On the past and future

By Shotgun CinemaPublished on 08/04/2016

Over at Shotgun Cinema HQ, we’ve lately been spending a lot of time listening to the podcast You Must Remember This, which zeroes in on what creator Karina Longworth calls “the secret and/or forgotten history of Hollywood’s first century.” We love this podcast. Longworth goes deep with research, balances intimate film knowledge with a flair for storytelling, and injects just the right amount of commentary and snark when the moment is right. Longworth tends to build an entire season of the show around a single novel, smart concept: the lives of stars during times of war, the Hollywood blacklist, the Manson murders. (You can read a recent interview that singles out some of her favorite episodes.) Her latest season begins next Monday and we can’t wait.

YMRT’s season entitled “MGM Stories,” which focused on the studio that, from 1924 to the late ‘50s, was the king of the Hollywood studio system. With its focus on producing stars even more than pictures, its commitment to high standards of production and morals, and its complete control over all aspects of filmmaking, MGM is revealed by Longworth to be as complex and contradictory as you can imagine. It’s also innovative in its ability to communicate that the image of their product was just as important as the product itself. For those who feel affection for this period of American cinema – especially for the large number of us who, in 2016, have limited access to seeing the films themselves – the image is the driving force of appreciation. As a well-researched cinephile, Longworth conveys this mesmerizingly well on her show.

Contrast that feeling to today’s review of the new film Suicide Squad by New York Times critic A.O. Scott. He begins by describing the Hollywood studio machine working to produce “works of inventive and beautiful popular art.” It’s certainly a beautiful phrase, and to the extent that I can corroborate it (i.e. to the extent that I’ve seen movies from this era, which is frustratingly little), its accuracy transcends its longing. The studios, on some abstract level, did aspire to excel.

Trying not to sound too grumpy, Scott goes on to criticize Suicide Squad as not very inventive or beautiful. He’s not a superhero guy to start with, but he also openly disdains the endless, cynical parade of mediocre films produced lately by Hollywood in the name of cross-branding. He writes:

The superhero genre is at present the most lucrative and, for that reason, the most rigid in modern cinema. Would-be auteurs are kept on a short leash, and each individual feature must serve as a place holder, offering just enough novelty to stimulate audience interest in the next episodes.

The parallel between the present day and the studio era in terms of rigidity – control – and maximizing profit, as Scott suggests in the piece, is a clear one. It’s easy to feel oppressed by both in a time that, unlike that earlier era, has plenty of independent (and frankly, more ambitious and interesting) films being made. Independent filmmaking reminds us that quality and originality are important, and that film is art. But part of what’s missing from mediocre superhero movies is also that aspirational image, the idea that these products are driven by anything other than making money.

But maybe that’s an overly nostalgic way to look at the history of American cinema. I don’t know what people thought about most films back in midcentury America. A relatively small amount of titles have survived as reputable classics, and who knows, maybe the rest of the output was uninspiring garbage. Most of us don’t have the ability to see and evaluate them anyway because they’re not being shown in theatres currently, or are unavailable in digital formats.

After Scott writes the above description of Hollywood, he continues: “But times change.” Perhaps we can take comfort in the stories told by people like Karina Longworth until we can see more of the old films, until we can forget about the things that don’t matter.

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