A friend in boutique distribution tells me about dealing with a theater that will only accept DCP—a queer flipside to the usual story of victimized arthouse programmers facing impending doom thanks to the dictates of the Studios. Critic friends trade insider tips on the city’s best breadlines, preparing for the inevitable. Meanwhile, a perusal through this month’s Sight & Sound reveals that one Nick Roddick has been thinking along much the same lines as this critic-diarist with regards to the widening schism in the film world:
“C.P. Snow’s 1959 thesis about the ‘two cultures’ of science and humanities has been attached to many areas of human experience over the years, but it pretty much fits the film world these days. There was a time when mainstream and arthouse seemed to be moving together. That was in the early to mid-1990s, when the last recession was over, Sundance was redefining the independent film world and Hollywood was having one of its brief flirtations with independent cinema via its ‘classics divisions’. Nowadays, however, mainstream and arthouse are moving further and further apart. Popcorn cinemas rule, while carrot-cake cinemas are off on a different planet. A much smaller planet, too. A moon, perhaps.”
This is a tune I like to play whenever I get the chance, as for example in introducing a roundup of MOMA’s Roman Polanski retro last year: “Gore Vidal wrote in 2007 that ‘to speak today of a famous novelist is like speaking of a famous cabinetmaker or speedboat designer. Adjective is inappropriate to noun. How can a novelist be famous—no matter how well known he may be personally to the press?—if the novel itself is of little consequence to the civilized, much less to the generality?’ The same could be said of the famous “art” director in our fractured, specialized film culture. Being a public intellectual in the 21st century just isn’t what it used to be.”
Of particular interest to me is Roddick’s selection of the early to mid-1990’s as the last “time when mainstream and arthouse seemed to be moving together.” Even if this overstates the case, the period does seem, retrospectively, a special one, and I think this is not only because this critic was in his impressionable adolescence and early teenaged years during them (Mr. Roddick was not.)
My personal feelings don’t deviate far accepted wisdom in identifying the demarcation point between the 80s and 90s in two pop-culture watersheds, which we may call the Nevermind and the Pulp Fiction moments. More public savants than intellectuals, neither Cobain nor Tarantino came out of nowhere, of course—Nevermind was in some respects the every-dog-will-have-its-day triumph for a left-of-the-dial, D.I.Y. culture that had up until 1992 been quite contentedly growing under a rock, away from the attention of Rolling Stone, MTV, and other gatekeepers. Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, aside from their name-above-the-title storytelling panache and the eager limelight-seeking of their director, were really not very far removed from an extant neo-noir industry that had formed the underbelly of Eighties action, with Tarantino mining much the same seam as The Hot Spot and John Dahl and Miami Blues.
One’s individual feelings about Nevermind and Pulp Fiction as works of art are rather beside the point here—what is and was important is that the unexpected insurgence into the “charts” of two rather obscurantist sensibilities upended the going gameplan in two industries that had heretofore been operating quite profitable and predictable scams. This created a sudden “We don’t know what we’re doing” panic among the people who write checks, followed quickly by an A &R land rush to the dig up and sign indigenous guitar bands or indie auteurs, in hopes of finding “the next” Cobain or Tarantino, bringing all manner of bizarre up-is-down phenomena along with the bedlam: Helmet signing a ludicrously lucrative contract and Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead and OK Cola and “Reel Wild Cinema” on “Hi Octane” on basic cable.
Of course, both “moments” turned out to be relatively short-lived and isolated phenomena. To his credit, Tarantino, riding the crest of his new fame, was rather more cut out to play taste-ambassador to middle-America, a born extrovert who proselytized for his personal passions whenever he found a platform, winning Wong Kar-wai a modest stateside audience by virtue of his imprimatur. Cobain didn’t fare so well, covering Bowie and the Meat Puppets and the Vaselines—thus providing points of entry to curious kids who were willing to do a little self-motivated research—then dining on a shotgun shell, which pretty much put an end to all that.
Now, when we look at the history of mass-media generally and film particularly, it must be admitted that the “two cultures” model proposed by Mr. Roddick seems, in general, much closer to the status quo, and for every Universal Studios “youth unit” or genuinely original sensibility to make a blip on the larger public consciousness, there are long stretches where the “mainstream,” if I may use so shopworn but functional a term, and the “cool stuff” remain safely out-of-sight from one another (with, of course, work shading from excellent to risible being produced in both camps.)
Is it possible, then, that for myself and my generational coevals who experienced, with the exhilaration of youth, that ersatz moment in the early-to-mid-90s when the regularly scheduled programming went briefly off the air created unrealistic expectations for how things would and could be? Almost certainly yes. And you wonder why I’m cranky.