The State of the Cinema
An Online Conference with Michael Sragow
September 28, 1994
September 28, 1994
The following is the transcript of a live online conference with Michael Sragow as it appears in The Atlantic Monthly Online on the America Online network.
In a 1963 essay on British cinema, the great Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray wrote, "I am not sure how [David Lean's] *Brief Encounter* would stand up to a reappraisal in the context of present-day film making; the texture of films has changed considerably in the last twenty years."
Movies have changed still further in the thirty-odd years since then--and not all for the better. "These days," writes Michael Sragow in an article on Lean, "the advances that matter in mainstream moviemaking are in special effects." Over the last nine months, Sragow has written three articles for The Atlantic Monthly, one on David Lean (director of *The Bridge on the River Kwai*), one on Sam Peckinpah (director of *The Wild Bunch*), and one on Ray (director of the Apu trilogy).
What is the state of movies today? Each of Sragow's articles on the skill and artistry of these filmmakers comments obliquely--and sometimes not so obliquely--on the current cinema. Who today can equal Lean's combination of literary art and entertainment? Does any director today possess Peckinpah's audacity and "Rabelasian gusto"? And what filmmaker today can come close to duplicating Ray's humanism or craftsmanship?
Michael Sragow began his career as a film writer at Boston Magazine. After stints at The Boston Phoenix and the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, he went on to became Rolling Stone's film critic. From 1985 until 1992, Sragow was The San Francisco Examiner's lead movie critic. Since 1989, Sragow has been a regular contributor to The New Yorker.
Sragow has written book, TV, and movie criticism for such publications as GQ, Esquire, and The New Republic. The editor of *Produced and Abandoned: The National Society of Film Critics Write On The Best Films You've Never Seen*, his movie writing has appeared in all the major film magazines. Sragow's latest article in The Atlantic, "An Art Wedded to Truth," about the films of Satyajit Ray, appears in the current issue.
So do Lean, Peckinpah, and Ray have contemporary heirs? Can Steven Spielberg don Lean's mantle as the purveyor of literate entertainment? Does Quentin Tarantino have what it takes to be the next Peckinpah? Does the current cultural climate have the patience for another filmmaker with a penchant for using, as Ray did, the slow accretion of details as a dramatic force? Or are the best we can hope for high-tech, million-dollar extravaganzas like *True Lies* or blunt, gimmicky movies like *Natural Born Killers*? Find out tonight as we discuss the World of Movies.
StosselAtl: Welome, Mike Sragow. And welcome audience.
StosselAtl: First off, have there been any further developments regarding The Wild Bunch's release?
Sragowsan: Funny you should ask. Just today I got a call from an LA TIMES reporter. This is not yet confirmed, but apparently THE WILD BUNCH has been rated NC-17 by two separate ratings and appeals boards. David Weddle, the author of the new Peckinpah biography, is planning a screening of the director's cut sometime in October in L.A. and apparently has the cooperation of Martin Scorsese, Ron Shelton, Roger Spottiswoode, and others, who've agreed to appear on a panel. The first thing you see on the director's cut, ironically, is the R rating --that's where it went in 1969.
StosselAtl: Here's the first audience question:
Question: You wrote in your review of "The Wild Bunch" that "its galvanizing violence is emotionally and aesthetically complex, and thus challenging." What, if any, current movies contain these elements and qualities?
Sragowsan: Not very many -- and certainly not the ones that WANT to be compared to Peckinpah. I saw a movie last night called FRESH -- which I think is very good, one of the best of the new African-American-themed movies -- and one of the reasons its violence WAS effective was that it was so matter-of-fact. People like Oliver Stone, in the execrable NATURAL BORN KILLERS, seem determined to create a sensory envelope of movie violence with mere technical gimmickery, which is really a repudiation of what Peckinpah did, which was to always tie his violence quite ruthlessly to character.
StosselAtl: Apropos of The Wild Bunch (and perhaps Stone as well), AdamRCohen asks: Do movies lead to violence or does violence lead to movies?
