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Where Hollywood remains unforgiven

At Cannes, arty but vacuous works are lauded when exceptional mainstream films are the endangered species.

June 15, 2003|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

Consider the Atlantic cod. Once it was so plentiful that 19th century French writer Alexandre Dumas fils estimated that if every cod egg reached maturity, "it would take only three years to fill the sea so you could walk across the Atlantic dryshod on the backs of cod."

Today that fish is perilously close to extinction in the wild. It was the species' familiarity that put it in danger: Its past omnipresence made it beyond imagining that it could be in danger of disappearing.

The once-mighty cod was on my mind at the recent Cannes Film Festival's closing night, and not because I was looking forward to a nice fish dinner. Rather, I was disturbed that Clint Eastwood's masterful "Mystic River" had been shut out of the awards, just as Curtis Hanson's exceptional "L.A. Confidential" had been blanked six years earlier. There was a trend here, a dangerous obliviousness to the realities of the movie business, a confusion about what was endangered and what was not, and I wasn't happy about any of it.

Of course it's always possible that the jury, chaired by French director Patrice Chereau, simply didn't think much of the Eastwood film, but I don't believe that was the case. It's more probable that the jurors preferred the likes of Gus Van Sant's Palme d'Or-winning "Elephant" because they confuse artful vacuousness with genuine art, but I think there was a third -- and much more disturbing -- possibility at work here as well.

My guess is that despite the presence of Americans Steven Soderbergh and Meg Ryan, the jury was inclined to dismiss "Mystic River," as "L.A. Confidential" had been dismissed before it, as contaminated by the stink of Hollywood. Films produced in the maw of the studio system couldn't possibly be art, and even if they were, they surely didn't require the kind of help or recognition a major film festival award can provide.

Make no mistake, juries like to reward films they feel are deserving and in need of assistance. That's why the group that neglected "L.A. Confidential" split the Palme between two fiercely recondite, commercially doomed items, Shohei Imamura's "The Eel" and Abbas Kiarostami's "A Taste of Cherry."

The problem, however, with a point of view that treats "Elephant" like a precious flower and, unable to tell the difference between "Mystic River" and "Pearl Harbor," assigns the former to the outer reaches of philistine hell, is that it does not take into account the realities of today's movie business. First, though it sounds counterintuitive, the art film is one of the least endangered segments of the movie business, much more an imaginary invalid than a patient actually in need of assistance.

Of course, these films by their nature will never reach a wide audience, but that's not the point. Rather, the combined impact of the ease and affordability of digital filmmaking, the existence of government subsidies in many countries, the eager involvement of cable channels such as HBO and Showtime over here, the ability of creative producers to string together multinational sources of financing and the passion of directors to make themselves heard means that the art film may be healthier today than it's ever been. If you don't believe me, ask Sundance director Geoff Gilmore, increasingly overwhelmed by a flood of personal cinema.

Secondly, we have to realize that the Hollywood side of the movie business has changed in our lifetime. In the pre-television era, when adults had fewer entertainment options, it was a given that the studios made numerous films with them in mind, a habit of mind that continued at least through the 1960s, '70s and early '80s.

Now, with corporate owners demanding predictable profits from films that cost the earth to make and advertise, the studios have understandably narrowed their focus to the kinds of undemanding entertainments favored by the 25-and-under audience that dominates theatrical attendance.

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Serious drama suffers

What this means is that it is harder to get literature-based projects like "Mystic River" and "L.A. Confidential" made than it is "Elephant." Because adult viewers are notoriously fussy and younger audiences don't always care enough, serious, intelligent works with dark, grown-up themes that require the stars -- and the budget -- of a major studio are now the scarce hen's teeth of Hollywood.

Even as major a player as Eastwood had great difficulty convincing a studio to foot the "Mystic River" bill. "It's amazing how many people didn't want to do this film," the director said at Cannes. "Warner Bros. finally did it almost as a favor, saying I could only have so much money [less than $25 million], a budget that's pretty small by today's standards. I took no salary, just the DGA minimum. And they said I was welcome to take it anywhere else. Like 'Thanks for the vote of confidence.' "

Just days after Eastwood spoke, a story in Daily Variety under the headline "Does Lit Really Fit?" made the same point by reporting on a panel on novels-into-film at BookExpo America.

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