This article is best read with its companion piece “Hollywood Has Never Been Original.”
A few weeks ago, The New York Times published a comparison piece between Richard Linklater’s Boyhood ‐ filmed in annual pieces over twelve years ‐ and Michael Apted’s Up documentary series ‐ films that have revisited the same small handful of British people every seven years, since age 7 in 1964. While author Mary Jo Murphy was not the first to make such a comparison, these disparate but comparable projects seemed to be asking for an in-depth analysis between ambitious films that exercised patient filmmaking experiments that fly in the face of the accelerated, profit-driven industry that drives much of feature filmmaking.
However, rather than make productive comparison between Apted’s and Linklater’s films (and Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel series, for that matter) that assesses what was generated by these filmmakers’ particular attempts to focus on revisited subjects over extensive production schedules, Murphy’s observations essentially exemplify that oft-quoted line from South Park pointing out how The Simpsons “did” basically everything novel in television, relegating further attempts at innovation moot. In the author’s words, “Mr. Apted is the true groundbreaker and Mr. Linklater more of a lawn mower.”
The superficiality of Murphy’s observation ‐ essentially relegating filmmaking to a zero sum game of who was “first” to realize narrative and technical gimmicks ‐ verges on self-parody. To anyone ostensibly invested in unconventional, not bottom-line-oriented filmmaking, it seems self-defeating to make an apt comparison about two difficult, dedicated filmmaking projects and argue that the former example’s existence negates the latter work. The less interesting question is not who used the technique in whatever order on the timeline, or whether or not there are precedents acknowledged or unacknowledged, but what the filmmakers did with the tools available.
Because everything has its precedents.
If even last year’s most widely recognized example of counter-intuitive filmmaking has prior points of worthy comparison, then what is to be gained from discussing “originality” in filmmaking? As demonstrated most explicitly by Murphy’s stopgap argument, we easily lose sight of the potential to understand or appreciate what individual films are doing with seemingly preexisting techniques when we infer originality to be premium criteria for evaluation.
If we get rid of the idea that precedence, recycling and familiarity are inherently anathema to narrative filmmaking ‐ and if we recognize retooling of prior work as the lifeblood of so much of cinema ‐ then we can better recognize where creativity is actually taking place within film, especially in the seemingly least creative avenue of cinema: Hollywood.
There exists a tension between the ways that the film landscape at large is discussed versus the ways in which individual films are evaluated. Franchise entries from The Hunger Games: Catching Fire to Captain America: The Winter Soldier receive some of the best reviews of any wide release any given year, but when the Hollywood franchise mentality is discussed at large, the image is always one of stagnation, of an industry desperately pulling water from the same well during a drought of creativity brought on by short-sighted executives who now have to answer to the economic pressures of transnational conglomerates. As Mark Harris summarized in a thoroughly researched and widely-shared piece from the end of last year:
[Release calendars spanning into 2020 with superheroes and sequels] may not constitute an obituary in themselves, but peer deeply enough into them, and you can see some indices of the cause of death…The future of Hollywood movies right now ‐ at least, as it lives in the hands of five-year planners ‐ feels somehow small and cautious, a dream dreamed by people whose sugarplum visions of profit maximization depend on the belief that things will never change.
It would be mostly wrong to say that “Hollywood has always been like this” or that Hollywood has been consistent at, well, anything except organizing a profitable assembly line around the mass production and dissemination of movies. Yet in order to realize this assembly line, Hollywood has relied on a careful balance between accessibility and novelty in various ways throughout its existence. Therein lies the real creative work of even one of the more strictly organized filmmaking industries ‐ how this balance plays out within the particular work that produces specific films.
Picture all the essential and iconic elements associated with Westerns: the grand entrance of a villain through swinging saloon doors; herding cattle across a great vista; quick draw gunfights on the mains street of a small town; a lone, hero riding off into the sunset. All of the above are various pieces of the familiar Western formula, but very few actual Westerns have all of these things within their running time. And those that are considered among the best of the genre ‐ The Searchers, Shane, Red River, Stagecoach, High Noon ‐ might only possess one of these supposedly defining elements.
