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Art and Artifice

Simon Wood
Director Federico Fellini

Trends, fads and formulas -- the stuff of modern cinema. This month's To Be Seen looks back at how Hollywood came to this place, and reflects on a time when a 'movie' and a 'film' were not two different artistic ideals.

Simplification is at the core of the entertainment industry, from the countless formulaic films that dominate multiplexes to the buzzwords and frenzied lists that occupy magazine space at key times of the year. Like experts working on a sprawling mass of code, everyone is trying to boil the business down to its very essence, hoping to define and exploit any potential niche or combination that hints at success.

Hollywood itself is the most visible participator in the ebb and flow of these manufactured trends. From the brat pack films of the mid-'80s to the disaster epics of a decade before, almost everything (and this is true of all art, not just cinema, or even the Tinsel Town version of it) can be placed into some massive family tree stretching back to the first American films of D.W. Griffith. It's widely agreed that Griffith made two of the art form's seminal movies. The first, The Birth of a Nation, was as polarising as it was/is influential. More importantly, it was also hugely successful: the world's first cinematic phenomenon � a blockbuster before the phrase had any meaning.

His follow-up � and, by some historical counts, atonement for Nation � was Intolerance, widely seen in critical circles as Griffith's best work. It was a huge undertaking combining four distinct narratives welded together with the recurring motif of a rocking cradle. As a melodrama, it matched the suspense generated by the climax of Nation without evoking the troubling characterisations that lingered over the earlier film. But it didn't come close to making back its budget and Griffith was forced into smaller projects for the remainder of his career. It is as this moment that we see the beginnings of the industrialisation of film.

Hollywood's powerful studios used to decide what the masses wanted to see before the infant medium had the clout to reject corporate control. There's the famous instance of Eric von Stroheim's Greed, originally eight hours long, mangled by MGM executives in the hope of drawing a larger crowd. Orson Welles, as forceful a persona as any in cinematic history, faced a similar fate with The Magnificent Ambersons. It was an experience that led to him all but dropping out of the mainstream and concentrating his efforts on more esoteric ventures.

Still, up until the Spielberg-driven blockbuster boom of the late '70s and early '80s, the distinction between art and entertainment wasn't the massive chasm we know today. Modern critics agree with each other far more often on the canon-worthy films of earlier eras then on movies within their own purview. Forty years ago, Fellini and Bergman films were capable of drawing large mainstream crowds just as easily as the standard matinee fare; a balance almost unthinkable in the subtitle-averse modern American film culture.

This relative harmony is, of course, unrecognizable. Genre � long the playground of autuers � has become the pre-eminent classification of a film's projected worth. If studios in the '30s were prepared to give anyone a shot and deal with the consequences later (by tinkering with films or casting directors aside), then their contemporary counterparts are rigidly entrenched within focus group orientated success formulas. It's hard to partition blame in this scenario because its very essence is self-fulfilling. People like a particular film so much that producers follow that trend and produce more in that vein until the original idea is bled dry and consumers move onto a hotter product. It's a microcosm of a free market economy: our selection influenced by our own preferences, some evolving naturally into more exciting fare, others reduced to shameless self-parody.

Take, for example, the recent musical resurgence. The '40s/'50s era is largely seen as the golden age of the genre, a period that produced classics like Singin' In the Rain and inspired celebrated later offerings such as The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins. In the early part of the new millennium, the template achieved something of a renaissance. Chicago made over $200 million and won the Best Picture Oscar in 2002 while Moulin Rouge! scored multiple nominations and more than made back its budget with stellar domestic and international receipts.

The next few years, however, have not been kind to this filmic category. The Phantom of the Opera came and went with little fanfare. Both Rent and The Producers were expected to garner some awards attention but critical thrashings and lousy box office have reduced them to afterthoughts in an already grim Hollywood season. Even less hyped and pedigreed films like De-Lovely and Beyond The Sea have been unable to make any traction into the social pop consciousness on their own limited terms. So why, if Hollywood hasn't had a singin' and dancin' hit since Chicago and witnessed so many failures, are more musicals slated for the coming year and beyond? To wit: we will soon see Sweeny Todd, Dreamgirls and Hairspray cast/recast in celluloid.

