On Danny Boyle and “the Pixarification of Movies”: Part One

Danny Boyle

Danny Boyle

On 6 May, 2013, a video clip made by French site Vodkaster.com started making the rounds. The clip features British director Danny Boyle doing press for his new film Trance. In it, Boyle testifies to what he thinks is wrong with cinema today, specifically mainstream Hollywood cinema. He calls it a “Pixarification of movies,” to pick the line that the blogosphere jumped on and used as the headline. Cinema of the 1970s was consecrated to serious artists making challenging films for mature adults. Cinema now is given over to craftspeople, often very skilled, making safe, predictable, simplistic fare for children- and, implicitly, adults treated like children; hence “Pixarification.”

In this post, I will say a few things about Boyle’s version of recent Hollywood history: how what Boyle says here is the standard story, and an expression of nostalgia for a period that wasn’t quite the paradise of artistic freedom and restless innovation it’s remembered as (not all studio output of those years is as museum-ready as some remember it being); how “adult filmmaking” (noting, as Boyle is keen to stress, we aren’t talking about porn here) survives in Hollywood today; and how we have to think more carefully about what hasn’t but also what really has changed since the 1970s if we are to understand the state of Hollywood.

Next time, my good friend Kyle Kontour will talk a little bit about another of Boyle’s claims, and how it stands as a claim about recent Hollywood: what does it mean to invoke Pixar in the context of a “dumbing down” of cinema, and an appeal to children instead of adults?

First off, the clip of Boyle’s statement is right HERE.

Now, one response to this is to point out that Millions and Slumdog Millionaire are quite a long way from The Man Who Fell to Earth and Don’t Look Now. It’s a fair point, if a cheap shot, but I’m less interested in Boyle than in the narrative he’s recounting.

The second thing to say, then, is that this is the standard story, pretty much. From Thomas Schatz to Peter Biskind to any number of movie critics and bloggers kvetching about the “death of cinema,” we get the same narrative: the 1970s was a Golden age for genuine cinematic art in the United States- one referred to as a Hollywood Renaissance even at the time- but with the monstrous success of Jaws and Star Wars, Hollywood went into an irreversible decline, dumbing down its storytelling to feed mindless spectacles to the masses.

Speaking from a British perspective lends Boyle’s statements a bit of novelty: he doesn’t name Hollywood as the villain of the piece, as the origin of the great films of his youth or the dumb flicks of today, but rather comes at it as a moviegoer, using what was on down the Odeon as his jumping off point. Not strictly talking about Hollywood allows him to cast his net just wide enough to include Nicolas Roeg, a great British filmmaker who, simply because British, hasn’t benefitted from the retrospective adulation of ‘70s cinema (Roeg’s prime era) devoted to Hollywood. But even if unspecified here, in the main what Boyle is really talking about is the decline of Hollywood cinema in particular (at a stretch, popular English-language cinema). Ultimately, the story Boyle is telling is the same as always. In their pursuit of children and teenagers with disposable income, and to offset the ever-rising costs of producing and marketing blockbusters, producers have dumbed down movies, carefully steering clear of all the risks, all the maturity and seriousness that made ‘70s movies so laudable; and leaving adult filmgoers stranded. At the same time as Boyle’s comments have gotten attention, so too has Steven Soderbergh’s speech to the 2013 San Francisco Film Festival, where he bemoans the economics that have pushed cinema (by which he means auteur cinema) out of the movies (by which he means entertainment product). Both directors are making the same argument about Hollywood today, more or less- homogenization and simplification, spectacle over story, escapism over art, etc- but Soderbergh avoids the sweeping historical generalizations that Boyle perpetuates.

From the first appearances of this story until now, there have been only two major revisions. The first is that now television, of all things, has eclipsed the movies as the Serious Art Form du jour (Boyle is right to specify writers going to television, as clearly the TV being canonized today tends to embody particular sets of literary values). The other is that as time has gone on, the moronification of Hollywood has gone from a coming storm to just the way things are. Decrying the influence of Star Wars has gone from “The End Is Nigh” to “And lo, this came to pass”; from paranoia to discontented resignation.