Sragowsan: I don't buy the notion that movie violence breeds real violence. What bothers me more is the fascist strain that most of today's popular movie culture represents. In the thirties and forties, violent genres like the gangster films and film noir contained the most subversive and mind-opening social commentary you could smuggle into Hollywood. These days, you get a whole range of movies whose biases are not just status quo but reactionary, turning on the meanest kinds of revenge and support of the good old American family values. TRUE LIES to me is mind-boggling -- it's the movie version Persian Gulf policy -- massive firepower, limited target -- and its just as reactionary in terms of family and sexual politics as it is in terms of international politics. And even the tres chic Tarantino seems mainly concerned with the power violence gives him to maintain a hold on the audience. A constant diet of this stuff is simply numbing for anyone who loves movie art and entertainment.
StosselAtl: In your article about Lean's Bridge Over the River Kwai, you discuss the significance of the film's release in a "letterboxed" video edition, one which captures the original version's CinemaScope images. With this in mind, how do you answer JBRYankees' question: Do you prefer movies in the theater or at home? Why?
Sragowsan: I prefer movies in theaters when the print is good and the projection high quality; actually, for most movies, even when the print is bad the experience is more interesting because of what the audience brings to it. But the studios have been so haphazard in their development of preservation techniques (even over the short haul) that, especially with movie classics, laser or VHS tape is the only way to go. One of the people who masterminded the LAWRENCE OF ARABIA restoration told me, sadly, that laserdiscs will probably provide the benchmarks for film restoration in the future.
StosselAtl: TimViciou asks: why do movies get worse and worse?
Sragowsan: Again, just today, someone asked how movies changed over the 25 years I've been reviewing. What popped out of my mouth was, "The executives keep getting better educated, but the movies keep getting stupider." I wasn't just being facetious. I think that there's less respect for the INSTINCTUAL sides of moviemaking than ever before, and I think it has something to do with the homogenizing and quanitifying that's taken over our schools -- especially, God knows, our BUSINESS schools, which provide Hollywood with many of its illustrious citizenry. There's also no continuity with the past. No one who worked at WARNERS during THE WILD BUNCH is still there -- that's why they resubmitted it to the rating board when they didn't have to. No-one at Columbia remembers KWAI -- that's why mistakes were made about that too.
StosselAtl: But ARE movies truly getting worse and worse? In 1984, Pauline Kael wrote "The movies have been so rank the last couple of years." Movies can't always be getting worse can they? Isn't it sort of a sport among critics to lament the sorry state of the arts?
Sragowsan: I can answer from experience: They are. I had already been the first-string critic for a daily paper for three years (THE LA HERALD EXAMINER) when 1980 rolled around and it provided the only good six-month period I've enjoyed before or since. THE LONG RIDERS, THE ELEPHANT MAN, THE STUNT MAN, RAGING BULL, THE CHANT OF JIMMIE BLACKSMITH. All those opened in one period, and it was exhilarating. These days, you feel relieved if there's a single good MONTH -- the way there was last Xmas, SCHINDLER'S LIST, IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER, and SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION opened.
StosselAtl: Can you expand on "execrable"? ScottDY asks: What'd you think of Natural Born Killers?
Sragowsan: I came to NATURAL BORN KILLERS fairly late (this week), and what astonished me after all the hype, was simply how incompetent it was. I'd just seen Tim Burton's stillborn but amiable ED WOOD, about Hollywood's most famous Grade-Z schlockmeister and it seems to me Stone has become Ed Wood. He's grabbing anything at hand to goose his movie along, and in this case, if the movie hadn't gotten such important-film treatment (mostly from Stone himself), and if audiences weren't alerted that it was "black comedy," they'd throw tomatoes at the screen.
StosselAtl: An audience member asks: Much has been written about Quentin Tarantino, and in particular his new film, "Pulp Fiction." What is your assessment of the impact of Tarantino's work on the medium of film?
Sragowsan: I see PULP FICTION tomorrow. To me, Tarantino is a figure whose importance has little to do with his output to date. He's a generation-marker -- the first director of the video-store generation. When an art director told me that Tarantino told him he'd seen his latest, difficult movie 40 times, I said "Don't worry -- he's probably seen ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK two hundred times..."