To properly understand Hollywood's fascination with mainstream fads, it's best to look at how they attained critical mass in the first place. In the case of musicals, the last great swell was the early '80s, with the output throughout the '90s largely the sole domain of Disney animation. In 1999, South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut even went so far as to subvert the increasingly shameless formula of Michael Eisner's Mouse House and the wider musical ideal. Cramming power ballads and Les Miserables-style medleys into just over an hour, the film exposed the process of big money musicals at their most shameless, and diluted their often brazen nature into an effort � part homage, predominately satire � that eclipsed its own libertarian themes. Not even Moulin Rouge!, the most subversive musical of recent times, came close to defining the genre with such clarity.

It's a false cliché to claim the big time film industry has no original ideas, but it's probably accurate to suggest many of the trends it pins it hopes on owe a large debt to independent or risqué cinema like that of South Park. Crossover hits rarely come and go in isolation. When low-key slacker films were becoming big news in the early '90s, Hollywood was quick to capitalise on what was seen as a potentially lucrative new demographic. Underground filmmakers like Kevin Smith and Richard Linklater found themselves in charge of increasingly larger studio productions with the unspoken aim of appealing to an audience usually averse to multiplex fare. Recently, in a trend started by another crossover success, The Blair Witch Project, studios have churned out a production line of low cost horror films that star affordable yet recognisable actors. Many of these � The Ring, The Grudge and The Amityville Horror to name but three � have further borrowed from the successes of films in other markets (Japan is the new spooky chic) or America's own back catalogue of genre successes.

The collective groan heard, then, was understandable as Focus announced it was remaking Pride and Prejudice with Keira Knightly in the lead role. Never mind that most Jane Austen devotees consider the BBC version made less than a decade ago definitive (or Colin Firth's Mr. Darcy equally conclusive) or that the film had already been loosely remade twice since (Bridget Jones' Diary, Bride and Prejudice), or even that the casting suggested a departure from the key themes of the novel itself. What most prompted such totally apathy was the very lack of imagination that digging up an Austen novel yet again represented. Next to Shakespeare, she's probably close to the most prominently filmed author of all time and another take on her most famous novel hardly seemed noteworthy � or out of industry character.

But Pride and Prejudice, in its 2005 incarnation, turned out to be a pretty decent film. It wasn't boldly artistic but little produced today by Hollywood is. At its best, and at face value, it was a cute, charming and lovingly rendered take on an exhausted formula and the tired notion of on-screen romance. Perhaps the favourable critical reception and general delight taken in the film by the public is simply a representation of how low Hollywood and its expectations have sunk. But the "feel-good" fare occupying dizzying places on top 10 lists also speaks to the unseen potential of projects that, on paper, seem destined to sink without a trace.

And the reason for Pride and Prejudice's success is simple enough. It is, against all odds, fresh. The use of light and landscape is evocative of buried and subtle emotion. Cameras frolic appropriately through ballroom scenes and act with reserve within the confines of interior spaces. Nothing is expositioned through a suspicion of audience disinterest and little is resolved through purely contrived means. It's a remake, but not a direct facsimile and for this director Joe Wright deserves fulsome praise. Not only has he shown a deft, hardly expected slight of hand but proven that commercial consideration is no excuse for lazy filmmaking � or that routine isn't always a concrete byword for awful. Within this one example, art and artifice seem to co-exist on highly favorable terms. But this is not always the case. Indeed, it's the rarity that raises this question: Will we have to wait until the inevitable "reimagining" of Sense and Sensibility to see it again? The answer, in the current environment, seems sadly self-evident.

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