Movie Matters

After September 11: Projecting the future of entertainment at the New York Film Festival

Hallelujah: Not even a Fifties pastor could have delivered a clearer sermon on the evils of pinko art. But let's leave the Church of the Almighty Buck and go back to the street for just a moment. A nice house is great, if you can afford it, but the metaphor that kept coming to my mind throughout "Movies That Matter" was that of drug dealing. Now, maybe I'm still reeling from a pair of recent trips to David Lynch's Mulholland Drive, which persuasively portrays the industry as a kind of narcotic nightmare factory. But it seems undeniable that the Hollywood cartels--which, as Stone astutely reminded us, are controlled by "six men who basically decide what you're going to see"--are pushing a mighty powerful and addictive product. Pushing it down our throats, in fact, to the degree that bearing witness to the saturation bombing of Pearl Harbor is made to seem like civic duty.

And so, while Shaye had something of a point when he urged the festival's Lincoln Center crowd to vote with their pocketbooks ("If you like political movies," he said, "just tell us--and we'll make 'em!"), it seems more to the point that, as a nation of habitual buzz catchers, we don't always know what we want or what we need. When presented with a serious global crisis, the "mindless" American public shows a remarkable interest in the more informative storytelling of Nightline et al. But studio execs would prefer to keep us hooked on the same old dope, while denying, like tobacco-company chiefs, the addictive properties of what they're rolling up. (As Shaye said of his Lord of the Rings film, to a chorus of boos: "I hope you enjoy the movie, and I hope you think of it as entertainment.") Put it this way: If Hollywood's product were purely benign, the U.S. Army wouldn't currently be working with USC's Institute for Creative Technologies on getting action-movie screenwriters to scare up ideas about what other major disasters may be coming soon.

To extend the drug metaphor just a little further, the New York Film Festival could be said to exist largely as a kind of cinematic rehab clinic, or perhaps a health-food store that specializes in natural remedies from around the globe. Roughly two-thirds of the films on this year's roster came to the fest with distribution deals already in place (a cause of legitimate concern among world-cinema advocates who'd prefer that the selection committee adopt more orphans). But it's also true that any showcase for new work by old masters such as Godard, Rohmer, Rivette, Oliviera, and Imamura hardly represents the mainstream. Even the key American movies at the NYFF--Lynch's Mulholland Drive, Richard Linklater's Waking Life, and Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums (for more on this, see "The Magnificent Anderson" at right)--were more than trippy enough to suggest a studio prescription of pot and acid rather than crack.

For his part, Stone claimed during the panel that he was willing to say "no" to current Hollywood peer pressure by making a movie that's explicitly about terrorism--"modeled on The Battle of Algiers," he said--just as soon as he could locate the financing. But while the director of JFK spoke radically enough to characterize the World Trade Center bombings as "a revolt" (thus raising the ire of Hitchens and others), he stopped short of radicalizing his own aesthetic by considering digital video as a means of circumventing studio resistance to challenging subject matter. Griping that Pollock would never spend the $130 million it would take to produce Born on the Fourth of July in 2001, Stone stated that he'd rather not direct a medium-budget film in DV--especially since Spike Lee's all-digital Bamboozled "looked like it was shot on toilet paper." (That it did, although Stone would do well to check out the new work by Linklater and Rohmer, each of whom manages to use DV to create a painterly picture.)

So at the risk of "preaching" here myself, I would argue that filmmakers of integrity such as Oliver Stone ought not to resist the chance to sacrifice scale and salary for subject and style. After all, making movies that matter--which includes supporting them, too--isn't so much impossible as it is contingent on accepting responsibility for rooting out greed and stupidity as well as terrorism. If the degree of this responsibility should be roughly equivalent to one's power, then the villainous Shaye was quite correct to change his tune by panel's end, ultimately offering that cinema is "an incredibly powerful tool. Really, the medium is the message in the case of movies. And it can be manipulated--and manipulative--to an extent that can be horrible. People can lie and corrupt [through] movies as well as enlighten and fulfill. And I totally accept the responsibility and would preach to anyone that moviemakers have to have a moral certitude that what they're doing, that what they're disseminating is appropriate."

Now, I wouldn't like to doubt that Shaye's parting words might actually represent his honest commitment to making movies that matter. But neither would I put it past this shrewd purveyor of film fantasy to know the commercial value of a happy ending.

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