Fresh off his latest acclaimed film, First Reformed, veteran director Paul Schrader was interviewed on the online magazine Deadline Hollywood about his take on the current state of cinema. I myself have always found the discussion of what decade could be said to be the high point of a given medium fascinating. Are the consensuses guided by nostalgia or did the masters of old really have something the current generation doesn’t possess? If one were to look at any given list of the greatest films ever made, one would get the impression the 1970s in particular was an exemplary decade for the medium.
However, Mr. Schrader felt differently. He made the case that, if anything, there is a far greater number of talented filmmakers working today. What he felt the one unequivocal advantage the 1970s had over the 2010s was the audience. In the interview, he claimed that because filmgoers don’t take the medium seriously, and it is “very, very hard” to make a “serious movie” under such circumstances. He punctuated this point by saying that it was audiences who were letting filmmakers down – not the other way around.
As someone who considers Raging Bull one of the best films ever made, this one statement made me lose a lot of respect for the man. There are so many problems with it that I barely know where to begin. First of all, his suggestion that audiences don’t take films seriously is complete nonsense. As of this writing, people on the internet are debating over Jordan Peele’s Us and the rich layers of symbolism therein. If that wasn’t enough, Avengers: Endgame has just broken several box-office records purely through presales. If he needed proof of audiences taking films seriously, he should’ve paid attention to when the internet erupted following the 90th Academy Award ceremony due to Lady Bird failing to win a single Oscar. None of these things would have happened if, as Mr. Schrader says, audiences didn’t care about films.
Because of this, I can only assume that when he says “[audiences] don’t take [movies] seriously”, he actually means “[audiences] don’t take [movies] seriously on my terms”. By his implicit definition, a film isn’t good unless it’s timely and touches upon current problems and social issues such as his own First Reformed. Was Star Wars secretly a piece of insipid, childish garbage because George Lucas didn’t make a film about the mid-1970s recession or the infamous New York City blackout of 1977? Of course not.
Besides, it would be very self-defeating for audiences to demand and praise only one kind of film. If the audience were to do exactly what Mr. Schrader says, the medium would stagnate. Critics would have a clear, objective standard of what constituted a good film, causing audiences to mindlessly oblige. This isn’t how any medium should operate; if the audience elects not to agree with critics, creators cannot then lambast them for not understanding their vision – at least not without being rightly challenged. Audiences may be proven wrong at a later time, but there have been just as many instances in which critics failed to recognize a masterpiece when it was right in front of them – just look what happened to Charles Laughton when he made The Night of the Hunter. As such, it is almost never a black-and-white phenomenon.
It’s easy for cinephiles to write off the overwhelming success of summer blockbusters and the Marvel Cinematic Universe as proof that the audience want and expect dumb entertainment, but this theory doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. There was a time starting in the mid-nineties when summer blockbusters were sold purely on their special effects, thus resulting in a golden age of forgettable disaster films. Sure, there was the occasional Face/Off to liven things up, but most blockbusters from around this time ended up like Volcano, Armageddon, Twister, or The Lost World: Jurassic Park. In fact, I would argue the triumph of the Marvel Cinematic Universe prompted people to begin expecting more out of summer blockbusters. These films were especially commendable in the 2010s, being some of the only ones being sold as actual stories and not heavy-handed parables bolstered by confirmation bias.
The disquieting thing is that Mr. Schrader’s conclusion is one that is shared by many film scholars. They lament that a new and improved studio system rose from the ashes of New Hollywood in the early 1980s, making films to appeal to the lower common denominator rather than on any artistic merit. This is evident when you examine any high-minded critic’s lists of the greatest films of each decade. Up until the 1970s, you will see many films that were hits with the general populace. Starting in the 1980s, however, you may notice said lists populated by features the average person has never heard of. This would appear to support the stereotypical elitist narrative of how the businesspeople ruined the auteur theory for everyone and made audiences dumber by subjecting them to decades’ worth of uninspired, insipid garbage.
What this conveniently ignores is that the New Hollywood movement was destroyed by its own artists. Scholars like to pin the blame on George Lucas’s Star Wars and how it taught investors that a film’s worth is measured by its ability to spin off merchandise rather than its own merits, but there is a bit more to it than that. New Hollywood was defined by artists such as Hal Ashby, Michael Cimino, William Friedkin, and Francis Ford Coppola. Their works, including Coming Home, The Deer Hunter, The Boys in the Band, and The Godfather are considered exemplary films to this very day.
