In Defence of Hollywood Cinema

Liam Riordan

There is something seemingly quite satisfying in not just disliking, or not preferring, but actively hating contemporary Hollywood cinema. I speak from personal experience here, but a wide personal experience. Between colleagues, friends, family members, professional and amateur writers in both print and on the internet, and even professional practitioners of cinema itself, both Hollywood and otherwise; in all of these groups and more, you won’t struggle to find countless arguments that Hollywood cinema is “soulless” or “empty” or “shallow,” or any other such descriptors.

To clarify, I completely understand this argument. Screen media is perhaps the medium that most blurs the line between art and commerce. All mediums need to make some money to survive, and some of them do considerable business, but you won’t find a novel or a ballet performance making a billion dollars on its first weekend out of the gate.

The kind of money that films make, and need in order to be made, is difficult to ignore, and this is especially true of blockbuster Hollywood cinema. When a film costs multiple hundreds of millions of dollars to make, it desperately needs to make much, much more. This is where my views align with those who disdain Hollywood cinema. These massive investments are a huge risk for studios, and to minimise that risk, the films themselves are made in a way that the studios conceive of as “safe.” This leads to the kind of entertainment that people often say feels like it is “made by a committee.” The fear of alienating any of the potential audience means that interesting, bold filmmaking choices are not taken. This, combined with the practice of looking to former successes for some kind of (in truth non­existent) formula, is the primary reason why film after film feels exactly the same as everything else coming into theatres.

Indeed, this is frustrating. It is also condescending, that studios favour placating everyone over actually pleasing and exciting a slightly smaller audience.

This is all to say, I understand where the vitriol comes from.

However, I still believe it is misguided.

For one, the common understanding of “Hollywood” is  smaller and more restrictive than the reality of Hollywood. Hollywood is largely to blame for this. It is deeply interested in the idea of itself as evidenced by the inward gaze of greats like Sunset Boulevard and Singin’ in the Rain, to more recent masterpieces like Mulholland Drive and LA Confidential. But it’s also very self­-critical. The great irony of films such as these is that they are exceptional, but they are exceptional in that they clearly express how vacuous and vile the Hollywood behind their construction actually is. No wonder we don’t know how to feel about the place.

But the reality of Hollywood cinema is, like many things, so much more than the surface reveals. Massive Hollywood studios commonly run much smaller subsidiaries that make the kinds of films that are often mistaken for “indies.” One such example is Universal Pictures, who have given us enormous titles such as the Jurassic Park/World series and the Fast and Furious Films. They own Focus Features, who made the beloved, infinitely more intimate films Lost in Translation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to name just two.

Hollywood is an industry, just like any other. It works on supply and demand: the smaller “sub-­studios” like Focus Features cater to an audience that wants smaller, more emotional, perhaps more specific experiences, where the bigger studios cater to a wider audience, as well as to those who want to see something that necessitates a huge budget. Part of the magic of cinema is that visionaries like Sofia Coppola can invent a new kind of quietness, a previously unfelt level of cinematic voyeurism, and in the very same city, other visionaries like Steven Spielberg can make dinosaurs come to life.

These innovations require very different investments, and those investments require very different returns. Hollywood is a much broader idea than I think a lot of us give it credit for. That’s not to under­play the pretty pervasive consumerist attitudes of the blockbuster end of Hollywood’s spectrum; rather, it’s simply to suggest that there’s more to tinseltown than endless sequels and reboots. You don’t even have to know where to look, but it’s worth knowing that often, you’re already looking at it.

Now, the breadth of Hollywood aside: blockbuster films are not all, and are not inherently, soulless, shallow, or plain bad. There is a pretty toxic double standard in the world of entertainment and film; the fact that those who don’t really enjoy “arthouse” cinema, or niche, foreign or independent cinema, are pretty happy to let those who do, simply enjoy it. Filmgoers who don’t attend festivals or who don’t like to venture too far from what they know, aren’t very likely to criticise those who do.

And yet, this acceptance is almost non­existent when the tables are turned. Big-­budget action and adventure films, especially franchise titles, are almost universally relegated to “just entertainment” (which is a broken phrase to unpack at another time) even by those who really enjoy them, and judging by the numbers, that’s a lot of us. But just like any other genre or type of film, there are exceptional entries just as there are lacklustre ones. There are as many (logically, many more) films from the revered French cinema that are boring, self-­involved, or cheap, as there are shimmering masterpieces. The same, I believe, applies to blockbuster films.

Jaws, the very namesake for the blockbuster, is one such example. It is thrilling, absolutely exemplary of the craft of filmmaking, and a satisfying story with a well­constructed character arc at its centre. Mission Impossible: Fallout is another example of nail­biting action direction, and features incredible fight choreography and some stunning (in the truest sense of the word) re­thinking of what constitutes vehicle chase sequences.

Just as there are some things that blockbusters cannot, by definition, do, there are things that only they can do. Discovering new, subtle character acting talent in a tentpole action franchise is unlikely: but seeing an entire suburb fold in on itself a la Inception is just as unlikely in a four ­million dollar indie.

Yes, films like these cost a lot of money and need to hedge their bets a little bit to make their money back. But that doesn’t automatically disqualify them from being genuinely great. All films are a bet, and it takes bravery and true love of the form to put legitimate quality and passion above financial concerns.

That is what all great films do, regardless of their cost, their country of origin, or their production backgrounds, or the talent behind them. Love, inspiration and genuine craftsmanship, wherever you can find them, are rare and beautiful, and deserve your appreciation.

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