Plus, some of the most interesting Westerns defied these rules or created new ones, as evinced by Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah, and several notable Westerns are not designed principally around the Western formula at all, but have instead used Japanese samurai films as their referents.
Hollywood’s economic design thrives on formula ‐ a set of expected elements associated with a particular type of film ‐ but it has rarely operated according to a strict execution of said formula. Formula is not Hollywood’s set of constraints that bastardize pure artistic visions, as the repeated narrative of artists vs. suits always seems to illustrate, but is instead the genius of the system. It doesn’t always produce good stuff, it mostly produces forgettable stuff, but it has sometimes produced great stuff because of, not despite, the eternal play with formula.
Formula is not a set of rules, but a database of possibilities, and it’s where Hollywood has perfected its own unique type of originality.
In praising unoriginality, I wrote this last spring:
We so often fetishize originality as an ideal in filmmaking. Perhaps it’s worth seriously considering the idea that derivation is a major, if not the major, source of human creativity ‐ that it is within the realm of existing works of creation that the creative mind most often plays. The problems plaguing filmmaking across all tiers have never been originality, but inspiration: what is ultimately done with existing tools.
I’m as annoyed by the inevitable existence of Trans5mers as you are. And I am as creeped out by Marvel’s decade-long proposed takeover of the world as one should be. But we shouldn’t see Hollywood’s franchise machine as an anomaly, but rather a variation on a long held, yet varied, practice stretching back to silent serials and the Thin Man series. And in doing so, we shouldn’t confuse form for function. The existence of a Hollywood formula ‐ now most evident in the practice of only making properties with “built-in” audiences ‐ does not determine the execution of said formula.
That something may be formulaic does not preclude it from originality, creativity and invention. In fact, the opposite is true: the existence of formula actually encourages invention ‐ if not in Hollywood itself then at least in many of the creatives Hollywood hires ‐ for within formula is an implicit challenge to do something new with it, to take the familiar as a foundation to execute something new, even, occasionally, something bizarre.
A common practice in arguing for an unprecedented eroding of originality within filmmaking is to examine the number of franchise entries in current box office years versus prior box office years, each of which inevitably produces more “original” films than in the past. Yet such an understanding of originality basically stops at being un-sourced in a contractual, copyright-based definition of the word. As a 1964, for example, a year in which six of the top ten highest-grossing films were part of franchises or spawned at least one sequel or prequel, most of which came from the “independent” Hollywood studio United Artists. Yet many of these films ‐ A Hard Day’s Night, A Fistful of Dollars, Goldfinger ‐ look “good” as individual films when viewed outside of a broader, systemic context in which they were made.
This is not to say that everything is knocked-off and always has been so let’s stop complaining. Please, let’s argue against the corporatization of Hollywood and the built-in model of audience appeal. Let’s advocate for the creative freedom of filmmakers within the studio system. And dammit, let’s get some representation in there that actually brings diverse, overshadowed voices into media. But if we relegate individual films to a larger system of precedents, we misrepresent from the get-go exactly what those films are doing with those precedents.
Yes, the sequelization of everything may make it seem like the synergy is finally upon us ‐ or we could see it as Hollywood attaching numbers to a long-held practice of creating new combinations to existing elements, a transparent iteration of Hollywood’s long-standing work with formula as a platform for creativity.
Last year, Captain America: The Winter Soldier was considered by some the “most subversive superhero ever made,” a film bearing a critique of the military-industrial complex within the guise of a popcorn movie. In macro-critiques of the Marvel universe, this film would be seen as a number and release date further evincing the expanded universe takeover of our wide release calendar. Neither of these observations fully explain or recognize the creative work the film has done within a Hollywood mode ‐ the former argument ignores context and precedents, while the latter is informed only by the greater context and precedents through which the film was made manifest.
In combining the ’70s paranoid spy thriller with the 21st century superhero movie, The Winter Soldier juxtaposes multiple formulae in a way that ‐ through their peculiar combination ‐ produces a novelty, a work of “originality” that could only have come from Hollywood.