Sturm und dreck: In defence of Hollywood

Hollywood GhostbustersWhilst watching Ghostbusters (1984) on Esquire TV the other night, I came to a peculiar conclusion.

Hollywood ain’t so bad.

There’s recently been a lot of talk about this American movie-churner-outer and the quality of its productions. That somehow, the world of foreign films is a more satisfying land. That Hollywood has had its share of exceptions, but the norm is utter junk.

Hogwash.

I’m not a big fan of garbage. I’ve seen plenty of it on the big screen. Yet it hasn’t been relegated to major studio productions. Nor is it solely the domain of the United States. Anyone who’s sampled Night Watch (2004) knows this.

And I want to confess something. I liked The Hunger Games (2012) a lot, and I’m damn proud of it. Oh, and I sure as hell enjoyed it more than the horrid indie Birds of America (2008).

The fact is, Hollywood is an institution. Sure it sometimes vomits slush. But there’s a reason it’s so big. It produces popular entertainment – much of which is actually, well, entertaining.

Confession No. 2: I really, really like The Golden Child (1986), one of the most underrated, little praised big-budget fantasies of the 1980s.

The question is, what makes a Hollywood movie? Can it be formulaic? Sure. Is there a mass-produced recipe for every genre? Quite probably.

Hollywood Night WatchYet is that any different from what goes on in any large studio around the world? Hells no.

My third confession: I enjoyed Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto (1954) about as much as I loved Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture (2010). Which is to say: not at all.

See the pattern? Big-budget Hollywood dross isn’t just produced in Hollywood. And small-scale indies aren’t always high quality.

There are always exceptions. Scores of them. Still, if we have so many, why can’t we be more accepting? With movies like Duck Soup (1933), shouldn’t we be OK with the crap as long as we get a gem like that?

I am. And I’m not gonna decry Hollywood for wanting to make money if it once in a while churns out a real classic.

Truffaut, Bergman, Kurosawa, Eisenstein – none of them was an average director. You could make the argument that Eisenstein and Kurosawa were big-studio helmsmen, but I’m not going to come out and say that Bergman’s movies would be as widely accepted as, say, the Twilight series (2008-oh, who knows?), despite their vaunted presence in the cinematic canon. Death’s persona in The Seventh Seal (1957) is popular culture. But it’s not the popular kid in school, you get my drift? Few people are gonna watch that on TV over The Hunger Games when press comes to remote.

Should we blame them for that? I’m not going to.

Some things are easy to like. Hollywood knows this. So it produces easy-to-like products. A spoonful of sugar, right? Puts the philosophy on the back burner, unless it’s explained in full. That way, it can reach more, accepting people.

Do I necessarily love all the stuff that’s produced from this factory? Nope. But I don’t love everything produced from other factories either, no matter how big or small they may be. And sometimes these factories give us greatness.

Hollywood The Golden ChildFourth confession: I’d rather watch Avatar (2009) any day of the week over Persona (1966).

I’m not a Hollywood apologist. Nor am I some sort of flunky. I just like good movies. And believe it or not, sometimes big studios make them. Sometimes they’re even better than what the small studios produce. Sometimes they’re even better than (gasp!) their foreign equivalents.

Sometimes they’re not. It’s a big country, however, and slop is going to be distributed. Just like in baseball: for every Mike Trout there’s a thousand Steve Trouts. It’s just that way. Exceptions will always be exceptions.

Yet we still like baseball, right? And we’ll still watch someone hit a home run off a mediocre pitcher, no?

That’s why we muddle through the dreck to get to the good stuff. Because there’s always a chance to get quality, that golden needle in the haystack. You can’t dismiss a whole enterprise because it’s trying to make money. Everyone does the same thing. And it’s a rare director who wants to spend his or her entire life struggling for financing in the small world after all when the big time could be achieved. Does that mean filmmakers are selling their souls for money? Me, I don’t think so. I think, like everyone, they’re looking for better opportunities.

So let us not reject big-studio productions. Let us instead embrace them – at least, the ones that are good. And let’s condemn junk wherever it may come from without blasting the genre itself. We can still enjoy Stolen Kisses (1968) and The Virgin Spring (1960). That doesn’t mean that we can’t enjoy The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), as well, though. Or anything else with a budget of more than 25 bucks if it’s done well enough.

My final confession: I adore The Adventures of Pluto Nash (2002).

OK. Some things, perhaps, are better left unsaid.

Simon Hardy Butler is a writer and editor living in New York City. He has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek and operates a restaurant-focused blog called Critical Mousse (criticalmousse.com) that showcases his opinions on the culinary arena. He also blogs about anti-Semitism for the Times of Israel. His views and opinions are his own.

8 thoughts on “Sturm und dreck: In defence of Hollywood

  1. Trust a classic 80’s blockbuster, like ‘Ghostbusters’, to inspire Hollywood loyalty.

    I’ve always been afraid to watch ‘Tiny Furniture’ in fear of it being too pretentious.

