England has Shakespeare. Austria has Mozart. Italy has Michelangelo. Germany has Beethoven. Holland has Rembrandt. Russia has Tolstoy.
We’ve just finished The American Century. We just finished the Century of Film. And yet there isn’t a single defining American filmmaker. There isn’t even close to one. The French have a famous line in which one eminent French author commented to another (Andre Gide to Paul Valery for anybody who cares) that the greatest French poet was “Victor Hugo, alas.” Our great filmmaker is Steven Spielberg, alas.
Alas, Orson Welles could have been he, but everyone with the money to make him the greatest of American artists knew better. In a country so movie mad as America, a moviemaker as great as Welles operating at his full power could have excited America to the point of revolutions. There are twice as many unfinished projects in Welles’s career than ever made it to celluloid. Imagine how a Welles movie of Heart of Darkness could have made the world come to terms with imperialism, or how an Orson Welles Catch-22 could have shed light on The Vietnam War. Hollywood had other great directors: Howard Hawks, John Ford, Frank Capra, John Huston, but none of them reached into life the way Welles did. They were great entertainers who could make funny movies, moving movies, but they didn’t feel anywhere near as true to life.
It speaks for the impossibility of great art in American movies that so many American ‘film artists’ of the next generation burned out in a manner similar to Welles: Peter Bogdanovich, Francis Ford Coppola, Hal Ashby, William Friedkin, Michael Cimino… All of them experienced diminishing returns, by middle age they were all so exhausted by the struggle of getting the money to make their movies that by the time they got their projects going they no longer had the creative energy to make movies of anything near the same quality. Perhaps there are some younger directors who still might get there (particularly Richard Linklater and Jason Reitman, perhaps Spike Lee too), but only directors with enough great work to then be considered are Spielberg, Scorsese, Woody Allen, Stanley Kubrick, and Robert Altman. Woody Allen can be dismissed right away - his movies really are as wonderful as people say: funny, moving, insightful, they’re also - one and all - incredibly narcissistic detailings of the Life of Woody. Scorsese can probably be dismissed for a similar reason - the closer he gets to the environs of his Brooklyn childhood, the proportionally greater his work gets. Stanley Kubrick probably lays claim to being the greatest director to have no interest at all in human beings. Robert Altman’s work is so eccentric that I doubt anybody but specialists will ever warm to most of his movies. That only leaves Spielberg: intellectually shallow, overly technical, falsely sentimental, but so versatile, glorious, touched-by-genius Steven Spielberg.
But nobody, not even the most committed Spielberg fanatic, can say that Spielberg is the greatest artist of our time with a straight face. His movies really are great, sometimes even sublime and transcendent. I have no doubt that the greatest scenes of ET and Close Encounters can still make people gasp in awe hundreds of years hence, but they are not Shakespeare, they’re not Michelangelo. That’s asking too much of a personality that even his most rabid cheerleaders admit can be incredibly superficial.
Other countries had defining filmmakers: Ingmar Bergman expressed what it means to be Swedish, Satayajit Ray expressed what it means to be Indian, Pedro Almodovar expresses what it means to be Spanish. Many feel that Akira Kurosawa expressed what it meant to be Japanese, and Frederico Fellini expressed what it meant to be Italian (though I’d choose other directors…). France has Francois Truffaut for that purpose, and even more importantly, France gave us Jean Renoir, who is one of the few creators in any genre that belongs to the entire world. His father Auguste might have been the sugary painter of generously proportioned pink skinned women and their porcelain-faced daughters, but Jean Renoir’s movies are as transcendent as his father’s paintings are content to remain on the surface of things. If any director has the insight and inventiveness to be the modern Shakespeare...
But America does not have a Jean Renoir - a moviemaker who expresses the whole cosmos of humanity onscreen in all its glory and squalor. Alas, Spielberg is the one who comes closest. In order to find someone to compete with Renoir and Shakespeare, we can only look to that extremely un-American place, the theater, and to its greatest American voice.
One of my favorite critics, J.B. Priestly, wrote of the question of why it took great literature so long to appear in the Renaissance while visual art burned with genius for hundreds of years: “Great literature demands a language that is at once a powerful and very flexible instrument, an organ with more than one keyboard and many stops. This instrument was not yet ready; the organ was only being assembled.”
In all likelihood, we’re still awaiting the Shakespeare of film. Movies are barely a hundred years old. Even now, we’re still assembling all the techniques. Hitchcock said of Spielberg that he was the first director whose language was completely cinematic and utterly uninfluenced by the theater. I’m sure that’s true. We have yet to find filmmakers who can take all the techniques of Spielberg and his followers and shape it into something that reaches into eternal time and space.
In the meantime, the light speed lyrics of Stephen Sondheim have completely changed art forever. In the age when music theater was dominated by opera, the text had to be very simple in order to be understood at all. But in an age when a microphone can pick up the smallest sound, the theater cries out for lyrics that can let you capture an infinity of nuance. Like Scorsese and Woody and Kubrick and Coppola, Sondheim comes from New York and says, not entirely as a joke, that he’s lived his whole life in a 20-block radius. As cinematic as New York is, it can’t hold a candle to the amazingly cinematic vistas and open spaces of the Western United States. New York is ultimately not a place for movies, it's a theatrical one. I don’t need to tell you that everything about New York is over-the-top, you’ve all been there and seen the buildings, the people, the music, the clothes, the dirt and shit, the ever-appealing presence of sex and the ever-haunting specter of death. Everyone in New York is there to play a part, eager to say their peace and then some to whoever is around to listen, and perhaps they’re so eager to speak because nobody else wants to listen. It also helped that Sondheim worked in an era when economics were entirely different. When he began his career in the early fifties, the price of a balcony ticket at a Broadway Show was barely two dollars! Two dollars! Today, two dollars is something like the surcharge you pay for ordering Broadway tickets online. Even as late as the mid-1970’s, fifteen dollars was considered an extremely expensive ticket.
