by James Naremore
Cut, no. 23, Oct. 1980, pp. 33-34
James Monaco has become one of the most prolific film critics in the United States, and his work retains some quality despite the speed with which he has lately turned it out. His newest book, American Film Now: The People. The Power, The Money, The Movies, was obviously done quickly, in an attempt to be topical and fill a gap in the publishing market. It is the sort of idea that editors think up, or that authors conceive under the influence of editors, and its commercial aims are apparent. By this I do not mean that it is a mere ploy. Monaco is an intelligent man of wide scholarly knowledge, and he is obviously trying to give his readers something for their money.
Nevertheless American Film Now suffers from its hasty composition, and from Monaco's attempt to stay absolutely atop developments in a field that is changing even as he writes. He seems to feel that he has to "cover," as quickly as possible, every aspect of the industry in the past decade, saying at least something about a huge number of films. As a result many of his chapters consist of long, undigested passages of names interspersed with summary opinions. As a reference, his book has some usefulness (it has a decent bibliography), but too much of its criticism is superficial and irritating.
In his Preface, Monaco confesses some pleasure in the fact that the book was written and produced in record time — so rapidly that it contains a still from one Hollywood film that as of this writing hasn't been released in the small college town where I live. But although the book is handsomely designed, a marvel of publishing ingenuity and marketing skill, it frequently reads as if it had been dictated at a film buff's cocktail party. The logorrheic subtitle, a failed attempt to sound jazzy, is symptomatic of the prose throughout. Monaco is trying to write for a general audience (a laudable aim, given the pretentiousness of most recent writing about film), but the results sound uncomfortably like one of those parodic movie reviews by Bill Murray on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE. Monaco is glib and breezy, offering opinions on virtually every film and personality in contemporary Hollywood, with hardly any analysis or justification.
I happen to agree with many of his tastes. I, too, admire Lester's PETULIA, Cassavetes' MINNIE AND MOSKOWITZ, and Pakula's KLUTE; I'm happy to concur in Monaco's qualified praise of Herbert Ross and his respect for Michael Ritchie; and I easily assent to the notion that FORBIDDEN PLANET is a more "thoughtful" movie than the EXORCIST. I also believe that critical connoisseurism can be enlightening and fun when it is backed by a quirky and witty intelligence, as it is in writers like Andrew Sarris and David Thompson. Monaco's problem is that opinions alone are cheap, and in itself the "who's best approach, which is the basis of most of his chapters, means rather little. Almost predictably, at the end of the book he has appended a survey from Take One of various other critics' ten favorite movies of the decade, as if to establish a club of tastemakers. Back in the early days of Cahiers du Cinéma such lists were provocative, but here they seem more like a trivial game, more fun to compile than they are to read.
One wouldn't go to American Film Now to discover interesting meanings in the films under discussion, or even to learn why one likes or dislikes them, because Monaco's own criticism seldom rises above the chitchat of an ordinary reviewer. JAWS, a film he treats at relative length, is essentially described as an "entertainment machine." DAISY MILLER, we are told, was like
THE NIGHT THEY RAIDED MINSKY'S
On the other hand, SORCERER is
MEAN STREETS has "freshness" and characters who "lived for a while on the screen." DePalma gives "the impression of a rather likable directorial personality," and Lucas "sketches" people with "precision and feeling." We are given no real discussion of the aesthetic, psychological, or ideological aspects of these films — nothing even worth debating. And when he isn't dropping opinions without further comment, Monaco adopts a chummy, insider's tone as a substitute for analysis. He calls Friedkin "Billy" and Scorcese "Marty," giving them free advice: "Marty should return to his roots and come home," but "Billy Friedkin seems a lost cause."
Too many of Monaco's eleven chapters are taken up with these meandering remarks. He has some interesting notes on black films and "country movies" like CITIZEN'S BAND, but these hardly make up for the thinness of the whole. What chiefly remains to give the book value is his description of the economic structure of the industry, plus the data he has included in an appendix. This last section makes me believe Monaco should have structured the whole as an encyclopedia rather than as a work of criticism. It contains useful filmographies for ten directors, a bibliography, and a list (compiled with the assistance of Sharon Boonshaft) of major credits for most of the important writers, actors, directors, cinematographers, editors, designers, and special effects people now working in Hollywood.