    Confession: I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen ‘The Wedding Singer’ but I’m sure I’ve cried every time.

    …dare I watch ‘Pluto Nash’ though?

  2. Thanks for the defence, Simon. I used to help run a small film club which showed current international films in Washington, DC. Our subscribers would always comment on how dreadful mainstream Hollywood was and how much better foreign films were. I’d bite my tongue and politely explain that the cream of the international crop, which we had sought out for them, was indeed better than the average Hollywood fare, but that you couldn’t compare the best of the rest of the world to the run of the mill from your home country. As much as I loved watching Amour and The Past, I can’t say French film is better than Hollywood when they also put out Nous York and Dead Shadows. But most French film fans never got the chance to see the also rans, and they are lucky for it.

    • You’re absolutely right, Jon, and it’s so interesting that the great international films we’re exposed to–at least in the States–may give the misconception that they’re the norm, when in fact, well, they’re the great ones. I’ve seen many of the lousy ones, and they’re definitely lousy! So it’s true: the comparisons should be even-handed … say, Heaven and Earth rather than Kagemusha would have its equivalent in, say, Oliver Stone’s blah epic Alexander.

  3. I love the Golden Child! Actually the more I revisit the eighties the more I think that they made better movies than most of what we are making now.

    I also agree about indie films. I think too many are built as a deliberate anti-Hollywood product and ignore that the underlying principles of good film making exist for a reason. One of the problems however is that this attitude seems to be catching, even within the studios certain directors are eschewing traditional structure in an attempt to be seen as subversive and arty. The result is well produced crap.

    • Cool; I’m glad I’m not the only one who likes The Golden Child, as well as many 1980s movies! (One of these days, I’m going to write a paean to Time Bandits, too.) 😀

      I agree with you about the trend of creeping arty-ism that has infiltrated Hollywood, though I do wonder if that’s always been the case–especially during the 1960s and 1970s when it seemed like we were always looking through a fishbowl or a glass pane at the action onscreen. But yes, this practice does seem to be prevalent; for example, I just watched the Coen Bros.’ The Big Lebowski last night and noticed a surplus of unusual shots … many of which didn’t, to my mind, seem to add anything necessary to the proceedings. What’s also interesting is that we do get a distinct strain of individualism petering out now and then from the Hollywood factory, with a tendency to highlight unique stories and contemporary issues. (American Beauty, though I didn’t particularly enjoy the film, comes to mind as an example, as does Up in the Air.)

  4. Telling stuff here Simon, I feel like a priest in a confessional! ‘The Golden Child’?

    I readily agree that many ‘Indie’ films are over-appreciated, and the praise lavished on them by Art House loving critics is little more than a case of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes.’ The European and Asian film industries do produce as much chaff as wheat, and not everything put out by Hollywood these days is terrible. My main issue is with the copycat remakes of successful foreign films. Examples could include ‘The Vanishing’, ‘Nikita’, ‘Let The Right One In’, and ‘Girl With The Dragon Tattoo’. I know that this has gone both ways in the past, but most of the traffic is straight to the US. I just think that this is lazy, and that efforts could be better directed into new projects. One example of a good project might be to remember ‘Blair Witch’. Small budget, huge impact, great idea, homegrown American. More of this sort of stuff please.

    I also appreciate that the studios ride trends, to make money, and to fill multiplexes. But how many ‘Thor’ and ‘Batman’ remakes does anyone need? Comic character blockbusters are not my idea of a good direction in modern cinema, but I appreciate that I am over the hill, and I never go to multiplex cinemas anyway.
    As always, you make an intelligent and well-informed argument, but I am staying with the best of European Cinema as the benchmark for how it should be done.

    Thanks for a stimulating read, and another side of the ‘argument’.
    Best wishes as always, from England. Pete.

    • Ha, ha, Pete–yes, it’s a daring thing to mention you like some movies these days, isn’t it? What’s next, me saying how good Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn is? 😀

      I think you have a really good point (as usual) about remakes and the slop that is, well, slop. The remake situation is a problem and always has been … but I wonder if it’s actually a mixed blessing. Seeing a terrible remake of, say, Les Comperes just makes me want to watch Les Comperes. So I wonder–nay, hope–if it’s further incentive to watch the better foreign originals.

      I also agree to a certain extent about the superhero movies; it seems that Hollywood has mined that genre extensively. But every once in a while you get Iron Man or the Sam Raimi Spider-Man–thoughtful, well-filmed flicks that amount to strong fantasy or sci-fi. That, I can deal with. Thor, yes, was horrible. Just horrible. And I love Kenneth Branagh … as an actor. Sigh.

      I appreciate, as always, your opinion! Regards from Noo Yawk, Simon 😀

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