A World of Hits?

A mate of mine was recently at the prestigious Clermont-Ferrand Film Festival in France.

His short, The Long Night, was picked up by talent scouts at another smaller festival late last year. You can check it out below: I don’t want to give anything away but let it suffice to say that when these vampires feel the heat of the sun they don’t just sparkle meaninglessly like certain other supposed vampires (who in actual fact probably spend far too much time doing their hair to enjoy a pint of human blood.)

He’s an ex-VCA grad from a couple of years back who’s been working his ass off to fund his film projects. And so it’s incredibly heart-warming (yes, my undead heart can actually beat at times) to see a well-deserving artist get recognition for their work. That fact that this recognition takes place overseas – and that we may not hear much about it back here – well, that’s just the way the artistic cookie crumbles in Australia, isn’t it?

Which leads me to a few other thoughts I’ve been meaning to post (for quite some time). It appears that 2009 has come to be ragarded as a watershed year in Australian film; there is a general consensus that something has finally fallen into place which has given us a bumper crop of quality features.

This was the view of Brian McFarlane, whose wrap-up ‘Resisting Tarantino’ (in the December issue of ABR) argued that our film industry has ‘not just come of age but has reached a new maturity in the ranks of international cinema.’ Over the course of 2009, McFarlane points out, we saw a slew of great films including: Mary & Max, Samson & Delilah, Disgrace, Van Diemen’s Land, Blessed, My Year Without Sex, Bastardy, The Cedar Boys, Last Ride, Beautiful Kate, Balibo, and last but not least, the incredible restoration print of 1970s classic Wake in Fright. As his title suggests, McFarlane’s thesis rests on the idea that in Australia we create movies that are fundamentally opposed to the banal, reductive and genre-driven commercial dross of Hollywood.

A completely different view can be found in Louis Nowra’s piece in the December Monthly. Unlike McFarlane, Nowra claims that our films are on the whole gloomy, depressive and driven by a mistaken sense of aesthetic value. (A strange, dialectical consequence of our nation of larakins and jokers, that we make such gloomy, wallowing dramas?) He argues that only only Hollywood can save us from ourselves; that we need formula-driven filmmaking if we are to sustain a viable industry and find a sense of identity not simply shaped around an immature opposition to commercialism.

So who is right?  Are we a nation of sour, curmudgeonly holier-than-thou filmmakers shunning Hollywood to our own detriment? Or are we a motley band of independent, intelligent, and artistically mature filmmakers glorying in our greatest artistic triumphs to date? In fact, both narratives tell part of the truth and McFarlane and Nowra are, in many ways, both right.

But an article in the Economist not too long ago (‘A World of Hits’) got me thinking that maybe there is a way to unpick this antagonism.  The article makes a compelling case that, in our media saturated and everything-is-immediate world, the blockbuster model has become not only dominant, but in actual fact, the only available model for big media businesses. In order to maintain viability the big studios have been forced to streamline their budgets around huge sequel-orientated franchises such as Spiderman and Lord of the Rings. These franchises essentially bankroll the funding of subsidiary studios like Miramax, Searchlight and Hopscotch which focus on indie and arthouse films. According to market research, the majority of people only go to the movies a few times per year, which means that, in terms of aesthetic taste, they lack discernment. On the other hand, those minorities that attend more regularly (and can afford to) have, as you would expect, much more developed and hence narrower tastes. The studios are well aware of this, which is why blockbusters like Avatar do so well, because only they, in their ludicrous breadth and simplicity, can reach the largest possible market.

The Economist’s conclusion is that – contrary to many predictions – in a globalized market studios are ever more dependent upon their blockbusters. There is no sense that bringing a world market within Hollywood’s reach has made possible greater diversification in product. In actual fact, it has necessitated greater homogenisation.  This is borne out by recent news that Avatar has broken all global box office records, including the fastest ever and largest sales on DVD, and that James Cameron has gone to work on Avatars 2 & 3.

Which leads me on to a more disturbing thought: many years ago Theodor Adorno observed the birth of the ‘culture industry’. He coined the term, having been unsatisfied with the ‘mass culture’ that he and Horkheimer used in their early drafts, to describe the increasingly prevalent situation in which ‘culture intentionally integrates its consumers from above’ and so reduces the masses so that they ‘are not primary, but secondary, they are an object of calculation; an appendage of the machinery.’ And here we get Adorno’s fullest, darkest vision, of a world in which aesthetic autonomy is literally obliterated by the culture industry in its mechanical efficacy and desire to map the profit motive onto all existing cultural forms.

Their conclusion, which I have never been able to fully accept, is that enlightenment produces its opposite, anti-enlightenment. In Adorno’s words: ‘the progressive technical domination over nature (enlightenment) becomes mass deception and is turned into a means for fettering consciousness (anti-enlightenment).’

And so we come back to where I began, with a young, aspiring Australian director heading over to a prestigious festival to promote his work and bask in the warmth of international recognition. And my personal view, which is that Australian film should continue to try and forge it’s own, unique identity in the face of the dictates of the mass-market. Because once you go down the formula-road it becomes your crutch…and then your whole world.  A world of hits, we might say.

And if you’re going to work with vampires, please, don’t have them sparkle in the sun, make them explode in a ball of flame!

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