Back in 1997, while promoting the legal drama The Rainmaker, Francis Ford Coppola spent some interviews all but apologizing for making something so generic, explaining that he had more ambitious movie ideas in his trunk, but that he couldn’t find financial backing for them. Back then I sympathized with Coppola—to a point. While I enjoyed The Rainmaker, nothing about it marked it as the work of the man who made Apocalypse Now, The Conversation, One From The Heart, Rumblefish or Tucker. But it’s not like Coppola had to make The Rainmaker so middle-of-the-road, and it’s not like he had to wait on Hollywood to make the more personal movies he wanted to make. For example: a few months before reading about The Rainmaker, my local arthouse screened Steven Soderbergh’s Schizopolis, a playful exercise in auteurial self-examination that Soderbergh threw together for around $250,000. And even that was a big budget compared to what a lot of commercially and artistically successful indies cost in the mid-‘90s.
It took a decade, but Coppola eventually realized the possibilities of going indie, when he followed up The Rainmaker with 2007’s Youth Without Youth and last year’s Tetro: two small movies that don’t entirely work, but are the kind of movies Coppola once claimed he wasn’t allowed to make. Fast-forward to a week ago though and whaddaya know: I'm watching an advance copy of Criterion’s Blu-ray edition of Che, and am surprised by an interview in which Steven Soderbergh channels the Coppola of 1997 by talking about the critical and industry reaction to Che, and how the whole experience has soured him on movie-making and the business behind it. It's like something happens to smart filmmakers when they reach a certain age. They start losing their faith in the present.
Some of Soderbergh’s points in the Criterion interview are valid, like when he complains that too many critics wrote about the dim commercial prospects for a two-part, four-hour, Spanish-language historical epic rather than writing about the quality of the film or the ideas in it. On the other hand, the specific review Soderbergh cites was printed in Variety, a trade magazine that always considers the potential box office in its write-ups. And as the rest of the behind-the-scenes doc about Che reveals, a lot of the problems with the movie stemmed from Soderbergh thinking himself into a corner, and insisting on certain aesthetic choices—like the length and the language—that limited Che’s accessibility. To my mind, those choices were and are ripe for criticism, especially since my own chief gripe about the film is that it’s over-thought (and under-felt).
I still think Che is worth seeing—especially on Criterion’s features-packed set, which comes out today—and I’m glad Soderbergh got to make the movie he wanted to make. He should be commended for taking chances. But Soderbergh needn’t be so distressed about the cranky response and middling box office. And he definitely shouldn’t conclude—as he does in his Criterion interview—that the time when movies really mattered has long past, and that it’s impossible to get ambitious or artsy with a project these days without dooming the film to obscurity. (Or worse: finger-wagging reviews from old scolds like Todd McCarthy.)
Consider the cinema year that just wrapped up. It may have been low on consensus classics, but it’d be off-base to say that it lacked movies that took chances—or to say that audiences and critics turned their noses up at those chances. Last year a slow-paced, offbeat, hyper-violent WWII movie with more than half its dialogue not in English made over $120 million in the U.S. Also successful in 2009: a crafty sci-fi action mockumentary that doubles as a commentary about immigration; an ultra-low-budget horror movie shot with the equivalent of low-light surveillance cameras; and an animated adventure-comedy about an old man and his floating house. Granted, District 9, Paranormal Activity and Up are hardly "difficult," but they are different—and they didn't suffer any grave consequences for being so. Even the far more challenging Coraline, Where The Wild Things Are and Public Enemies did better at the box office than predicted (though none were “hits” exactly). And the well-crafted entertainments Zombieland and Star Trek both reached the wide audience they deserved, which isn't always a given.
Granted, it’s not as though something like Antichrist became a smash. But at least Antichrist (somehow) got made, and sparked some interesting conversations among the few people who saw it. And at the risk of sounding gloaty, it was somewhat heartening to witness the swift and widespread rejection of movies like Amelia and Nine: movies that at one point seemed certain to be major players in awards season, no matter how dreary they turned out. Does this signal a change? Is this the beginning of the end of a certain kind of glitzy prestige picture? Will we look back at the likes of Nine the way that we look back at movies like Doctor Doolittle: as bloated, dated examples of the kind of classy event film that audiences went to for a while out of a sense of joyless obligation, and then inevitably abandoned?
Understand: I’m not claiming that 2009 was some kind of watershed year for the movies, or that it was as fertile creatively as the early ‘70s cinema that Soderbergh adores. I just hate to see a good filmmaker get so down on the state of his art, especially when he’s spent his whole career getting to do more as less as he pleases, with wildly varying degrees of success. There’s still an audience for the unconventional, and there are still filmmakers feeding that audience. (Even Che wasn’t a complete disaster relative to its cost.)
Thank goodness that whatever Soderbergh’s skepticism, it hasn’t slowed him down as an artist. Even in the midst of granting mopey interviews, he's cranked out the beguiling low-budget experiment The Girlfriend Experience and the trickily entertaining corporate intrigue comedy The Informant! As it happens I saw The Girlfriend Experience for the first time at Sundance roughly one year ago, and I’ll be heading back to Park City in a couple of days, where last year I enjoyed a good kick-off to 2009, including my first look at a movie that made my Top 10 list (Passing Strange), two that narrowly missed my Top 25 (Moon and Humpday), and two that were topics of conversation throughout the movie year (Precious and Adventureland). When I left Park City last year, I certainly didn't feel like cinema was a dying art. Quite the contrary, in fact.
Then again, I actually liked that last year was a difficult one for cinephiles and awards-giving bodies to wrap up in a neat little package. Most years, when it comes time to make year-end lists, there are four or five indisputable classics that can’t be denied, which makes it harder to stand up for the neglected, or make idiosyncratic choices that reflect personal taste. Instead the lists become uniform, and a bit boring. I’m hopeful that in the coming week at Sundance, I’ll see something that winds up becoming part of the canon, but I’d be just as happy if I discover a small, flawed gem that’s less immediately lovable, and requires some proselytizing.
I recognize that this is a tough time for independent film business, and that “small, flawed gems” aren’t likely to make enough money to get the Soderberghs of the world a green light for their dream projects. But even during the indie film boom years of the ‘90s—when Miramax dominated the arthouses and the Oscars, and staid literary adaptations became cultural phenomena—it wasn’t all salad and fatted calf. I was reminiscing recently with a friend about how 15 years ago, when we were the sole film critics for a successful alt-weekly, we had a page-and-a-half (about 2000 words’ worth) to fill each week with whatever we deemed worthy. That kind of freedom is almost unheard-of at a print publication today. But the downside then was that on any given week, we might be stuck writing 1000 words on the likes of The Englishmen Who Went Up A Hill But Came Down A Mountain. Believe me, there were times back then when we would’ve killed for a Transformers 2 just to break up the tasteful tedium.
“Golden ages” are hard to spot as they’re happening—or even after they’re done—and the worst eras for movies often aren’t as bad as people perceive them. But it’s not the artist’s job to assess such things, as tempting as that can be. Even the most talented artists go through dry spells, either from the business end or in terms of their own inspiration. As somebody who loves consuming what those artists come up with—and, granted, someone who doesn't have to go through what they go through—I want to tell all the future Coppolas and Soderberghs to take a breath, and look at a lack of money and a potentially hostile audience as a challenge, not an impossible situation. I know this sounds pat, but if artists are faced with an unusual number of obstacles, they should do what they presumably live to do: Get creative.