And so: nostalgia. Since at least the mid-1990s, there’s been a wave of nostalgia for Hollywood films of the 1970s. 1970s Hollywood has become the ultimate Good Object to posit against the Bad Object of whatever is going on in studio production at any given moment, and there has been a flood of writing along these lines. If you’re a filmmaker, 1970s Hollywood has become such an accepted shorthand that, if you want to distinguish your product from others in the marketplace, you can invoke it to show you’re doing something serious, and probably rather dark. Clearly, that’s what’s going on with Boyle in this clip: implicit is that Trance is meant to be a film that combines seriousness, artistry, and genre in such a way as to recall 1970s Hollywood. Not yet having seen Trance, I can’t say how apt this is.

For this to work, of course, the discursive keynote has to be “yearning for an unrecoverable past full of golden glories,” and this in turn depends on two assumptions:

1.     the quality of studio films in the 1970s was much higher than today, and tended to seriousness and innovation

2.     studio films today are aimed at children, and so tend to simplification and immaturity, spectacle over story or character

The problem with the first is that of selectivity. Looking back on the moment, rather than living through it, we remember our cherished objects and forget how much else was out there.  In this case, we remember The French Connection and forget McQ or Freebie and the Bean or Walking Tall. We remember and wax lyrical about the films of Francis Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and Hal Ashby, but forget Irwin Allen, Tom Laughlin and Joe Camp. Yes, we got The Godfather, All the President’s Men, Nashville, Night Moves, and Chinatown, but we also got Airport 1975 and Airport ‘77, Benji, The Towering Inferno, Oh God!, and Love Story. We got M*A*S*H, but also Whiffs and S*P*Y*S.

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Let’s look at the box office, for instance: there, in 1970, M*A*S*H, Woodstock, Little Big Man, and Catch-22 are stranded in a sea of Love Story, The Aristocats, Ryan’s Daughter, and Tora! Tora! Tora! In 1971, The French Connection came in #2, but Fiddler on the Roof was #1, and Diamonds Are Forever #3. For every Last Picture Show, Carnal Knowledge, or Clockwork Orange, there’s a Summer of ’42 or Bedknobs and Broomsticks. The Godfather was the top in 1972, of course, but The Poseidon Adventure was #2 (albeit a distant second). And so it goes, year by year; in 1973, New Hollywood art-genre classics The Exorcist and American Graffiti sandwich the far more conventional The Sting. In 1974, the top 4 includes Towering Inferno and Earthquake as well as Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, with The Godfather Part II coming in at #5; it’s followed by Airport 1975, The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams, The Longest Yard, Benji, and Herbie Rides Again. 1975’s top 10 is topped by Jaws, natch. It includes One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Dog Day Afternoon, Shampoo, and Three Days of the Condor, but also The Return of the Pink Panther, Funny Lady, and The Apple Dumpling Gang. Etc. So in the midst of this supposed Golden Age of mature, ambitious art-genre syntheses are some of the worst films ever made in Hollywood, creaky and conservative products that the studios could have retched forth at any time in the 1950s or ‘60s. The art-genre films only thrived for a short while, too. By the time you get to the end of the decade, serious, adult films in the main have lost their box office pull. In 1978, the top 5 is made up of Grease, Superman, Animal House, Every Which Way But Loose, and Heaven Can Wait, while The Deer Hunter squeaks in at #10, behind Halloween at #8 and Dawn of the Dead at #9. 1979 sees Kramer Vs. Kramer at #1 and Apocalypse Now at #4, but the only other critically notable film in the top 10 is Alien at #6.

OK, then, if the 1970s was not dominated by mature cinema for cosmopolitan adults, if it wasn’t quite the paradise of artistry that we might like to remember it being, perhaps the more crucial point is that Hollywood today doesn’t make the films for adults it clearly used to, let alone with an expectation of solid box office. It is true that in the 1970s, for a little while, serious films could do very well, encouraging producers to continue to make them until Star Wars proved a decisive influence on a return to more conservative, classical genre filmmaking oriented more to younger audiences than to adults. I’ll come back to some of the implications of that in a moment. But does it even make sense to talk at all about serious films coming out of Hollywood today, in the era of Transformers and Avengers?

