A balanced account of ‘quality’ in Hollywood – and a shameless plug!

Here’s something of a novelty, a journalistic piece about contemporary Hollywood that for once adopts a balanced approach to the subject of whether or not the studios still make any of the kinds of films that are still critically lauded for broad notions of ‘quality’ status. I’m referring to a ‘state of the industry’ piece in The New York Times by its two main critics, Manohla Dargis and A.O.Scott, one which expresses plenty of personal reservations about the nature of many Hollywood films but that combines this with a more than usually level-headed approach to the picture overall.

Normal journalistic practice is to exaggerate this kind of ‘trend-spotting’ – either to proclaim the death of such films, or to express wonder when a few seem to come along at the same time. The truth is, indeed, that there’s very much more continuity than is suggested in that kind of reporting.

Which, of course, brings me on to the subject of my new book (surely not a plug?), which is due out soon, Quality Hollywood: Markers of Distinction in Contemporary Studio Film. The argument about the continuity of production of what are defined as ‘quality’ films is something I make here, along with digging down quite a lot into what exactly is meant by a term such as ‘quality’, one that, in this use, entails a particular kind of position in a prevailing hierarchy of value, and how exactly this tends to be manifested in studio features. More news on this soon, including the cover, once the text on the back page has been finalised.

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marketing departments in film and academic publishing

I’m working on a new book project that’s an analysis of the various ways in which art cinema is positioned as something of special cultural value. Among various other perspectives, I’m considering the marketing of such films. While marketing devices – posters, trailers, etc. – often include elements designed to highlight the particular quality of such films, they also have a habit of being, well, less than entirely honest. A common tendency is to ‘bend’ the way a film is presented towards the commercial mainstream. That is, to single out components that are most commercial in nature, to obscure ones that aren’t, and so on. This happens to various degrees, some subtle some very misleading.


An example that leans more towards the the latter is one trailer for Bela Tarr’s The Man from London (A londoni férfi, 2007) for the English-language market (see below) which cunningly included only English-language dialogue from the film – which is a tiny proportion of the whole. Surely not a deliberate intention to mislead? Er, yes, it seems so, although other aspects of the trailer do emphasise the more distinctive qualities of Tarr’s work.


It came as something of a heavy irony to me, then, when one publisher I’d approached with this project was unprepared to take it on with my original title – because their marketing department didn’t like it (and it’s not something wildly obscure). The title made this clearly primarily academic book seem ‘too academic’, I was told. That is, it accurately reflected the nature of the book. Sort of like accurately reflecting the nature of one of the films it’s about. Rather than trying to grab a wider audience by being a little bit misleading. So, yes, very ironic, I thought (and I’ll be taking it elsewhere as a result).

Further irony – and another link between film marketing and this kind of publication – is something else I’ve encountered in my work on this project so far. One book that I’m looking at as an example of a particular academic way of positioning such films has endorsements on the back cover filled with the kind of hype usually associated with Hollywood trailers: the ‘in a world where…’ variety that could be imagined being voiced in familiar trailer intonation. So, there seem to be some interesting parallels here, which suggest that we’re all part of the same broader world of media-cultural production of one kind or another, governed to varying degrees by bottom-line commercial considerations. Maybe this is inevitable but it’s never quite been driven home so clearly to me as in these instances.

In cases such as my book title and trailers such as that for The Man from London, there seems to be an attempt to reach a wider audience than that for which the product is designed. This seems somewhat pointless, to me. I’m not convinced that burying the real focus in a subtitle is going to make any great difference to who is going to buy one of my books, any more than playing games with which aspects of a film to foreground in a trailer is really going to fool anyone – and if it does, it’s likely only to cause poor word-of-mouth reception from those who feel tricked.

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Two new indie collections

Just wanted to give a mention to two new edited collections either about or relevant to American indies (OK, I’m also plugging the fact that I’ve got an essay in each of them!).