One of the most significant triumphs occurred late in the decade when Francis Ford Coppola put the finishing touches on his sprawling anti-war epic Apocalypse Now. The hellish production cycle of this film is legendary – to the point where it was a genuine miracle they managed to finish it. It’s equally miraculous that, given its gigantic budget, it performed well in the box office. It would be far more likely for Apocalypse Now to have completely bombed, for a large budget necessitates an impressive turnout just to break even. I don’t even need to imagine such a scenario; all four of the directors I mentioned ended up doing just that.
Given that ticket sales had decreased dramatically in the 1960s as a result of various factors, it was only a matter of time before these practices became the industry’s undoing. Critics can extol the values of the auteur theory all they want, but New Hollywood’s demise came about primarily because of the directors’ total disregard for the resources they were allotted. Without a reasonable executive to put their foot down, directors let their egos get the better of them. You would get these films with inflated budgets only to receive a tiny fraction back in the box office. Many people lost their jobs, entire studios went bankrupt, and investors were rewarded for putting their faith in these skilled directors with nothing. Thus began the medium’s Blockbuster Age. This era may be the bane of the average cinephile’s existence, but the fact of the matter is that it would have been financially irresponsible for producers to let the New Hollywood-era practices continue into the foreseeable future. These directors were lucky they didn’t dismantle the entire American film industry.
The reason this is important to keep in mind is because, regardless of who you could consider to be at fault, audiences realistically never had any say in the matter. If the market consists of nothing but mindless schlock, it’s not as though they can march to the producer’s office and demand smarter fare. Assuming Mr. Schrader is correct in that the audiences of the 1970s were indeed better than contemporary ones, there is a contradiction in his assessment. By his own logic, they would never have let the Blockbuster Age happen, yet that is exactly what they did. Then again, everyone has their own idea of what constitutes a good film, so even an organized, unified effort to demand the studios to step up their game would involve the nearly insurmountable task of consolidating countless conflicting opinions and making a singular, coherent argument out of them. Most people wouldn’t bother because, at the end of the day, seeing films ranks relatively low on the average list of priorities. After all, seeing a film serves a hedonic purpose; even if it has a positive social message, watching it is not required to survive like food, water, and shelter.
Mr. Schrader’s conclusion also ignores that the current state of the film industry is far different than it was in the 1970s. Most notably, there are significantly more entertainment options now than there were back then. The 1980s in particular saw two mediums gain traction: video games and comic books. This ensured films had more competition than just television and music. Although video games were dismissed as children’s toys at first, going into the twenty-first century, artists began experimenting with interactive narratives. In doing so, they formed stories that couldn’t exist in any other medium. In the 2010s, a majority of the decade’s avant-garde storytelling techniques saw their inception in video games such as Undertale and OneShot. Similarly, the 1980s was the decade in which comics went from being things children would use to rot their brains in lieu of reading their history books to competing with traditional literature on equal footing. This was primarily thanks to the success of Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. As such, Mr. Schrader’s statement ignores that there are plenty of erudite works with sizable fanbases; they’re just not necessarily meant to be watched in a theater.
Ultimately, what I find especially contemptible about Mr. Schrader’s insinuation is that it is a very cowardly stance. When it comes to the act of making a film and releasing it to the public, there are five major factions that allow this operation to function. First, there are the creators themselves. Obviously, with no directors or actors, a given film wouldn’t exist. Despite certain directors inserting potshots against producers in their work, they are required to finance the film, ensuring the project is finished. It simply wouldn’t do if all of their hard work went unnoticed, so it’s up to distributors to ensure what they made reaches as many theaters as possible. Once the film has made its debut, critics get to write about what does and doesn’t work. Finally, it’s up to the audience to see the film for themselves, giving it a place in the public consciousness.
In order for the medium’s situation to be as Mr. Schrader thinks it is, at least one of these factions has to be at fault. However, there is quite a bit of baggage that comes with a big name choosing to fault four of these factions. Were he to label the creators the guilty party, he would run the risk of alienating himself from his peers, drastically limiting who he could work with. Meanwhile, even if artistic types have a contentious relationship with producers, the smart ones know better than to bite the hand that feeds them. There are exceptions such as the writers who work on The Simpsons, but the network is willing to put up with any of these minor slights if it means a securing a steady source of income.
Assuming this problem can be blamed on a single faction to begin with, the distributors are probably the most at fault. If the audience should improve their taste, how can they possibly go about doing so when the distributors won’t allow the intelligent films to be screened where they live? It’s fitting that Mr. Schrader expressed this opinion in 2018 because whether he and his ilk are willing to acknowledge it or not, it was a horrible year for film distribution. This was the year in which distributors felt films such as Death of a Nation, Peppermint, and Fifty Shades Freed needed to have a wide release whereas Leave No Trace and Mandy only deserved to be in select theaters. Nonetheless, Mr. Schrader can’t fault them because it would discourage them from distributing his own work.
