' ' Cinema Romantico: In a Bleak Place

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

In a Bleak Place

I have been reading Jeanine Basinger and Sam Wasson’s “Hollywood: The Oral History” in which they provide a full account of the motion picture industry exclusively through quotes culled from interviews with a wide range of actors and directors and producers and craftspeople down through the years. If there is one phrase most favored in the quotations of Silent and Golden Age players, it is this: “in those days.” I swear that someone must begin or end an anecdote with the phrase “in those days” at least 700 times. It means that so many of these observations are looking back on the past, infused with studio system nostalgia. It’s certainly true that the studio system was beneficial in terms of both producing quality movies and in providing a middle-class lifestyle for people who were not the stars. But pulled from the files of Two Things Can Be True at Once, management was just as stringent in dictating to labor what they could and could not do, who they could and could not work for, and a lof of people interviewed seem to have selective memories about why the studio system ultimately came apart. You might have thought that between then and now, labor and management would have found a way to peaceably co-exist, but if the arc of moral universe bends toward justice, the arc of the economic universe bends the other way. Planet Earth Laureate Bruce Springsteen had it nailed in 1978 when he sang “poor man wanna be rich, rich man wanna be king, and a king ain’t satisfied ‘til he rules everything.” Then again, really, at this point, in 2023, where everything costs more than ever and few hardly make more than they did when everything cost so much less, poor man, I think, just wants to be lower middle class. 

The Writers Guild of America, as you doubt know, has gone on strike. Cinema Romantico stands in solidarity with them. The WGA is making several demands, including staffing and wage requirements on account of their generally being overworked and underpaid, a similar ditch into which so many purported American Dreams have plunged in recent times. But the WGA is also asking for safeguards against emergent Artificial Intelligence technology being deployed to devise stories and scripts and potentially eliminate all their jobs. Oh, like so many I once had visions of the machines as our glorious deliverers of a post-work utopia where we would all be free to just read and write and sip coffee and stare into space and watch all the late-tipoff time Lakers/Warriors games because we wouldn’t need to get to bed early to get up early to get to our jobs to make the money to pay for the cable package needed to watch the Lakers/Warriors game in the first place. But for all the satisfying comforts and conveniences rendered by so much high-tech progress, no matter how many times some tech bro dismisses you as a Luddite for deigning to wonder if every single technological advance is truly for the better, it’s increasingly clear that technology and humanity are on divergent paths, professing it’s all in the name of a better, happier world even as it only exacerbates that economic divide. 

Indeed, if Hollywood bigwigs can put more money in their own pockets by implementing all-AI storytellers, they would do it in a heartbeat, and at present I suspect anyone mounting an AI is Art argument of being a management plant. To them, art is Robert McKee’s Story fed through a computer, not something to study and evaluate and create, not something in conversation with itself through the years (decades) [centuries], not something that helps explain us, but art as an end result, as one more thing that can be done via algorithm. Not that management has ever really cared that much about art, of course. In Michael Schulman’s New Yorker piece on the writer strike he quoted Lila Byock, who has written for television’s “The Leftovers” and “Watchmen” among others, as saying “What the streamers want most right now is ‘second-screen content,’ where you can be on your phone while it’s on.” You want to stick to the sunny side of the street, but what is a statement like if that not two gloomy, rain-drenched sidewalks leading nowhere? 

This all made me remember my Monet-hating friend from Manhattan, an art student with the bravery to critically consider art. It made me already feel nostalgic (“In those days, we made the art ourselves”) for when my movie critiques would elicit protestations of nitpicking, that I was taking movies too seriously, that movies are about escape, man, and it made me imagine a future where people only watch movies on second screens while paying real watching Tik-Tok or playing Candy Crush on first screens and then skim my review on the last blogspot of whatever movie was on their second screen and excoriate me for watching the movie (on my first screen) at all. 

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