Possible Films cover

First is US Independent Film After 1989: Possible Films, edited by Claire Perkins and Constantine Verevis, from Edinburgh UP. This collection differs from most in having a particular focus on single-film chapters about generally smaller and lesser-known indies. My contribution is a chapter on Primer, which I see as in many ways a model example of the ultra-low-budget first-time indie feature. Haven’t got around to reading the rest yet, but it looks like a very useful addition to the literature.

Media Independence cover

The other is a volume with a broader focus on independence across the media, Media Independence: Working with Freedom or Working for Free?, edited by James Bennett and Niki Strange. My chapter in this is, unsurprisingly, about American indie film, but I’ve tried also to situate it within some of the broader dimensions of media independence around which the book is organized. Other chapters range across a wide variety of media terrain and dimensions of independence.

One annoying feature of both books, however, is that they’re out initially only in hardback at eye-watering prices (£75 and £85 respectively – also Kindle edition for Bennett and Strange, but that’s £80) that seem designed to exploit academic libraries, which are their only remotely likely buyers at that extortionate rate. Hate this policy of some publishers, which prevents any normal individual from buying such titles when they come out. My inclination is not to order for my university library until out in paperback, to avoid complicity in such a rip-off.

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Sovereign Masculinity

Just finished a terrific book on issues relating to gender and American culture, particularly in relation to the so-called’ ‘war on terror’: Sovereign Masculinity: Gender Lessons from the War on Terror, by Bonnie Mann (Oxford UP, 2014). Mann offers a very convincing reading of the role of gender, especially as it functions as an underpinning discourse in American foreign policy and notions of the American state, in a book that ranges widely – starting with perspectives on the nature of gender rooted particularly in the work of Simone de Beauvoir and including readings of a number of films, including The Hurt Locker. It’s hard to do it justice in a brief review-ette, but I’d really recommend this for anyone seeking to dig into some of the underlying institutionalised discourses that play a huge part in shaping American policies, as well as the way they’re manifested in films.

sovereign masculinity cover

Mann begins with a very useful way of characterising the status of gender more generally, something that fits with the way I’ve recently being trying to put this in a chapter I’m writing for a collection about indie films by women filmmakers. What she stresses is what she, as a feminist philosopher, terms the ‘ontological weight’ of gender (as what I’d see as a social construct): an approach that avoids reducing gender to some notion of fixed biological essence while also seeing it as much more substantial, in its daily impact on our lives, that any construct that can easily be wished away.

The way this works in American culture, Mann suggests, involves a process of reassertion of national/sovereign masculinity through the denigration of women and all that is associated with them – including various forms of macho foreign policy posing. One of her central examples is the treatment of prisoners in the likes of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, a process of sexualised shaming against which the constructed edifice of American/male power is articulated. If GW Bush represents one cartoon version of this – cowboy-style moronic direct action – Mann finds different aspects of the same syndrome in the positioning of Obama as more rational ‘father’ figure (and rampant deployer of murderous drones).

A book of real substance and depth, combined with a strong sense of outrage against the impact such discursive framings have upon the world.


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Indiewood riding high in Oscar nominations

Whatever assorted rows and debates might accompany this year’s Oscar nominations, they demonstrate again the continued strength of the Indiewood and indie sectors as far as scoring well in these commercially valuable prestige stakes is concerned. The nominees can be seen as representative of pretty much the full spectrum of commercially distributed contemporary indie/Indiewood film.

Birdman poster

Fully  half of the eight nominees for best picture are or were distributed by studio speciality divisions: The Grand Budapest Hotel and Birdman for Fox Searchlight; The Theory of Everything for Focus Features; Whiplash for Sony Pictures Classics. Two more were distributed by established indie players, the relatively ambitious The Weinstein Company (seeking to handle very Indiewood type titles) with The Imitation Game and the smaller-scale oriented IFC with Boyhood. That left just two studio main division releases among the nominees,  American Sniper from Warner and Selma from Paramount, although the latter is an independent production with subject matter of the kind that might often be associated with Indiewood.