StosselAtl: EricMacho asks: What do you think of movies like Baghdad Cafe which are dry comedies?
Sragowsan: Was BAGDAD CAFE a dry comedy? A thought there was a wet film-festival transcultural kind of sentimentality underlying the whole thing. I think the current movie THE NEWAGE, written and directed by Michael Tolkin (who wrote THE PLAYER), is REAL dry comedy -- so dry a lot of people don't get it. It's far more disturbing than what Altman did with Tolkin's script and novel of THE PLAYER. I liked it a lot.
StosselAtl: Following up on an earlier response, BoneDaddi asks: I'm glad you saw through Natural Born Killers' ugly trickery. Why do you think so many other critics embraced the film so enthusiastically?
Sragowsan: The big ugly secret of movie reviewers -- myself included -- is that we like to like things. I mean, we go into a theater hoping to be challenged, provoked, charmed. And that hasn't happened much this summer. So when a big aggressive THING like NATURAL BORN KILLERS comes along, which aspires to be "serious" and "thrilling" at the same time, I think a lot of critics are blinded by their own hopes. How else could they make such a gaffe?
StosselAtl: Many in our audience seem to be interested in the effect of violence in film. Mitchworld asks: What bothers me most is how humor and violence are tied together to make the violence more acceptable in movies like LEATHAL WEAPON and 48 HOURS. What do you think about these types of pictures?
Sragowsan: It depends on the picture. I like 48 HRS. I like some of Sam Raimi's films, like DARK MAN and EVIL DEAD II. I don't think there's someting inherently evil about linking violence and humor. Most COMEDY does that. What I think is hurtful is the formulaic tyranny of movies like the LETHAL WEAPON series -- it really is just a watered-down 48 HRS actually. I think it's the death of instinct and imagination in movies more than surfeit of specific ingredients like violence that's killing them.
StosselAtl: You mentioned earlier that studio films have become increasingly fascistic. AdamRCohen asks: Are movies more fascistic now because they have more ties to commerce?
Sragowsan: Yes, but I'm not talking in terms of economic-political conspiracy. It's in the contemptuous treatment of the audience as an undifferentiated mass. Once you get to the point where all that moviemakers are allowed to do is play on nerve endings, you realize that 1984 has arrived, only ten years late.
StosselAtl: Here's another question about a movie currently being showered with critical plaudits: Everyone is lauding Robert Redford's work on "Quiz Show" right now. How do you rate this movie and how do you place it respect to Redford's four films?
Sragowsan: It's by far the most entertaining of Redford's four movies. But I also think it's hogwash. It's a movie in which the surface message and the emotional message are completely out of whack. For one thing, TV is seen as the root of all evil, while WASPS are seen to be ethereal and out of touch. But the only people who have a non-TV culture in the movie are the WASPS. It begins to seem like a parable of WASPS being victimized by pushy Jews.... It's nuts.
StosselAtl: Audience, continue to send your questions by using the interact with host button at the left of your window.
StosselAtl: Mike is switching from his battery to his AC adapter. Sit tight.
Sragowsan: Nobody told me QUIZ SHOW was a remake of THE WAY WE WERE. Remember that Redford's character is seen to be terminally shallow at the end of that movie because he becomes a TV writer. But Streisand still sort of loves him.
StosselAtl: Is the asker of this next question (his screenname is BillSrago) a relative of yours?
Question: Speaking of viewing at home, what is your impression of the editing and overall technical achievement of Ken Burns' "Baseball"?
Sragowsan: Burns is a highly accomplished craftsman, and his editor, Paul Barnes, has done sensational work -- Barnes edited the gospel documentary SAY AMEN SOMEBODY. But there's something offputtingly strained about Burns' work. He frames everything so carefully he embalms it. There's great stuff in there, but it tends to get buried . Still, I'm watching.
StosselAtl: BSHersey would like to know: What movies are you looking forward to seeing this fall and why?
