Michael Pye has now written two books (the first with Lynda Myles) trying to explain how American show business feels to those who make their lives inside it. The first, The Movie Brats, succeeds because it keeps close to the work of the young film-makers with whose careers it’s concerned, but also because they demonstrably exist as a group. Coppola, Milius, Scorsese, De Palma, Lucas and Spielberg do have a great deal in common. Moguls, on the other hand, is one of those unhappy publishing ideas for yanking together random essays on a false subject. Any definition of the word ‘mogul’ that’s going to stretch to include Jules Stein and Trevor Nunn is so loose as to be worthless.
In the first two essays in Moguls, Pye seems to want to examine the corporate structure of the American entertainment industry, to examine it as if it were any other kind of business. Stein was a particularly unattractive band agent of the Thirties who tried, Mafialike, to wrap up the whole circuit. William Paley was the founder of CBS and was responsible, in part, for the idea of network television. For as long as he’s explaining the deals these two men did, Pye’s book is interesting, though it seems odd that he never considers the work for which Paley is responsible, nor tackles the obvious problem that network television in America is an abomination and the man who invented it should be shot. This point is, after all, forcibly made in Robert Metz’s Reflections in a Bloodshot Eye, a much fuller and more frightening account of Paley’s career, and a book which, incidentally, CBS employees are forbidden to carry onto the premises. (By CBS’s standards, this is not particularly censorious. Secretaries have their pinboards checked by executives for potentially offensive photographs or slogans.) When Pye drifts on to portraits of David Merrick and Trevor Nunn, the book loses its way, and the last essay, on Robert Stigwood, is fanzine stuff. The film Sergeant Pepper is presented as a dismaying hiccup in Stigwood’s otherwise brilliant career. No consolation is offered to those who paid to sit through it.
It is odd that Pye is so uncritical in his account of these men, because The Movie Brats rightly stresses how knowing the new generation of Hollywood film-makers has had to be, both in their choice of subject-matter and in their early judgment of just how hard it was going to be to get any good work done. I believe English directors so often foul up in Hollywood not for artistic reasons, but because they have no inborn sense of how to deal with the particular kind of American who runs the movies. Any director here relies on his English instincts in his battles with, say, the BBC. If they are bastards at the BBC, they are at least our kind of bastard. We were brought up among them, some of them went to the same schools as we did. So when they pull their tricks – banning and censoring their own employees’ best work, for example – the English director does at least have some native instinct for the right counter-punch, and for ways of getting interesting work past the bureaucracy the next time. But you have to be raised in the US to survive the characteristic problems of that system, and the scale of the pressure will be in direct proportion to the amount of money involved. To endure it will mean giving your whole life. The Movie Brats shows how Coppola and the rest have faced, sometimes willingly, sometimes not, the prospect of becoming the uneasy hybrids the system demands: half-artists, half-businessmen.
The balance is fiercely difficult to maintain, and I have great admiration for anyone who, so against the odds, gets a good film made in modern Hollywood. Most strangers to the film industry tend to assume it is full of producers who, presumably through some unhappy or embittering experiences, have reluctantly become crooks. This is the reverse of the truth. Hollywood is full of crooks who for very good reasons have become film producers. After all, if a film is made, the producer will make money, irrespective of the film’s success or failure. He will take his fee out of the ludicrously inflated budget. Once the deal for the film, and its subsequent TV sale, is made, the producer’s most important job is often over: the rest may as well be public relations. Do you wonder that faced with the prospect of a dangerous and uncertain career in gangland, many crooks opt instead for the easier life in Hollywood?
Of course, there are exceptions: honourable producers, good men whose hair no sooner falls out than they sew it back in. But there are often hopeless problems of communication. The oldest practical drawback of the medium is that the film the producer has anticipated is very rarely the film the director has made – and least of all is it ever likely to be the one the writer intended. (An early Paramount executive once summed that side of the business up for all time: ‘We like to keep fresh blood filtering through the writing department.’) Men like Scorsese and Coppola have devised new solutions to this traditional problem. They have evolved methods of improvisation, both on set and in the editing room, which defy anyone to understand in advance what the hell they are going to do: the studio is effectively cut out. Notes, yet to be published in this country, is Eleanor Coppola’s diary of the making of Apocalypse Now and it is, in part, the extraordinary record of a man who carried on working when even he had no idea what film he was making. (I say ‘in part’ because Mrs Coppola unfortunately suffers from the Californian delusion that the outside world is interesting only for its effect on your own life. From being an account of the making of a film about Vietnam, the diary deteriorates into an account of how making a film about Vietnam may do your marriage no good, Coppola’s adultery becomes an event equivalent to the war itself.) The idea that you may be ignorant of the direction in which your own subject-matter is leading you and still come through with a film which is formidably intelligent may seem strange to an outsider, but it is characteristic of Coppola. The chief fault of the final film was an ignorance of its own power. The same points were made over and over, because Coppola did not seem to realise how effectively he had made them the first time. The Movie Brats contains fascinating accounts of how the editing of Coppola’s films coaxes them into sense. On set, he shoots and re-shoots, seemingly without purpose. The method at worst produces films which are windy and inflated; at best, it has produced masterpieces.
Coppola and Scorsese would in any age be first-rate directors. The waywardness of their methods is, in them, a sign of great vitality, and their subject-matter is regularly worth the amount of technical brilliance they command. I can’t really see that the same is true of De Palma who like Milius, comes across in the book as a man whose chief obsession in life is not to be thought anybody’s fool. Milius is openly contemptuous of liberal Hollywood (his calling Coppola ‘the Bay Area Mussolini’ seems particularly inappropriate, since Coppola is hardly known for bringing his movies in on time), but his rebelliousness seems shallow – more like the pose of a sophisticated man who is determined not to be caught out in any fashionable attitude. In my view, this personal unpleasantness marks his films – he wrote Dirty Harry – whereas De Palma’s are simply fatuous: enjoyably fatuous when the schlock is whipped thick enough, and unendurably fatuous when it isn’t. Pye and Myles’s interview catches him exquisitely unhappy that he has not yet had a monster hit like the others. He feels he needs it as a passport to power within the system. But in his case the power seems purely for its own end. He wants to fashion objects which are more successful than other people’s objects, but I can’t see, at least from the evidence of the heavily menstruating Carrie, that he has much idea what the power might be for.
All these men are immensely wary and self-conscious, determined not to sell out as fast or as publicly as some other generations. Coppola is trying to bypass the old Hollywood by taking as much control of the process as he can: he has set up a studio, Zoetrope, which he hopes will provide a complete alternative to the old set-up. Lucas talks romantically of restoring what he has called ‘good value’, of making ‘real gee-whiz movies’. But that kind of talk has a way of going off, like fruit. He quickly followed up Star Wars with The Empire strikes back, which represents exactly the kind of pompous and dreary bad value he once set his face against. Spielberg has also recently suffered from elephantiasis, the generic disease. He used the I-don’t-know-what-the-hell-l’m-doing method on 1941 to much less happy effect than some others before him. Most of these men will get eaten, partly because the lobby for stupidity in California is almost indestructible, but also because few lifetimes in the arts sustain excellence. It turns out to be very hard to plan for. However conscientiously you study old movies, however encyclopedic your knowledge of Hawks and Ford, however regular your devotions at the Cinematheque, and however skilled your campaign against the indignities of your own profession, the hard thing will always be to find new images for the new land. Meanwhile, however, this group has already made some films for which the English feel a paralysed awe, and The Movie Brats is the best place to read about them.