The Bones of Reagan or the Ruins of Art Cinema in Contemporary American Film

Article excerpt

A Democratic victory would not change the world, but it would at least slow the momentum of the bombs-and-Jesus crowd. Those people have had their way long enough. Not even the Book of Revelation threatens a plague of vengeful yahoos. We all need a rest from this pogrom. Ronald Reagan is an old man. It will be the rest of us who will face Armageddon.

--Hunter S. Thompson (1986) (1)

A range of contemporary American films including American Beauty (Sam Mendes, 1999), American Psycho (Mary Heron, 2000), American Splendor (Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, 2003) and even the Reagan-era documentary American Dream (Barbara Kopple, 1989) reflect something of the shift in filmmaking practice that is symptomatic of late capitalism, from the counter-culture ethos of 1970s New Hollywood through to the era of the blockbuster and corresponding intensification of neo-conservative hegemony. The films I choose to discuss, acknowledging that the selection is idiosyncratic rather than historically comprehensive, emerge in an era where the direct influence of European art cinema movements has passed, and after the triumphalist ascendancy of Reagan-era backlash against progressive social initiatives on such issues as race and gender equality and worker rights. While the disaster of the American economy and the crime of the war in Iraw suggests the failure of the imperial project The Project for a New American Century, (2) the massive increase in the concentration of wealth and power in contemporary American suggests otherwise, as Naomi Klein's trenchant and carefully researched study of free-market disaster capitalism demonstrates. (3) These "American" titles, as well as important related films such as To Die For (Gus Van Sant, 1995), High Fidelity (Stephen Frears, 2000), The King of Comedy (Martin Scorsese 1983), Bamboozled (Spike Lee, 2000), Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989), and Sex, Lies and Videotape (Stephen Soderbergh, 1989), to name a few, are particularly interesting for the expression of the shifts in hegemonic tendencies as a function of the consolidation of dominant culture around a pervasive neo-conservative mass media.

Cultural Ruins

This list of exceptional films from the era demonstrates Stephen Prince's point, against the dominant critical rhetoric, that the art of cinema has not been entirely washed away by the tidal wave of the blockbuster. As he says: "Bad films (however one conceives them--as blockbusters, special effects showcases, teen comedies) did not drive out good films. Special effects extravaganzas did not vitiate good writing. While there is much irrationality, crassness, and timidity in the business, the market did what it does best--it insured that a wide range of films were available for the nation's movie-goers." (4) This populist defense of the laissez-faire market serves the good purpose of testing rhetorical claims against the actual practices of filmmakers and audiences; however, the claim of free market choice elides the broader ideological influence of the schema of the blockbuster in the narrative flow even in independent cinema. What Prince describes in his excellent history of 1980s American cinema is a systemic contradiction between the economic and control-based backlash against the excesses of auteurism, culminating in the fallout from Heaven's Gate (Michael Cimino, 1980) at the start of the decade along with the spectacular rise of the home video market which created a huge demand and corresponding opportunities for independent producers and distributors.(5) In fact, this shortage of Hollywood product mirrors similar marketplace conditions that provided opportunities for the distribution of European art cinema in North America in the 1960s, in turn stimulating the rise of American indie filmmaking and the popular acceptability of the idea of film as art form, not to mention contributing to the legitimization of Film Studies. Yet these similarities and the persistence of intelligent filmmaking, if always under siege, obscures the important transformation from the heyday of art cinema to the indie era--a shift reflected in economic conditions of production, the increasingly global and digital domain of marketing, and in the ideological thrust of narrative. …


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