The best parts of the main text are the first two chapters and the conclusion, where Monaco talks about the conglomerate nature of contemporary Hollywood and makes some modest suggestions for reform of the industry. Using statistics drawn chiefly from Variety and the news media, he documents what we already knew — that the movies, like nearly everything else under late capitalism, are under the control of economic combines who are more interested in diversifying their investments than in concentrating their capital on the manufacture of a single product. Where movies are concerned, Monaco makes the current situation sound very like the old myth of the showman versus the businessman, which used to be expressed in terms of the studio production chief versus the Eastern sales office. But he gives the myth a more complex, potentially Kafkaesque turn, so that the anonymous businessmen seem in stronger control than ever.
Monaco is good at suggesting the vast sums of money that circulate in Southern California, and at illustrating the basic economic stability of the present industry. The studios may be less in touch with our real lives than ever, but after the economic crisis of the fifties and the boxoffice slippages of the early seventies, they have been drawn into profitable new alliances — not only with record and book companies, but with car rental agencies, soft drink bottlers, and ski resorts. They have also worked out a method of charging for their production and distribution facilities that practically assures them of profits. Sometimes an independent producer takes risks, and exhibition is nowadays a chancy business, but in general Hollywood has become a secure little world where people spend their time making deals. Meanwhile a hip liberal establishment appears to be in control of the movie product. "Jane Fonda can host the Academy Awards," Monaco writes, "and everything's cool." Altman and Coppola can be generous with their money and the system can even be open to new talent, "so long as it behaves itself."
Actually, the new Hollywood operates according to a few simple economic rules, and is becoming more inflexible about applying them. Monaco points out that the financial interrelationship between records, print, TV, and movies means that every property can be "recycled" into another medium. The form in which it first appears — whether paperback book, album, or film — will depend more on marketing strategy than on any aesthetic concern. Films that have some family appeal or that can be edited for TV are at an obvious premium. And when they come in the form of a package of successful writer, director, and stars, they seem assured of production. Obviously this system has a profound effect on the number and kind of films we see. Monaco also believes that it has altered the relationship between genres and audiences.
Pointing to the recent popularity of sports movies and science fiction — both of which used to be considered box office poison — he argues that such pictures succeed because of "qualities associated with genres" rather than because of "genres themselves." Here his logic becomes muddy. He never explains how we are supposed to separate the genres from their "qualities," and it seems to me he misses a good chance to talk about popular politics in the seventies. Ultimately he is less convincing at showing any basic change in the underlying determinants of Hollywood mythology than he is at demonstrating the profiteering and conservative economics of the system. In this regard, he takes special note of the way money from films like STAR WARS has been invested in other conglomerate interests outside the movies. Such trends, plus the blockbuster psychology temporarily ruling the business, mean that fewer and fewer small, unorthodox films are likely to be allowed onto the market.
Monaco's reaction to the current state of affairs reveals his distinctly liberal politics. He champions women's and blacks' films (offering quite interesting accounts of SWEET SWEETBACK and the virtually unseen GANJA & HESS); he praises documentaries like MEDIUM COOL and HEARTS AND MINDS; he twice asks that "a thousand movies bloom"; but he opts for no radical change in the system. He seems less concerned with the root cause of problems — corporate capitalism itself — than with certain practical, ameliorative actions that he believes could save the industry from the greed of its investors. The movies, he says, should be legally established as a part of the Fourth Estate, a concept that has existed in common law since the Middle Ages. This, according to his argument, would separate the entertainment media "from business, government, and social/educational/religious institutions." Distribution companies should be required by law to "operate as common carriers, allowing independent and equal access to the channels of communication entrusted them." At the same time production companies should be
"confronted with a tax structure such that it is more profitable for them to reinvest the profits generated by movies within the film industry rather than outside it."
On the whole I think Monaco is to be praised for having made these suggestions. With all the lip service to "materialism" in recent theoretical writing on the cinema, there have been relatively few serious accounts of the economic structure of the present industry, and even fewer pieces of writing that try to change that structure rather than simply describe it. Nevertheless I have doubts about some of Monaco's proposals, partly because I think he doesn't carry his analysis of the industry far enough, and partly because I think his notion of a "Fourth Estate" needs examination.
