The Eternal Struggle
“Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television. Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers... choose rotting away at the end of it all... choose your future.”
(From the deliriously wonderful opening scene of Trainspotting)
I recently came across an interesting post that got me thinking about the eternal struggle between art and commerce in Hollywood. To my mind, much of what we do below-the-line falls under the heading of commerce -- trading our time, sweat, and hard-earned knowledge for money -- but even in such a do-it-quick-and-dirty business as the film industry, a certain level of craft is required to do every job right. Like the countless individual brush strokes that make up a beautiful painting, all that heavy-lifting and shared expertise can help raise the occasional blessed project to a level approaching art. For a Hollywood movie to enter such lofty territory remains the rarest of exceptions, but the level of craftsmanship routinely displayed on set often blurs the line between mere competence and that higher calling.
While rigging a sit-com a few years ago – day-playing up in a man-lift helping the show crew hang, power, and adjust the two hundred and fifty-plus lamps it takes to light an average multi-camera show – I watched as one of the set painters turned an ordinary piece of sanded plywood into what looked like a thick slab of yellow marble. It took him about twenty minutes, and when he was done, the results were absolutely perfect. I doubt Michelangelo could have done it any quicker or better – and the grizzled old painter (an ex-con with a cigarette dangling from his lips the entire time) performed this minor miracle using a couple of paint rollers.
It was amazing.
As luck would have it, that “marble” counter top – a small part of the kitchen set nobody in the viewing audience would ever notice or fully appreciate – was probably the best thing about the entire show. No matter how skilled, one person is never enough. A solid lineup of talent, artistry, and support from the powers-that-be in the executive suites are needed to make a truly good show.
The epiphanies keep coming as the years pile on here in Hollywood, occasional moments of clarity allowing me to see the Industry for what it has always been: a business. It’s not a normal business, though, since producing screened entertainment isn’t the same thing as manufacturing widgets. Unfortunately for the mega-corporations that now control our film studios and broadcast networks, television and movies aren’t toilet paper, weed-killers, erection enhancers, or frozen dinners -- which means they can’t be manufactured and sold quite the same way. Any halfway competent corporate drone can use his MBA to oversee the marketing of a new product, but a more sophisticated approach is required to craft and sell a dream. That delicate task requires a measure of art, but the cruel irony is that most of those who come to Hollywood hoping to make a living by creating art are doomed to disappointment.
Every now and then a fresh name will blaze out of nowhere to light up the Hollywood firmament – a young writer or director blessed with the talent, super-charged ambition, an eagerness to work hard, and the ethereal combination of timing and luck it takes to succeed. If he or she can follow up that initial success with a string of box office hits, they can earn the chance to break out of the commercial straitjacket and go for the artistic gold.
But these Chosen Ones truly are the exceptions that prove the rule.
As lapdogs of their corporate overlords, most studio and network executives hate having to depend upon artists to get the job done. A true artist answers to a Higher Power, and typically fails to show proper respect for their employer’s groveling obeisance to the bottom line. Rather than kneeling down before the top-down, my-way-or-the-highway management typical of the modern corporate power structure, an artist follows the dictates of personal vision – and when pissed off, is likely to forget who’s the real boss, and offer some tart and very explicit advice as to exactly where the corporate drones can shove their intrusively lame committee-and-focus-group spawned "ideas." Although artists and management may come from the same genetic well of carbon-based bipeds, that’s where the similarities end. Like oil and water, they do not mix well in the real world, but when the right combination of talent comes together under proper circumstances, amazing things can happen: films such as “Chinatown” and “Blade Runner.”*
Unfortunately, this kind of magic rarely happens in the current era of comic book blockbusters, movies based on old TV shows, and paint-by-the-numbers Rom-Coms starring the hottest young male and female flavors of the month. This trend towards recycling and regurgitating – or is it “re-imagining?” -- pop culture reveals a profound lack of initiative and vision on the part of studio executives. It's no surprise, given the extreme aversion the corporate hive-mind holds for taking any serious risks -- but art rarely emerges from that fear-based, cover-your-ass studio mentality.
A few organizations beyond Hollywood actually do “get it.” Just look at the Ipod and Iphone – there are many mp3 players and cell phones on the market, but Apple’s products consistently capture the public imagination with elegant designs that blend artistry and engineering. In the best products – be they tangible goods or screened entertainment -- the line between art and commerce vanishes.
This is increasingly the exception in our own film industry. The only good news here is that the corporate steamroller often sows the seeds of its own demise. People eventually get sick of being spoon-fed the same pre-packaged assembly-line pabulum and turn to something raw, fresh, and different – in the case of Hollywood, the occasional small, quirky film made far from the mainstream: a “Spellbound,” Little Miss Sunshine,” or “Juno” that takes the viewing public (and the corporations) by surprise. Stealing their lunch money is the only thing that really gets the attention of those ponderous corporate Goliaths, at which point they are forced to confront the terrifying notion of bringing some of those honest-to-God artists back into the building.
Television has fared better, thanks to the cable networks (the TV equivalent of indie films) which have been running rings around the hopelessly sclerotic and befuddled networks for the past ten years. I’ve got my own problems with these cable outfits, but can’t deny the quality, dynamism, and breathtaking originality of shows like “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” “Battlestar Galactica,” “The Shield,” “Dexter,” and the current champs “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad.”** These shows were not conceived and written by committee and filtered through focus-groups, nor given the green light by some bloodless corporate mandarin in his penthouse office. Without people who really cared and were willing to follow their gut instincts all the way, such shows would never have come to life -- and to me, such people are artists.
In this eternal struggle, commerce wins most of the time -- it's hard to beat the crushing power of money, and those hell-bent on making as much as possible in the shortest span of time. Still, most decent movies and television shows contain some level of artistry: a gorgeous dolly move or steady-cam shot, an atmospheric set beautifully designed, painted, dressed, propped, and lit, or wardrobe-hair-and-makeup so perfect for the actors and tone of the show that you can't imagine them being any other way. If you look for it, the proof is right there on screen.
Flowers grow from shit the world over. Despite the increasingly crass nature and dumbassification of our own modern culture, the miracle of art -- and its cousin, artistry -- lives on.
Even in Hollywood.
* To be fair, both of these classics were made before Hollywood was swallowed whole by the current crop of mega-corporations.
** There’s no denying that cable raised the bar to new heights for quality dramas on television, but I have a few issues with the cable world.