Lights, Camera, Conversation… “Playing the market”

Posted on November 15, 2013


In which we perform the duties of the devil’s advocate and look at why movies, most times, are the way they are.

James Gray made his filmmaking debut with Little Odessa, and then he made four consecutive films with Joaquin Phoenix – The Yards, We Own the Night, Two Lovers, and The Immigrant, the last of which was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. I haven’t seen The Immigrant, but the rest of Gray’s work is a reflection of where we are today as movie-watchers. In the 1970s, these grimy, low-key crime dramas (except Two Lovers, which is a downbeat romance, based on Dostoyevsky’s short story White Nights) would have been somewhat mainstream fare, and some of these films would have featured counterculture stars like Dustin Hoffman or Jack Nicholson or Gene Hackman. But now, these are viewed as indie-films, art films. They’re too bleak to break through to a large audience, and when – by chance, on a blog called The Playlist – I stumbled into an interview with Gray, the auteur (and he is certainly one) had some interesting things to say.

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He said, “I think I’m a very American director, but I probably should have been making movies somewhere around 1976. I never left the mainstream of American movies, the American mainstream left me. Really what I’m doing is an attempt to continue the best work of the people I adore, Francis Coppola and Scorsese and Robert Altman and Stanley Kubrick and those amazing directors whose work I grew up with and loved. Because really American film was that! An American commitment to narrative with an interest in the creation of atmosphere that came probably from Japan or Asian cinema, with a commitment to thematic depth that comes from Europe… We lost that.” But he doesn’t blame the audience. He blames the studios, instead, for creating this audience that doesn’t want to see his kind of cinema. “If you give somebody a Big Mac every day, and then you give them salmon sushi, their first inclination is… to say, ‘That’s weird and I don’t like it.’ And it’s very hard to get them back.”

But do studios have the responsibility to serve salmon sushi? Gray said, “They do… even if [the films] are not huge hits they do… You need [everyone] to do two or three of them a year in order to maintain a broad-based interest in the product. It’s like when American car companies in the early ’70s stopped making convertibles. They were losing a few dollars making convertibles and so they said, ‘Let’s not do it.’ And all of a sudden other people were making convertibles and American car companies stopped seeming to have a broad-based product line. Even looking at it purely in capitalistic, corporatist terms, I think if they made two or three of these kinds of pictures every year, then people like my dad and my brother – college-educated people either in their 30s, 40s or 70s, would have a movie to go to. And it would maintain the broad-based relevance of movies.”

There is almost nothing to argue with here, when looked at purely from the “creative” viewpoint, where we say the most important person involved in the making of a movie is the director. But there’s also the commercial viewpoint, which says that this director wouldn’t have a movie to make if there was no producer, and that producer, in order to raise funds, needs to look at certain avenues, like local distributors and satellite channels and foreign markets, and this sometimes leads to movies that have to work in the mainstream. It becomes more complicated when you consider Indian cinema, because – apart from a handful in Bollywood – we don’t have studios, and most movies are independent productions (though not “indie” productions, the way that term is used today). So if this producer knows that the audience will buy a Big Mac, then who can fault him for turning into a fast-food manufacturer? It’s a business, after all. It’s his money on the line, after all.

But what about making “art,” you say? The thing is, no other art form is quite as expensive. You can sign an author and get a piece of award-winning literary fiction for a few lakhs, which could also fetch you a happening band for an evening’s entertainment. But with the movies, we’re talking about crores, and this could make one pause before committing fully to art. As I said, this is the devil’s argument. But is there a case to be made that unless we change as an audience, unless we endorse films like the ones Gray makes –not downloading and watching them on a laptop, but paying theatre rates and contributing to profits – we cannot expect too much “uncompromised art” from the movies? How can we expect anything free to be good? If Hollywood, with all its money and global might, hasn’t been able to crack this conundrum, then what hope is there for the Indian equivalents of Gray?

This isn’t about ultra-low-budget filmmaking, but filmmaking with vision made on a certain scale. Gray said, “Raging Bull could not be a low-budget movie, it just couldn’t, there’s a certain scale that’s involved in making it, and no one would make Raging Bull today. The last example of the industry doing this middle movie that I’m talking about, to me would be Michael Mann’s film The Insider, which I really like. That has scale and also a bit of truth.” There have always been intelligent filmmakers who keep costs low and get away with doing what they want to do (more or less), but what about the go-for-broke visionaries? What about those who, for instance, want to shoot on film stock (which is more expensive than going digital) because they want a certain texture, a certain look for their film? Thanks to technology, it’s become easier than ever to make movies, but the old question remains. At what cost art?

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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