What this meant for artistic quality is that Sondheim could gauge the tastes of the average theatergoer far more reliably than any Broadway songwriter of our day. To be sure, the average theatergoer was far more educated than the average American, but the average American theatergoer was simply middle class couples, with the husbands receiving an unremarkable college education provided by the GI bill. Their tastes were too plain for the grandeur of classical music, too white for challenging jazz, and too unrebellious for rock. They grew up on ‘white jazz.’ One might think that such an audience would limit what theater composers could do, and perhaps it did. So many musicals of the Rodgers and Hammerstein ilk, considered so revolutionary in their day, now seem penny plain and generic.
What this meant for Sondheim was that he could learn his craft in the Golden Age of the Musical and the twilight of the Great American Songbook. In a manner no rock musician ever needed to, Sondheim had to learn precisely what made songs stay in the memory. The difference in age between Sondheim and Bob Dylan is only eleven years, but the gap in approach between the two is as long and wide as an ocean. Sondheim is all craft, Dylan is all intuition. By the time Dylan was thirty-five, most of his greatest songs were already written. At the same age, Sondheim was only getting started.
As the decades wore on, Broadway lost its audience to Rock. This new audience inhibited a musician like Dylan terribly, who is by all accounts most comfortable in small, appreciative clubs. Dylan was thrust into the role of poet-seer for his generation, and at the same time subject to market forces that made the hermetic enigmas of meaning in his songs exasperating to a mass audience.
But as Dylan struggled, Sondheim thrived ever more. The raise in ticket prices alienated the general Broadway audiences from traditional musicals. If the general public paid more, they wanted to know they were getting more for their dollars, so they thrilled to the movie-like spectacle of Andrew Lloyd Webber productions; about which it was commented that “you go home singing the scenery.”
By the age of 30, Sondheim already did the lyrics for West Side Storyand Gypsy - the two of which many people still regard as the zenith of the entire artform. In his early 30’s, he added a third masterpiece at the generally accepted zenith of American Musical Theater for which he wrote both the lyrics and music:A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. And yet it was only in the 1970’s, in his 40’s, that Sondheim transcended more than simply a composer of musicals into the creator of an entirely new and still undeveloped kind of theater.
The (relatively) more expensive ticket prices of the 70’s meant that a genius like Sondheim was free to appeal to a more educated audience. As the ticket prices went up, Sondheim became ever more experimental, ever more searing, ever more profound. In the early 70’s, he’d done the music and lyrics for a second trilogy whose depth left the first trilogy in the shade.
In 1970 was Company, the American Non-Marriage of Figaro or a Mid-City Night’s Dream, a realistic and dramatic work so utterly perfect that there doesn’t seem a single word or note out of place. Just the next year came Follies, a musical about retired showgirls which parodies the empty cliches of the old style songs and the heartlessness of show business without mercy. Two years later followedA Little Night Music, an adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night - another perfect work. Taking place in 1900, it uses the artificialities of opera to capture all of opera’s soaring longings without any of opera’s bombast. Three years thereafter is Pacific Overtures, a Japanese-style work about American imperialism, a work so experimental you wonder if it could possibly be by the same composer. Three years thereafter, Sweeney Todd, a horror musical about a serial killer in 19th century London. According to some the ‘Great American Opera’, to others (clearly including Tim Burton) it’s a grand and fun melodrama. To me, Sondheim’s answer to Greek Drama - for all its macabre humor, it has a pessimism about fate that is positively Sophoclean. Two years later comes Merrily We Roll Along, which I’ve actually neither seen nor heard at all yet.
'But then comes the 1980’s, and the full splendor of a Shakespearean genius. After the failure of Merrily, Sondheim was ready to give up completely. Instead, he ascends to a still higher level of genius - one that becomes positively Shakespearean. In 1984: Sunday in the Park with George about the French artist, Georges Seurat, in which Sondheim positively announces that he will be a creator ‘for ever.’
And then, three years later, comesInto the Woods, a musical about Fairy Tales in which the sugary pap of Disney is utterly upended and crushed. For me at least, this is perhaps the greatest, most perfect and virtuosic, most profound work of theater since King Lear. I’m very serious when I say that there are moments when this endlessly inventive work strikes me as even beyond places Shakespeare goes.
In 1990, we come to Assassins, an American Macb-th or Gotterdammerung, a theatrical black hole, apocalyptic enough to haunt you with fears about what humanity is capable. Finally, to Passion, the American Tristan, a work about love and obsession that is almost like a final consummation. After Passion, what greater intensity was there to capture?
The diversity of what these works require from a creator is impossible for the rest of us to conceive. Like in Shakespeare and Mozart, you can’t really find Sondheim in the characters. Perhaps Sondheim’s persona is present in Bobby from Company, but there still remains the problem that Sondheim is gay while Bobby seems quite contented to ‘remain’ straight. The only exception real exception in which you truly feel the character speaks for Sondheim is in Georges Seurat, whose main quality as an individual is that he seems autistically obsessed by his work to the exclusion of everything else in his life. I doubt anybody would ever accuse Sondheim of autism - he comes across in interviews as superbly communicative and empathetic towards people, but you could never get a sense of his personality from his characters - all you can tell is that they appear to him from places of infinite empathy and craft.
Like Shakespeare and Mozart, no matter what intensity lies in store, there is almost always a return home to balance, with no perceivable dogma or agenda, just an infinite-sided creative self that has no desire to do anything but bring the audience to a place of infinity. I don’t know if he will be remembered as our Shakespeare, our Tolstoy, our Michelangelo, but we’ll never produce anyone better.