theory of everything poster

Overall, this is also a pretty typical bunch of candidates, although leaning towards the independent end of the spectrum a bit more than average – with the exception of the distinctly one-dimensional (and reactionary) American Sniper. Why that film could be rated as an example of ‘quality’ even within the studio context is something of a mystery to me (I’d struggle to find any way to include it on the basis of any of its textual qualities in the notions of ‘quality’ I’ve explored in my new book Quality Hollywood: Markers of Distinction in Contemporary Studio Film, which is due out in the Autumn).  Otherwise, we have an obligatory dose of solid historical-biopic-worthy drama (as so often, with the quality patina of British historical settings), plus the similarly historical-worthy territory of Selma. Then a dash of  mid-market Indiewood titles and the two remaining indies, one more distinctly original in conception than usual.

Boyhood poster

What might we conclude from this? That not much changes here very greatly from year to year, despite some shifts of emphasis. But also, again, that the remaining studio speciality divisions continue to triumph in this arena, despite the number of times it seems to have been suggested by some commentators that this part of the sector’s days are numbered.

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Happy Endings and markers of distinction

Indie films often mark their difference from the Hollywood mainstream through their resistance to the kinds of happy endings associated with studio films. That Hollywood films always have, or have had, such endings, or that they are as simplistic and/or socially conservative as has often been assumed, is questioned, however, in an excellent new book by James MacDowell, Happy Endings in Hollywood: Cliché, Convention and the Final Couple (Edinburgh University Press, currently only in hardback but due out in paper in December).

happy endings cover

MacDowell’s argument, in a nutshell, is that the happy ending – as it is often characterised – does not exist. Hollywood often employs happy endings, but these are, specifically, plural in nature, and variable in character along numerous axes, he suggests, rather than conforming to the kind of singular Platonic ideal (an ideal generally denigrated in critical commentary) that is often implied. In fact, he argues, the exact nature of happy endings has rarely been examined in detail, so familiar is the notion of the form as a negative point of reference. To correct this, in a valuable contribution to films studies on several fronts, he demonstrates the existence of varying forms and degrees of ‘happiness’ and ‘ending’ in Hollywood, via a study that focuses particularly on these issues as they apply to the formation of the final couple in the genres of romantic melodrama and romantic comedy (along the way, he offers valuable consideration of a number of dimensions of film study more generally, including issues relating to the ideological implications, or otherwise, of textual features of this kind).

That non-Hollywood films should mark their distinctive character through denial of what is associated with the clichéd Hollywood version is actually little affected by this argument. The whole point is often to mark difference rhetorically from that which is associated with the mainstream, rather than necessarily from a closely examined notion of the latter. In its general currency as a cultural topos and reference point, MacDowell suggests, the notion of the Hollywood happy ending is precisely a taken-for-granted assumption – exactly the kind of assumption against which alternative forms are often defined or celebrated. For all its sins, one of the fates of Hollywood is often to be subjected to over-simplified criticism. The notion of the clichéd happy ending is one of many ways in which studio films – either individually or collectively – are often accused of degrees of aesthetic crudeness, standardisation or simplicity that are far from always substantiated by close analysis. It is one of many ways in which a notion of ‘the mainstream’ is constructed discursively, as a negative point of reference for other kinds of cinema.

This is part of a much broader process through which notions of ‘art’ and other forms of ‘higher’ culture – including, potentially, art and indie film – are articulated on the basis of the denigration of  other forms, those relegated in prevailing cultural hierarchies to ‘lower’ or ‘popular’ status. This underlying basis of the manner in which forms such as indie film are attributed cultural value is one in which I’ve become increasingly interested and is very much to the fore in the book I’m currently about to finish, Quality Hollywood: Markers of Distinction in Contemporary Studio Film (due out from I.B.Tauris in 2015). Hollywood itself contains a strand of films that mark themselves out as ‘superior’ to the studio norm, in culturally-hierarchical terms – the kinds of films likely to be on display in the coming months, during the build-up to next year’s major awards season. One key dimension of these can be an inclusion of less-than-entirely happy endings.

