So your faithful podcaster has been slightly behind in productivity lately and of course means to get back on his high horse with weekly frequency, though we'll see how successful he is. He had a masterfully hubristic plan for the summer - to read all the great American novelists and see if they saw the American crisis coming. But having begun with Hawthorne, it was somewhere roughly around the sixth short story about a scientist or magician with an experiment which went awry for his subjects that he realized this would be a long summer indeed if he pursued this road. Which is not to say that The Scarlett Letter and Young Goodman Brown weren't transcendently good, but everything else was... well, the sooner I stop thinking about Hawthorne the better. Rather than focus on those things and people we dislike or hate, it's a much better time to focus on those things we love.
We should all probably beware of any concept which wreaks of the grand plan, the magnum opus, the giant work or concept that will explain the world and justify our existence. We defy augury, and the world is much too large to be understood except within the parameters of our little corners within it. Without pragmatic concessions to feasibility, the still shorter days of our lives will grow very long indeed.
So with that said, here's Evan's grand theory of cinematic greatness:
There are four kings on which all quality in the movies are based. Their movies the yardstick by which all other directors are measured, and they were all roughly contemporary with each other, each of which embody the four most important, longest, most fruitful and vital traditions in film. From the beginning to the present day, there are three countries whose proliferation of great movies have been pretty much unceasing from the early 1900s to right now: the US obviously, but also France and Japan. Each of them has a grand master at the height of movies' importance to the world which exemplify the greatness of movies in their classical period - the mid 30s to the early 60s, when, like all classical periods, the movies were in thrall to formal and emotional balance. Every expression was balanced by its opposite - tragedy with comedy, sublimity with vulgarity, compassion with contempt.
But still more important than the emotional balance of these directors' films was the particular focus. The focus was human beings; their frustrations, their triumphs, their dignity and their indignities. What makes a society live on is the belief that life of human beings matters above all else - once we believe that, then the world is worth fighting on against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. It may be a lie that human dignity matters at all, but if we want to survive at all, we have to convince ourselves that it does. Before them were the Baroque stylistic experiments of silent film directors which seemed to communicate to us in the language of dreams: Fritz Lang, FW Murnau, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Aleksandr Dovzhenko, Dziga Vertov, Sergei Eisenstein, Robert Wiene, Victor Sjostrom, and yes, Griffith too, and Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. After these directors were the romantic generations with yearnings to the transcend our humdrum realities, Stanley Kubrick, David Lean, Werner Herzog, Akira Kurosawa, Bergman and Fellini, Godard and Truffaut, Scorsese and Spielberg, David Lynch and Oliver Stone. Directors whose movies electrified and stimulated audiences to the point that the yearning to break free from the confines of reality became a narcotic.
But in between them was a very different, more grounded and settled, conception of art and movies, indicative of a society that, whether correctly or not, believed in itself - that its problems could be changed with proper application, and that there was little enough which needed to change that even if they weren't, it would ultimately turn out alright. This approach involved delayed gratification and didn't necessarily make for the most satisfying lives for the citizens of its time, but the belief in delayed gratification did provide future generations with still greater prosperity which they could use to gratify themselves; prosperity enough that, in some ways at least, it turned their successor generations to various forms of decadence.
And decadence is the name of the game in our own historical period. Following the romanticism that yearned to break free of constraint came the decadent generations who had broken free only to realize that the constraints were ourselves. In film, the creation of stunning imagery has never been easier. Advancement in computer technology means that moviemakers are now free to create whatever images they like. And yet who were the most praised directors of this era? Tarantino, Stephen Soderbergh, David Fincher, Spike Jonze, the Coen Brothers, the Andersons PT and Wes, with David Lynch as a kind of transitional figure between the generations. These are moviemakers so enamored of movies that there's barely a movie by any of them without a series of homages to earlier movies. And even if they are not saturated with other movies, how many of these directors make movies that are not saturated with misanthropy? Of course, then you have the genre moviemakers. Peter Jackson may not be misanthropic, but he sure as hell doesn't think much about human beings except as a vessel for his spectacles, or Christopher Nolan, or the Wachowskis, or James Cameron, or Guy Ritchie, or M. Night Shyamalan, or Ridley Scott and George Lucas before them, who created works that seem to appeal to our generation far more than any other director of theirs save Spielberg. Maybe Pixar is interested in human beings and their motivations, but if Pixar is a shining exception to the rule, then think of the extreme visual stylization it takes to get audiences interested in human beings again.
This is the paradox of our own era, beginning with the gen-X'ers, our generations are 'free to be free'; and yet we are so beholden by the weight of our society's history, so incapable of even thinking outside of the constraints of our inescapable American culture - mostly popular culture, that we have no idea what to do with our freedom. It is so difficult to conceive of a different way to live life if you don't have any experience in witnessing them. If you travel to any first-world region or country: Western and Central Europe, Japan and South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, and yes, Israel too, perhaps especially Israel, you're still saturated by a culture that America ultimately created. All of these countries, particularly Japan and South Korea, will be very different from ours, but in the ways that they are different from us, they are different because they rebelled against the model we bestowed to them. Nowhere moreso than Japan and South Korea, whose societies created their new identities by taking our technological advancements and advancing them so far past our own that they've almost completely divorced from the traditional societies and worldviews we coerced them to leave behind.
So unless you travel to what we used to call during the Cold War the Second World, which is the Soviet Sphere, and most particularly the Third World - which doesn't necessarily imply poverty the way we use the term today but rather implies non-alignment in the Cold War, and therefore the traditions of their societies have not been decimated by either Americanization or Sovietization - you will find it extremely difficult at best to find a different way of thinking about the world than the one in which you were raised. At least many of our grandfathers had to travel to truly different societies from America - old Europe and Japan and Korea - so they could destroy them. So who can be surprised then that many Americans left, right, and center, no longer even think that our problems can ever be solved without destroying the whole edifice of American civilization and starting all over again from scratch?
This still greater prosperity could be found in art as well as life. Moreso than the experimentalism of silent film, which seem like postcards from a completely different universe, we are still dining out on the conceptions of movies that were codified from the mid 30s to the early 60s.
In America, the codifying figure was, of course, Orson Welles - I sometimes think I should call this podcast The Orson Welles Worship Factory, even though I've barely discussed Welles in any detail. In movie after movie, we see
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