Robert Altman was a conversational wiseacre. He liked to say he knew only one way to conclude the long, winding river of a movie and its tributaries: not just death, but sudden death. (Pity poor Barbara Jean in “Nashville.”)
If it’s about movies and moviemaking, conversations that reflect sudden death rise like the sun in the morning lately. Will the film industry survive? Can theatrical exhibition come back in sustainable form despite industrial multiplexes with sound and image inferior to home flatscreens? Can filmmakers sustain careers in the post-pandemic economy and landscape?
This season, the all-star team of established career directors is about to give it their all. The movies may be a nudge over a hundred years old, but who’s breaking from the gate at the perceived end of the pandemic? Ridley Scott, at the vital age of eighty-four, is onto his second release (after “The Last Duel”) in under two months, the madcap “House of Gucci”; in December, “West Side Story” is the full-on choreographed musical Steven Spielberg, seventy-five, has promised for decades; “Parallel Mothers,” is described as a drenching summa of the themes and passions of Almodóvar, who is seventy-two; and Joel Coen solo-directs a thorny “The Tragedy of Macbeth” at the age of sixty-seven. Among the younger set, Guillermo Del Toro cuts to the noir with “Nightmare Alley,” fifty-seven; Lana Wachowski, fifty-six, mounts the epic, world-making “The Matrix: Resurrections”; Paul Thomas Anderson, fifty-one, remains at his San Fernando fortifications in “Licorice Pizza”; and baby-of-the-bunch Sean Baker, fifty, remains our most vigorous and empathetic observer of hardscrabble American poverty with “Red Rocket.”
Lots of experience, lots of life, right? Gotta be a little greatness in there, right? Almost all of these movies will be screened for reviewers (in movie theaters) in the week after I press “send.” But it sure looks like there’s a tunnel, or maybe a pipeline, of movie love at the end of the light. What’s good? What’s lasting?
Paul Thomas Anderson is out of the gate with his first “Licorice Pizza” cover, at Variety. Asked if he worried about the fate, or the health, of movies as an art form as shown to crowds gathered in theaters, he said, “Who doesn’t? But you know what? I worry a lot less than I did five weeks ago. With each passing week it seems like films are doing better. ‘Venom 2’ did well. James Bond did well. It seems to be clawing back. The bad part would be if we clawed back to right where it was and we’re making the same old shit and shoving it down people’s throats and they’re buying it again.” Anderson’s plaint doesn’t apply only to multiplex junk. An independent writer-director who will remain unnamed ruefully observed to me: “Most of the shitty indie art movies not made for a general audience that i see aren’t really that smart or terribly hard to unpack.”
— The Late Show (@colbertlateshow) November 10, 2021
But in general, the flat truism that screenwriter-gadfly William Goldman (“All The President’s Men,” “Misery”) notoriously wrote in “Adventures in the Screen Trade,” “Nobody knows anything…… Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one” is more of a goddam bullseye than ever.
Experienced hands are piping up about compromise enforced by those who are entrusted, ennobled, even, to presume that they know what’s going to work. “The focus is less on the soul of it and more on ensuring we make as much money as possible,” actor Andrew Garfield recently told the Guardian at the end of what reads as a genial banter. “And I found that—find that—heartbreaking in all matters of the culture.”
Anyone who’s watching the movies or watching the movie watchers isn’t just prognosticating or reading tea leaves, they’re considering whether there’s a fate for movies in the middle, ones that fall between, say, $500,000 and $100 million. And with the movies themselves, the jobs in production and post-production and exhibition and popcorn and soda and hot dogs and sweeping up after…
Anderson again: “The theatrical exhibition industry had a much-needed and long-coming kick in the pants, didn’t it? They built twenty-five-plexes and thirty-plexes… and it got bigger and bigger and shittier, and you know what, you’re shocked that they’re empty? Well, what did you think was going to happen? They built these pyramids for their demise.”
Garfield once more: “Money is the thing that has corrupted all of us and led to the terrible ecological collapse that we are all about to die under.”
Oh yeah, thanks for the reminder! Adam McKay’s all-star “Don’t Look Up” arrives on Netflix for a vast, mass worldwide audience on Christmas Eve, two weeks after a theatrical airing. It’s an “apocalyptic satire.” The scientists in his latest world-aware comedy, starring Jennifer Lawrence, Leonardo DiCaprio, Meryl Streep, Mark Rylance, Jonah Hill, Cate Blanchett, Tyler Perry, Rob Morgan, Ariana Grande, Timothée Chalamet, Melanie Lynskey, Kid Cudi and Himesh Patel—are expecting a short-and-sweet obliteration six months hence by comet. “The simple, raw idea behind it was we have seen 10,000 movies where you always see [the heroes] reach their lowest point at the end of the second act—Thor is not going to save the day, or they’re not going to put out the fire—and they always solve it. And I do think there’s a legitimate power to that, that sort of narrative repetition,” McKay tells the L. A. Times’ Mark Olsen. “Then you hear people say about the climate crisis, ‘Oh, we’ll figure it out.’ I think Elon Musk was quoted as saying, ‘Technology will solve it.’ And it’s like, ‘Hey, motherfucker, you got to actually do it.’ You can’t just say, ‘It’s going to end.’ That reeks to me a little bit of the sense like we’re living in a movie. Like we just think that third acts always work out.”
Suddenly: this season.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.