As MacDowell suggests, a dominant critical tendency has been only to consider non-happy endings in the context of what amounts to an active subversion of the norm. His argument is that the situation is much less black-and-white; that endings that depart from the fullest sense of the ‘happy’ need not clearly be marked as ‘alternative’ or ‘subversive’ but that the Hollywood ending itself contains a great deal of variety. It’s notable, though, that some of the examples he considers in these terms are marked by their location outside the Hollywood mainstream – principally, the Indiewood, speciality division, release Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and the more fully independent Shortbus (2006) – the latter, unsurprisingly, the most radical in the gender politics of its collective happy ending. What MacDowell demonstrates most convincingly, however, is that, despite differences than can be mapped, in this way, in terms of position across the industrial spectrum, a wide variety of nuances can still be found even within solidly studio productions and even, to a substantial extent, within those of the classical era made under the restrictive aegis of the production code.

The moral for those who study indie films (or others that mark themselves out as different from a notion of the mainstream, whether within Hollywood or in more radical forms of art cinema) is to beware of partaking in over-simplified characterisations of the Hollywood point of comparison. The manner in which such characterisations are discursively formulated more widely within our culture, however, and the historical roots of this, is a topic worth of further study, one key manifestation of which is very effectively identified in this book.


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Hollywood Puzzle Films

This is just a shameless plug for a chapter I have in a new book just out, Hollywood Puzzle Films edited by Warren Buckland (a new AFI Film Reader from Routledge). My chapter is one of several on Inception, in which I explore exactly how far the film departs in its puzzling narrative qualities from the Hollywood norm, how far this is balanced by other more mainstream qualities (such as spectacle, action) and how the particular balance of qualities offered by the film can be understood in its specific industrial context – especially the central role played by the writer-director, Christopher Nolan, as a figure with a repute for both indie-sector puzzles and Batman-scale blockbusters.

Hollywood Puzzle Films

Haven’t had a chance to read the rest of it yet, but should be lots of other interesting material on how aspects of the puzzle film – usually associated with the art or indie film sectors – have found their way into some studio films. Full details and to buy from Amazon here (although it’s a bit steep at nearly £30 in paper!)


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Ibsen’s gun, Llewyn Davis and White House Down

An odd mixture of elements, it might seem, but something I wanted to comment on in passing in Inside Llewyn Davis evolved somewhat after a viewing last night of White House Down. Comparing such films might seem a little spurious, given how obviously different they are, but the latter helped for me to underline one of the distinctively indie features of the former.

llewyn davis poster

What I really liked about the new Coen brothers film – and what marks it as distinctly non-mainstream – was its refusal at any stage to turn ‘feel-good’, or even to activate some conventional narrative expectations in relatively small details along the way. A characteristic example of the latter comes when Llewyn is on his way back to New York after a dismal trip to Chicago. Picked up hitchhiking, he’s driving through the night while the owner of his ride sleeps. Out of the window we see a sign for Akron, Ohio, which has been established much earlier as the home of the child from which he has become estranged. We’re encouraged, by classical convention, to expect that he will turn off the highway in that direction – maybe causing some amusing dissent from the occupant of the passenger seat, assuming that he will awake on arrival. But no. The expectation having been triggered, the film simply ignores it and moves on (as well as being a pleasing resistance of the obvious, for those who like such things, this might also be taken as one of many indicators of the character of Llewyn, one of his many seemingly less selfish roads not taken).

In Ibsen terms – from his advice on the construction of the classically structured ‘well-made play’ in Hedda Gabler – the gun is left firmly on the wall (as opposed to the guidance that, ‘if in Act I you have a pistol on the wall, then it must fire in the last act’). Nothing quite so dramatic as a gun appears in Inside Llewyn Davis, of course, but the same principle applies. Some devices activated earlier in the film are sustained later (the cat/s, to at least some extent, although this is also subject to arbitrary dropping during the same road trip) but we can’t be sure that everything will be. The effect is to create the impression of a somewhat less artificially confected world (even if this is only a difference of degree, which it is, rather than anything absolute).

