Sunday, July 12, 2015
Here's to you Mrs. Robinson
You know Dustin Hoffman has become an old man when he says they don't make movies like The Graduate anymore. While it is true the late 60s and early 70s saw a wonderful resurgence of the American melodrama, it's not like you can't make those kind of movies these days. They are just not done in Hollywood studios, as the fascination with Marvel and DC superheros tends to take top billing. I suppose you can blame Christopher Reeve for that, as he was the one who brought Superman back in vogue in the late 70's.
Richard Brody considers it a "misplaced nostalgia" to put too much stock in The Graduate. The studios still turn these types of melodramas out from time to time, usually at the end of the year in the lead up to the Oscars, as this is prime material for best actor and actress nominations, as well as supporting roles. It's also a sure bet for screenwriting. The bigger problem, as Brody points out, is that these movies rarely provide a return on their investment, so they are more or less vanity projects.
It's at the Independent level where you see melodramas still being regularly made, as you can work with an inexpensive ensemble of actors and produce something light and fun that appeals to the folks of Sundance or South by Southwest (SXSW), and get picked up by a big name distributor. If you're lucky like Wes Anderson and Quentin Tarrantino you can even get big name actors involved for nothing more than a return on the profit, what little there usually is. I would certainly hold up The Royal Tenenbaums and Pulp Fiction to anything made in the 60s and 70s. In fact, there is a wonderful retro quality to both films that make them look like they came from that era.
Not that long ago, I saw Adventureland, which I thought was a wonderful movie about kids trapped in between high school and college. It was set in the summer of 1987. I guess the time the director came of age. It involved kids working at an amusement park in Pennsylvania. The biggest name was Kristen Stewart, from the Twilight saga, but it proved to be the breakout movie for Jesse Eisenberg, who reminded me a little of a young Dustin Hoffman.
For whatever reason, Hoffman treats the idea of the American melodrama as a lost art. You see veteran directors still making melodramas, like Clint Eastwood and Martin Scorsese, but this genre is more often the purview of young directors hoping to break into Hollywood.
One veteran director who continues to make melodramas outside of Hollywood is John Sayles, who broke onto the scene with Return of the Secaucas Seven back in 1979, his second full length feature. He used the proceeds from Piranha to help fund it. Sayles has also made excellent historic melodramas like Matewan and Eight Men Out. He continues to produce all his own movies, seeking independent funding.
Some years back, Jim Jarmusch found out how difficult it is to work with studios when Miramax offered to fund one of his films, Dead Man, starring Johnny Depp, Guy Farmer and a host of intriguing cameos including Robert Mitchum. Jarmusch had written into his contract that he had final editorial word on his film. When he presented the final product to Harvey Weinstein, the Miramax exec wanted a different ending. Jarmusch said no, so Weinstein gave the film a very limited release out of spite, pretty much killing Jarmusch's foray into Hollywood. The film however became a cult classic and made Jarmusch a hero among Indy filmmakers for holding his ground. Unfortunately, Jarmusch hasn't quite managed to match that same level of filmmaking in his subsequent efforts, although his most recent film, Only Lovers Left Alive, offers a fresh new look at the nocturnal world of vampires with a captivating Tilda Swinton.
Here in lies the rub. If you want to make melodramas that are close to the heart, it is best to stay away from Hollywood, as you find yourself subject to the producers' whims and vagaries. So many projects end up being shelved because half way through production a studio executive doesn't see any money to be made or simply loses interest in it. Robert Altman's The Player was a great satire on the making of a Hollywood movie.
The talent is still there. New names yet to emerge. You just have to look to the film festivals and not the Hollywood studios to find them.