It seems to be a common trend among creative types to view critics as the true believers. It doesn’t matter that Joe six-pack thinks of this naval-gazing introspection of the human condition as pretentiously boring and self-righteous; the critics’ say it’s good, it therefore must be so. Even if that isn’t true, insulting critics is something even good writers refrain from doing because it is typically considered bad form. After all, fewer things in the artistic world are worse than a director who can’t take criticism. Moreover, they’re the ones whose consensuses decide whether or not a film is worth seeing. Many times, critics have proven that they can dish it out, but they can’t take it. Making them angry in any way might cause them to find fault in a film they would have otherwise praised.
That just leaves us with one remaining faction: the audience. How a film performs in the box office determines whether the investor’s trust in the creators paid off or they effectively set millions of dollars ablaze. It would seem downright suicidal to insinuate they’re the ones at fault when they are capable of improving the medium for everyone. Even so, Mr. Schrader opts to pick on them for one simple reason: they’re outsiders. They’re instrumental for a film’s success, yet they are also the unwashed masses. He can badmouth them because he will not suffer a direct consequence for doing so. He can even take comfort in the fact that his opinion will not reach every single one of his viewers, meaning the people who would have a problem with it aren’t afforded an opportunity to object.
The unfortunate thing is that this mentality is often shared by critics, ensuring it invariably goes unchallenged. “Fish tend not to notice the water they’re swimming in” as the old adage goes. Hereditary got a D+ on CinemaScore? It’s far too high-minded for you worthless drones. Nintendo opted to commission a new Metroid Prime installment? They must have given into the fanboys baselessly whining about Metroid: Other M. Emotionally hurt that the Ex Machina marketing team catfished you on Tinder? Suck it up, you big baby; anything goes when it comes to promoting true art. This combative relationship with their audience is not the sign of a healthy industry. Historically, a majority of the companies that thrust blame onto their clientele like Mr. Schrader and any of these journalists do are the ones seconds away from filing Chapter 7 bankruptcy. The owners know they’re doomed, so they will do anything to get the blame off themselves and onto anyone else to save whatever remaining face they have left.
What I feel to be the most damning aspect of Mr. Schrader’s opinion is that it is, from an artistic standpoint, a betrayal of his own movement’s ethos. What made New Hollywood such an inspiring movement despite its many, many flaws was how it encouraged its directors to get creative. Part of what inspired it in the first place was when the film industry had no choice but to acknowledge their competition. People stayed home to watch television, independent efforts attracted young talent, and many foreign filmmakers such as Akira Kurosawa and François Truffaut proved they were more than a match for Hollywood’s best. In the face of this fierce competition, directors sought to step up their game. They rose to the challenge, and produced many classic films. Even if it didn’t work out in the long term, their influence on the medium is undeniable.
With such contempt for his audience, I don’t feel it to be a coincidence that I saw not a faint glimmer of the creative spark he used to pen the script for Raging Bull alongside Mardik Martin when I listened to this interview or even as I watched First Reformed. Rather than take the new environment as a challenge to improve himself and step up his game, Mr. Schrader opted to lash out at his audience instead. Interestingly, fellow New Hollywood alumni Steven Spielberg would later call on the Oscars to forbid Netflix from entering the competition ever again after Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma received a nomination. Given that his idea attracted the attention of the United States Department of Justice, it’s difficult to dismiss the idea that he sought to deplatform his competition rather than protect the sanctity of the Academy. It’s the same line of thinking that fuels Mr. Schrader’s beliefs; there’s no need to improve if he can cut potential detractors off at the knees first. So, while Mr. Schrader believes filmgoers are letting him down, I feel his conclusion demonstrates he has already thrown in the towel.
I think the best way to close this editorial is with a personal story. I have been critiquing games for nearly five years. At first, I would be lucky if my reviews reached 2,000 words. Nowadays, a 2,000-word review is what happens when the game in question barely gives me anything to talk about. Within my fifth year, I managed to do something I would never have imagined I could do when I was just starting out: I wrote not one, but four reviews that exceeded 10,000 words. Though it is said that practice makes perfect, I know I wouldn’t have improved if I wasn’t regularly interacting with my audience. Through various exchanges in the comment sections, I was able to form new opinions I wouldn’t have otherwise. Had I adopted the same hostile attitude driving the average modern critic and Mr. Schrader, I would be exactly where I was when I started.
A wise man once said that “those who want respect, give respect”.
If Mr. Schrader or any critic dancing to his tune continues to show nothing but contempt for their audiences, they cannot expect any in return – nor should they. Should audiences seek to improve themselves? Of course – everyone should. Self-improvement is a lifelong journey and whatever they do in their attempts to better themselves, they would do well not to mentally grow old like Mr. Schrader clearly has.