Forgetfulness of things past
Copyright © 2020 Nat Segaloff
This continues my screed about the way modern movies are often ruined by too many answers and not enough ambiguity.
In the middle 1970s filmmakers, no longer burdened by Hollywood’s Puritan Production Code, began exploring a wider range of human values, including those that were downbeat and unresolved. In other words, a lot of movies ended with freeze-frames. It got to the point where producer Robert Evans reportedly aired his frustration with depressing endings by saying, “I don’t want to see a film where I have to go to my psychiatrist afterward.” Hollywood – and the burgeoning film school generation – responded by reversing that trend with Jaws, Star Wars, Alien, and other movies that, despite their transformative use of cinema, seemed more interested in selling popcorn than ideas. By 1980 the introspection of the middle 1970s was supplanted by a box office maxim that holds true through to today: Rather than hold the audience in the thrall of enigmatic stories, give ‘em all the answers and a lot of things blowing up real good. While there were certainly provocative exceptions that withheld facile answers (Blade Runner, To Live and Die in LA, and Zodiac are three that come quickly to mind), the byword for commercial success soon became “don’t leave any blanks un-filled.”
Are the movies about answers or questions? Should the screen stimulate or satisfy? One that tried to do both was Elia Kazan’s dreary 1976 swan song, The Last Tycoon based on the unfinished novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald (whose incomplete status symbolized both goals). Near the beginning there’s a scene that’s often misinterpreted (including by Kazan, from all appearances) but which, to me, explains the power of cinema. It happens when studio chief Monroe Stahr, played by a miscast Robert DeNiro, tries to persuade a stuffy British director (Boxley) that the screen can be just as exciting as the stage. He weaves the following scene (excerpted from the novel) in which a woman enters a room:
“She takes off her gloves, opens her purse and dumps it out on a table.” Stahr stood up, tossing his key-ring on his desk. “She has two dimes and a nickel— and a cardboard match box. She leaves the nickel on the desk, puts the two dimes back into her purse and takes her black gloves to the stove, opens it and puts them inside. There is one match in the match box and she starts to light it kneeling by the stove.
“You notice that there’s a stiff wind blowing in the window— but just then your telephone rings. The girl picks it up, says hello— listens— and says deliberately into the phone ’I’ve never owned a pair of black gloves in my life.’ She hangs up, kneels by the stove again, and just as she lights the match you glance around very suddenly and see that there’s another man in the office, watching every move the girl makes -” Stahr paused. He picked up his keys and put them in his pocket.
“Go on,” said Boxley smiling. “What happens?”
“I don’t know,” said Stahr. “I was just making pictures.”
Boxley felt he was being put in the wrong. “It’s just melodrama,” he said.
“Not necessarily,” said Stahr. “In any case, nobody has moved violently or talked cheap dialogue or had any facial expression at all. There was only one bad line, and a writer like you could improve it. But you were interested.”
“What was the nickel for?” asked Boxley evasively.
“I don’t know,” said Stahr. Suddenly he laughed, “Oh yes— the nickel was for the movies.”
Some people have interpreted the scene as acknowledgment that Hollywood was built by countless patrons paying a nickel to see early movies. Others insist that the nickel is a more concrete object – something that the woman will spend in the next scene. Still others think she left it on the table by accident. Of course, none of those answers is correct, or even (in the context of this essay) necessary. The purpose of the nickel is to make us ask what the nickel is for, just as it did Boxley.
The best movie moments are those where the audience, and not the movie, makes the connection. Filmmakers have several devices they can use for this purpose, but the effect of any and all of them is that, by making the audience do the work, the film brings the audience into the emotional experience. Several examples:
Depending when such revelations occur in a film they can be either a plot reveal or what I call an “oh shit” moment. That’s when the coin drops and everybody in the theatre is gobsmacked. One of the best “oh shit” moments I’ve ever seen is in Stephen Frears’ 2003 drama Dirty Pretty Things. The film, which is about immigrants and organ donors, culminates in a point at which the two divergent narrative lines intersect. (I won’t tell more.) I saw it in a small cinema with 200 other people and, when the audience realized what was happening, not only did everybody gasp, we all stayed through the end credits to smile at each other that we’d seen a great movie together.
Would today’s young audiences, reared on tentpole pictures with hammered narratives, be able to interpret subtle, more exhilarating methods of storytelling? Or would they think such moments to be precious, as in, “forget the art, get on with the explosions?” I’m not saying that young movie audiences are stupid, only that they have been raised on sugar and have forgotten how to process substance. Remember the old saw that if you give someone a fish he has food for today but if you teach him how to fish he has food for a lifetime. Maybe today’s studio movies are such stinkers because they’re all full of fish. (Note to self: Some metaphors fail sooner than others, and this is one of them.)
I can’t help but think that one of the reasons that movies are losing their audiences is that, like television when it expanded its reach from the cities to the sticks in the 1950s, they are treating the viewer like idiots. Many of the Facebook comments I received on my “I Once had a Dog” post reflect this frustration. I don’t think subtlety is dead, but does it have to be so obvious? Just once in a big movie I would like to see the nickel. It doesn’t even have to be an “oh shit” moment. Just a nickel.
For the movies.
The Last Tycoon ©1925, 1941 Charles Scribner's Sons.
I don't write on spec, but every now and then something gets me fired up and I can't stop my fingers from hitting the keyboard.