Well, yes. Maybe not in the top 10, though of course I (an adult) loved The Avengers, I would happily make a case for adult themes in The Dark Knight Rises, and I think Skyfall can be thought of as adult filmmaking. But in 2012, studios also released Looper and Zero Dark Thirty (Sony); Argo, Magic Mike, and Cloud Atlas (WB); The Bourne Legacy and This Is 40 (Universal); Lincoln (Disney); and Flight and Jeff Who Lives at Home (Paramount). All of these were released under the corporate parent banner. But we also have to remember that in the 1990s, the studios started to invest in the “independent” market, forming boutique divisions to sell serious films to niche audiences. This is on the wane: WB shuttered Warner Independent Pictures, Disney no longer distributes via Miramax, etc. This has meant that indie distributors no longer compete with studios in the indie film market, but it’s also part and parcel of a trend in which the studios capture more and more of the total theatrical market with fewer films, while genuinely independent companies put out more films to compete for a piece of a smaller market share. But Universal still distributes Focus Features, which in 2012 released Moonrise Kingdom and Anna Karenina; CBS entered the game, again, with films including Seven Psychopaths; Sony Classics put out Amour, Rust and Bone, Searching for Sugar Man, Celeste and Jesse Forever, Damsels in Distress, and West of Memphis; and Fox Searchlight released Beasts of the Southern Wild, Ruby Sparks, and (not just “adult” but geriatric)The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. In 2013, in fact, Fox Searchlight is distributing the new film by Danny Boyle. It’s called Trance. Surely all of these are serious films with adult concerns.

So perhaps the 1970s was not quite the era we like to remember it being, through the rosy lenses of nostalgia. Perhaps the ‘00s and ‘10s are not quite the vast wasteland that it sometimes feels like. This is not to defend Hollywood, exactly, nor even to defend Hollywood today as opposed to some mythical, prelapsarian (preLucasarian?) past. There’s no question that the ‘70s was an anomaly in terms of studio support for art cinema-inflected filmmaking. It is, rather, to question what has been lost, to achieve some specificity here. It’s not serious films, not exactly. But the fact that to look for serious films in Hollywood today takes us so quickly to their indie divisions, and away from anything coming anywhere near the box-office top 10, indicates a ghettoization of anything challenging or unconventional beyond certain set limits. You can still make your American art film with studio support, but your freedom will be dependent on keeping it within tight budgetary limits. What has been lost is any possibility of making an ambitious, art-cinematic film on a large-scale; the possibility of making a big, dark, realist epic, a film that has both ambition and breadth and scale.

Epic scale in Heaven's Gate

Epic scale in Heaven’s Gate

Heavens+Gate+4large_heavens_gate_blu-ray_131

Epic scale in Apocalypse Now

Epic scale in Apocalypse Now

ApocalypseNow2

It’s on this level in particular that the 1970s can look like a heroic period, a period in which directors dreamed of making The Great American Film the way writers used to dream of writing The Great American Novel and now, we are told, people dream of creating The Great American Television Serial. The closest thing in 2012 to a film that felt like an art-cinematic epic was The Master. Made for $32 million, distributed by the Weinstein Company, The Master had an enormous intellectual fetch, but was essentially 3 people (and some extras) in a series of rooms. Apocalypse Now, by contrast, would cost over $100 million today, while Heaven’s Gate would cost between $100 and $200 million. When ambitious filmmakers must by necessity work on small canvasses or try to smuggle their concerns into a children’s adventure film (Scorsese’s Hugo) or a superhero franchise (Nolan’s Batman films) to be able to work on a large scale, clearly cinema has lost something.

Hugo

Hugo

Epic scale in The Dark Knight Rises

Epic scale in The Dark Knight Rises

...and mythic conflict.

…and mythic conflict.

As a scholar who has read any number of condemnations of contemporary Hollywood over the years, I do give Boyle some credit for focusing his critique on films we all actually think quite highly of rather than the usual suspects- Pixar rather than Jerry Bruckheimer or Michael Bay. This allows him to avoid some clichés. But what does it mean, this opposition of serious, sophisticated, complex storytelling with simplified “family-friendly” fare? Does it actually work to use Pixar as a shorthand for films made for children instead of adults? If there hasn’t been any full-fledged Pixarification of Hollywood movies in general, has there at least been one of children’s films? If so, what has it been?

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