The difference between this and a more thorough employment of classical norms is underlined by a comparison with Roland Emmerich’s latest attempt to trash the White House. White House Down might not be a critical favourite, but it’s a model of classical narrative concision in some key respects. Deploying much the same basic template as Die Hard (1988), with its lone hero (called John and soon stripped down to his vest) taking on a horde of heavily armed goons and psychos from various positions in the inner structures and bowels of a large building, White House Down also resembles its action predecessor in some of its classical narrative economy (one of many examples of evidence for the fact that such features, however much invested also in the spectacular, remain reliably classical in much of their structure).

white house down poster


Early sequences point to a veritable armoury of ‘guns on the wall’ (not literal in this case, although there’s no shortage of noisy weaponry in the film!) that will eventually be wielded. During a tour of the White House in which the central character John Cale (Channing Tatum) is accompanied by his daughter, we are given various details about the location that subsequently come into play (for example, the fact that there are tennis and basketball courts and a swimming pool, all of which feature in a car chase during the thick of the action – a first maybe, in having such an action movie staple occur within the White House grounds).

Another seemingly minor detail is reactivated in similar manner, the substance of which marks a point of similarity with the Coen brothers’ film, although the handling is characteristically different. Cale has recently missed a talent show performance by his precocious 11-year-old daughter – a child who, like that of Llewyn, lives with the mother from which he has become estranged. This is a marker of his failure to act properly as a father figure, like Llewyn, but in this kind of treatment such a failure exists primarily in order to be righted. The performance, we are told, involved a display of flag twirling, something not accorded very high status in the narrative. But it is exactly such a routine that is situated as finally helping to save the day in the film, the daughter enacting a similar performance with the presidential standard in order to prevent a climactic levelling of the premises by the air force. In terms of plausibility, this is extremely silly, but the point is that it ‘makes sense’ in that broader way of knitting together a certain kind of self-sufficient narrative fabric. This isn’t even to mention the very obviousness of the fact that Cale, initially refused his dream job in the secret service, is clearly going to demonstrate through the film qualities that will result unquestionably in such an appointment, at the same time creating a unbreakably solid bond with his daughter. That the not taking of the road to Akron in Llweyn Davis signifies a complete refusal to enter into sentimental territory of this kind – even if the outcome might not have been expected to be a positive one – is a marker of just how different such films are in some of their central dynamics.

White House Down, then, solidly fulfils every initial narrative expectation (with room for the odd twist, here the fact that the seemingly most likeable of the other political figures in the diegesis turns out to be one of the bad guys). Llewyn Davis refuses to. Or does it, really? It depends what our expectations are, in such a case. In indie territory, and/or in that of the Coens, we might be encouraged exactly to expect such departures. These still remain matters of degree, however, and Llewyn Davis seems to go further that many indie equivalents in its determination never to accentuate the positive or to pick up or fire the gun. The effect that results remains dependent to a large extent on our sheer familiarity with classical convention, one that long predates its employment in Hollywood.

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Filling the speciality gaps?

Interesting to see who is stepping in to fill some of the gaps in the speciality distribution market after the contraction of studio divisions, including the likely pull-back of Focus Features discussed in my last post. CBS Films, for example, is distributing the new Coen brothers production, Inside Llewyn Davis, in the US. This is the latest incarnation of the film division of the CBS broadcast network, created in its current form in 2007 (previous ventures into the theatrical feature business by CBS include a brief venture in the late 1960s, one contributor to the overproduction of that period that resulted in a financial crisis for the studios)

inside llewyn davis poster

Most of the films it has handled today seem broadly to lie within speciality domain, previous examples including Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (2011) and Seven Psychopaths (2012), although its website seems to suggestion an intention to include a wider range, including more genre-oriented material. Certainly seems likely that the reduced investment in this territory by divisions of the Hollywood majors is likely to open up more space for players of this kind, along with those not associated with such large other media interests. A space worth watching, I think.