Sragowsan: One movie that's coming out the end of fall that I know will be good -- I've seen it -- is Ron Shelton's COBB, with Tommy Lee Jones redeeming himself after BLOWN AWAY and NATURAL BORN KILLERS. (Actually, Jones is terrific in Tony Ruichardson's last film BLUE SKY, too, as is Jessica Lange). I'm looking forward to the documentary HOOP DREAMS, to Albert Finney in THE BROWNING VERSION (Finney is awesomely good when he's "on") and the new Woody Allen film -- I'm in the minority, but I thought MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY was one of his funniest movies.
StosselAtl: Here's an interesting question from YavinPilo: Have you seen David Lynch's Twin Peaks TV series, and how do you think the series has influenced American film?
Sragowsan: I'm not sure that it's had a lasting influence on American film. Lynch is a wonderful but dauntingly eccentric talent, and I think it would be a mistake for anyone to use him as a role model, except when it comes to being as daring and poetic and unpredictably funny as he is at his best. TWIN PEAKS probably did have a limited influence on TV -- I think PICKET FENCES and NORTHERN EXPOSURE are best when they leave TWIN PEAKS isms behind.
StosselAtl: Here's a question about the critic's modus operandi, from ScottDY: I'm dying to know this? Why do critics always give away so much of the movie in the reviews? I don't know a serious moviegoer who can read a review or watch a preview show because it ruins the suspense. It seems as though critics could review the film without the "this happens-then this happens" laziness that you sometimes see.
Sragowsan: Because newspapers have columns to fill. Seriously. I review mostly in capsule form for THE NEW YORKER, and if I went back to newspapering, I'm sure editors would want 20" on movies not worth a sentence. Anyhow, are CRITICS really the ones most guilty of this? I think TRAILERS are far more bothersome these days.
StosselAtl: We're running short on time, but we've got lots of good questions left so we'll keep going for a bit. JoshKtt88 asks: Rewatching "The Singing Detective," I'm wondering whether there's any future for the marvelous form of QUALITY TV miniseries?
Sragowsan: I believe this caller is Josh Kornbluth, whose RED DIAPER BABY would probably lend itself as well if not better to quality TV miniseries form. Actually, it seems to me the energy in TV these days is going into SERIES -- THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW, THE X-FILES, NYPD BLUE....Even the one shot movies, like AND THE BAND PLAYED ON, have more oomph than the mini-series. Attention deficit disorder amongst TV execs?
StosselAtl: Here's another good question from JoshK7788 (We'll have time for one more after this): If all Hollywood movies HAD to be made for, say, under $5 million, would they get better?
Sragowsan: It depends on who would be making them. Roger Spottiswoode made UNDER FIRE for not much more than that, and I'm sure his budget for the HBO movie AND THE BAND PLAYED ON couldn't have been much bigger... I think there's a great Costa-Gavras meets Sam Fuller feeling that you can get when a director like that works fast. On the other hand, directors like Philip Kaufman (THE RIGHT STUFF, RISING SUN) or Walter Hill (TRESPASS, GERONIMO) can do exhilarating work really USING the big Hollywood machinery. There should just be more possibilities for doing a range of work. Spottiswoode was quoted as saying he wants to do NORIEGA for $6 million, probably a tenth of what Oliver Stone would have spent making it.
StosselAtl: The last audience question is from Mitchworld, who says: In the first half of the century, 10 times the amount of pictures were being made and there were plenty of stinkers then too. The ratio of good to bad is most probably still the same, but because fewer and fewer pictures are being made, the bad ones show up all the more--Isn't that true?
Sragowsan: Thats true only so far. Movies were different in those days -- they divided what would be the future TV audience between themselves and radio. And whatever the problems of the old movies, the disregard for simple coherence, the feeling that the moviemakers are BLINDING the audience, is something new to the MBA meets techno-thrill era. In MISERY, when Kathy Bates gets her great laughline about noticing the cheat in the cliffhanging serial, I kept thinking she'd be yelling at the screen in 90 per cent of the movies these days -- even the biggest, most acclaimed ones. No one's ever been able to tell me why in THE FUGITIVE, the wife gets killed.
StosselAtl: Many thanks, Mike Sragow!
Copyright © 1995 The Atlantic Monthly. All rights reserved.