It is an excellent and praiseworthy idea to create tax laws that would require the studios to keep the bulk of their profits inside the movies rather than investing them in hotels and ski resorts. I'm in favor of it, even though I don't think it will lead to what Monaco calls a "Hollywood Renaissance." One reason why the renaissance won't occur is that the current tendency to concentrate production in massively budgeted, massively publicized movies is not simply an outgrowth of conglomeration. In part it is a reaction to overproduction in the late sixties and early seventies, which led to a mild recession in the studios. As Monaco keeps noting, the business is "notoriously mercurial." If Variety is any guide, the movies go through cycles of increased or decreased production, responding in some degree to populist pressure from theater owners. Furthermore, other recent changes in law have prevented rich investors from using movies as a tax cover, thus automatically limiting the amount of production. Hence any attempt to legislate increasing numbers of movies is more complicated than Monaco makes it sound.
As for the idea of a "Fourth Estate," it reflects an eighteenth-century, atomistic view of culture which is at best naive. It is, to be sure, possible under certain conditions to achieve relative independence on the part of some aspects of the media, but especially under the U.S. system, everything is eventually touched by profit interests. One business is related to every other business, whether or not it organizes as a conglomerate.
To suggest that "business, government, and social/ educational/ religious institutions" are or could be independent entities is to pretend to a certain innocence, a surprising quality in a critic who has shown himself an admirer of Godard (The New Wave). This apparent innocence can be detected in other places in Monaco's book, especially in his vague nostalgia for the days of the Mayers and Thalbergs, when the studios, modeled on what he calls a "quaint and rather charming parody of a classic U.S. industrial system," turned out a regular flow of pictures for the theatres they owned. In some respects Monaco seems to be trying to return us to those times. Borrowing economic terminology from Thorstein Veblen, he imagines there was an important difference between the "industry" of the thirties and the "business" of now. He almost makes his reader wish for the return of the tycoons, who produced so many movies that they occasionally allowed some good ones through.
The old days, however, are a pastoral dream, made to seem rosy by the fact that MGM is now a gaudy hotel in Las Vegas. I suspect that MGM was always a dubious enterprise anyway, and I doubt that the old days would come back even if we reform the tax laws. The fact is that the movies have always been interested in profits rather than products and have developed according to the rules dictated by capitalism. In the late twenties and thirties they turned themselves over to the banks in order to modernize and survive; in the seventies they became conglomerates in order to escape the business cycle. They can't return to the old structure because the changes in capitalism since the thirties have been too vast, causing the movies to metamorphose even now into new forms not predicted by Monaco's analysis.
To understand just one of the current directions, we need only examine more closely the important area of movie exhibition, which Monaco barely touches upon. For example, it is a fairly well-known and interesting possibility that the industry may soon stop depending on local theatres for its survival. A glance at Monaco's statistics indicates that first-run films in conventional theatres now account for a minor portion of business profits. More significantly, a Gallup Poll recently taken by the Motion Picture Association of America (not mentioned in Monaco's book) has revealed that most people in this country see no important difference between pay TV and theatres as a medium for exhibiting films. Consequently, the industry as a whole may drift more towards forms of home entertainment that completely bypass the old channels of distribution. Monaco's "Fourth Estate" may gradually become a "fourth network," and it will be closely allied to the powers that now control the other three. We might then see more movies, but the conglomerate control of pay television is ultimately more troubling than anything envisioned in Monaco's discussion of contemporary Hollywood.
American Film Now is therefore only a starting point for an analysis of the industry. It would have been a vastly better book if Monaco had put aside his cultism and auteurist gossip, going deeper into the ways money affects the movies we see — especially if he had discussed the most profound ideological connections between the structure of the society and the structure of the individual films. The very existence of his book points up the need for a really good study of Hollywood in the seventies, a book centering more directly on the major offices of production distribution, and exhibition. If that book were to contain any textual analysis at all, it ought to be in the form of a close scrutiny of a few representative pictures, along the lines of Dan Ruby's articles on JAWS and STAR WARS previously published in this journal. The problem with Monaco's book is that while it correctly situates the movies in an economic context, and while it contains much useful information about Who's Who in contemporary Hollywood, too much of its criticism is superficial and its well-intentioned economic theory is sometimes shaky or incomplete. Despite its occasional insights and its refreshing attempt at reform, it mainly shows later critics what they should not do.