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Focus pulled?

What, then, of the future of Indiewood, in the shape of the studio speciality divisions, now that Universal’s Focus Features has become the latest target for what looks like studio rationalisation? The news that James Schamus has been removed as head of the division and the closure of its New York office looks like another significant reduction of commitment to speciality work within the studio orbit. It’s particularly notable given how successful and stable Focus had appeared to be, alongside Fox Searchlight, as one of the two main remaining planks of this hybrid territory.

fig 20

Focus isn’t being closed, like some speciality divisions were in the major contraction that began in 2008. But these look like they could become steps along that route, or moves towards a considerably more commercial and less specialist-market oriented approach. The signals are very strong ones. The removal of Schamus appears to be a major blow to those invested in the indie tradition, given his status as one of the former heads of the almost-legendary Good Machine, and his record of established relationships with major indie filmmakers. The closure of a New York operation is also more than just a practical cut back – a relocation of the headquarters to Los Angeles also signifies a reduction in autonomy and closer absorption into the studio landscape.

Schames is replaced by Peter Schlessel, head of the distributor FilmDistrict, the associations of which are largely with more mainstream-oriented genre productions, a point emphasized in initial reactions to the news. Indiewire’s Anthony Kaufman concludes that “you can bet that the mid-sized art film is in more trouble than it already was”, adding in reference to Schlessel: ‘Yes, he can claim ownership of driving Nicholas Winding Refn’s bang-up noir “Drive” into the marketplace, but much of the company’s slate is heavily geared towards genre titles (“Red Dawn”, “Parker”, “Dean Man DOwn”, “Olympus has Fallen” – all yuck).’

In typically rhetorical style, Schamus’s former Good Machine partner Ted Hope suggests that: ‘With his bow tie no longer the Focus brand, we can firmly say that the corporate suits see no business in art.’ He adds: ‘Where does James’ exit leave us?  Sure we have Sony Picture Classics.  Won’t we always have Sony Picture Classics (thank the cinema gods!!!)?  And we have Searchlight and The Weinsteins, sure…  at least for now.  And yes, there are the VOD driven entities, and the small true indies too, but do we have a corporate culture that has any place for ambitious artistically driven work?  I think not –at least not as the focus of their strategy.’

But was it ever accurately described as the focus of the strategy of corporate culture? Of course not. The question here is of the existence of some degree of space for speciality/indie ‘art’ type cinema within the broader orbit of the studios – a position in which it has never been more than a small minority strand. The removal of Schamus and relocation of Focus to LA does appear to constitute a potentially significant reduction of such space, but it’s not best put in such black and white terms as those used by Hope if we’re really to understand the nature of the equation that’s involved, one that seems to be subject to periodic shifts of balance that are sometimes hard to keep up with. It’s somewhat frustrating to me, personally, I have to confess, that this happens just as my new book Indie 2.0 is about to be published, in which I suggest that suggestions that the studios have withdrawn from the speciality sector have been exaggerated, largely on the basis of the continued thriving presence of Focus and Searchlight.

It will remain to be seen exactly what happens to Focus from now onwards. Variety reports that its future had been looking ‘very murky’ before the 2011 takeover of its parent, NBC-Universal, by Comcast: ‘Universal Pictures had planned on putting the distrib on the sales block but reversed course when Comcast chairman-CEO Brian Roberts, a well-known fan of independent film, said he wanted to keep the operation in the fold.’ That’s encouraging, but perhaps not the basis for a long-term future. We’ll see. But what Kaufman terms ‘the mid-sized art film’ is not going to disappear, we can be sure of that. It’s often seen as an endangered species but has a habit of demonstrating longevity, even if often in an embattled state, whether in the territory of speciality divisions or from within the studios themselves – the latter being the subject of my current book-in-progess, previously mentioned in this blog, on the nature and status of ‘quality’ film in Hollywood.

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