is nearly meaningless today. It is true that certain filmmakers basically make whatever they want and often it is the case that they raise the money themselves to have this kind of control over their work – Tarantino certainly makes whatever he wants to, much to my chagrin. But more often than not, “indie” films by newer directors are actually closer to normal Hollywood productions, in that they are produced and supervised by the studios. The term “indie” has come to relate more just to budget and even genre, and is otherwise an empty distinction.
It is a sad thing, but we have films like Jaws, Star Wars, and Pulp Fiction in large part to blame for the state of cinema today. There is nothing inherently wrong with any of these highly successful films, but by virtue of their very success they have spoiled things for anyone trying to make personal films and anyone trying to see personal films in this country.