Current crop of films borrow from, and pay homage to, classic cinema

Roughly 25 years ago a generation of filmmakers arrived in Hollywood armed with a new aesthetic. They had grown up with the movies. They had attended, studied and loved them, even assimilated them into their very marrow, so that when it came time for these young directors to make films of their own, their sensibility had been shaped not so much by their experience of life as by their experience of film.

Since then the movies have become so embedded in the national consciousness and audiences have become so savvy to the linguistics of film that we are all like those filmmakers. We live in two worlds — the real everyday world and the magical movie world, though the two are now so inextricably bound that they are sometimes indistinguishable.

Not surprisingly, this has had a profound effect on the culture generally, where film serves as the common reference, and on the movies specifically. Spielberg, Scorsese, Lucas, Coppola, Altman, De Palma and many others made films that were self-consciously cinematic, drawing inspiration from their forebears. But as the audiences themselves have grown up in a culture of movies, the movies have changed.

In this past year many of the most critically well-received films — several of them by those same filmmakers — were not just rummaging through the pictures of yesteryear and quoting them; they were relying on the audience’s own immersion in the culture of movies to complete the experience.

They assumed that the audience would understand previous films, genres, scenes, lines, cinematic styles — in effect, that the audience would recognize syntax and codes and know how to respond to them.

In a way, these movies are working not only on our emotions or our senses, as movies traditionally have, but on our memories of moviegoing.

Perhaps the most obvious example is “Far From Heaven,” Todd Haynes’ homage to the lush, overwrought 1950s Hollywood melodramas of Douglas Sirk. Clearly patterned after Sirk’s “All That Heaven Allows,” “Far From Heaven” is the story of an upper-middle class housewife who, dissatisfied in her marriage, has a scandalous relationship with her gardener, though in Haynes’ film, unlike Sirk’s, the situation is complicated by the fact that the woman’s husband is gay and the gardener is black.

Haynes, who majored in art and semiotics at Brown, cribs from both Sirk’s story and his grammar — the ripe ’50s Technicolor, the sculpted lighting, the rich symphonic score (by Elmer Bernstein, who composed those kinds of scores himself in the ’50s), even the opening credits that flare across the screen. In fact, Haynes reportedly gave a video of “All That Heaven Allows” to each member of his cast and crew.

Sirk was so over the top that his admirers regarded him as a Brechtian ironist. Haynes here is working to a different effect. He knows that in a culture of movies we recognize not only the hallmarks of ’50s melodrama but precisely what these hallmarks signify.

Haynes has created a world of 1950s images to convey what we now recognize as the period’s obsession with images and surfaces. Then he smashes the surfaces to reveal the darker truth underneath — namely that the alleged heaven of suburban, white-collar America was a lie. But this can only work because the genre itself has come to represent for his contemporary audience the tensions between 1950s complacency and what that complacency belies. Without that knowledge, the movie really doesn’t make any sense. It is just a stilted soap opera.

The Fosse stamp

Similarly, director Rob Marshall’s “Chicago” relies on the audience’s almost vestigial understanding of cinematic style for its effect. In this case it is the style of director/choreographer Bob Fosse, who originated “Chicago” on Broadway and spent years trying to adapt it to the screen before his death in 1987.

Fosse was a sensualist nonpareil. His movies seemed to slither with sexuality, so much so that he became the preeminent artist of 1970s decadence. It was one of the reasons he could so successfully capture Weimar decadence in the film version of “Cabaret.” Fosse’s natural style was a visual analogue for soulless glitz.

Marshall quotes liberally from the Fosse lexicon — the hard cutting, the angular compositions, the sinuous choreography — not because he is a copycat but because, like Haynes with Sirk, he knows that we know that the style is a reminder of the slick, shallow, self-interested, self-serving, style-over-substance narcissism that is at the very heart of the material. We know because watching Fosse films and their derivatives has taught us.

In his “Minority Report,” Steven Spielberg went even further, deploying a whole constellation of movie memories and meanings. Spielberg chafed when his futuristic drama, about a cop who is assigned to stop crimes before they are committed, was compared to “Blade Runner.” He said he preferred comparisons to Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis,” to which his film had a thematic kinship. But Spielberg himself described “Minority Report” as a “classic film noir variation,” and he seemed to invite the audience’s appreciation of that genre to deepen their response to his own movie.

In its palpable sense of paranoia and betrayal, its narrative convolutions, its darkness, its depiction of the hold that the past exerts on the future, it draws heavily on the conventions of noir and on our conditioned reactions, after years of moviegoing, to those conventions. Spielberg lets us make these associations, fully expecting that we will recognize the cues of noir and then reframe the picture within them.

Scorsese’s filmic cues

Among directors, Martin Scorsese has always been one of the most astute and knowledgeable students of film history and the one most alert to the culture of movies. (By one report, he gave Harvey Weinstein, Miramax head and one of the executive producers of Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York,” 80 movies to watch during the production to further Weinstein’s film education — or to further steep him in the culture of movies.) Ostensibly, “Gangs” is a historical drama. Set in the New York slums of the mid-19th century, it shows how America was riven by conflict — nativists against immigrants, whites against blacks, North against South, and the national government against reluctant conscripts — and then how a nation was violently melded from these warring factions.

But if “Gangs” is a historical drama, it is also a drama of film history, and like the country itself it is deliberately melded from different styles, genres and techniques with roots deep in film so that the amalgamation becomes a metaphor for the amalgamation of America. Alluding to this, Scorsese has called the picture a “combination of Western and gangster film,” and it certainly has elements of both.

Yet is also has snatches of Italian neo-realism and later the studied surrealism of Fellini (it was shot at the famous Cinecetta studios outside Rome), the cold minimalism of Sergio Leone, and the epic melodramas of D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” and “Intolerance” with a nod to Bernardo Bertolucci’s “1900.” He uses these as subliminal triggers to evoke what we had felt about those films.

What Scorsese summons, then, is both the historical past and our movie past — a palimpsest from our evenings in front of the television watching movies on “The Late Show” or a myriad of Saturday nights spent at the local theater. And in doing so, he summons the sense of a whole mental empire of movies — an empire in which all of us, not just our filmmakers, now live.

Neal Gabler, a senior fellow at the Lear Center for the Study of Entertainment at USC, is the author of “Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality.”

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