In the arts, fall isn’t a season of rebirth but the season of double-down. It’s when producers and publicists join hands to promote their latest wares. In New York, fall arts take on the illusion of rebirth because of the break in summer humidity (and those who are privileged with summer homes come back to the city, after a brief breezy respite, ready to resume their grind).
Working Joes are placated with manufactured “new seasons”—primarily in television but also theater, museums and movies. Fall sees film culture change the most—especially in the past decade, since Hollywood has foreshortened its normal release patterns and geared foot soldiers and audiences alike toward awards fever.
The canard that fall is the time for “serious” movies covers up the fact that fall is when moviemakers seek bonuses (gold-plated flattery) to go with their inflated paychecks. It’s really the premature start of Awards Season. Even the festival circuit plays this game: The Toronto Film Festival has been taken over by Oscar touts who turn that Canadian city (an outpost where cinema-starved citizens challenge the movie-love of hype-besotted New Yorkers) into a new Sundance—that is, Beverly Hills Way North. Hype for “Oscar-worthy” movies overwhelms genuine interest for the films themselves. In the insightful documentary “The American Ruling Class,” Hollywood producer Daniel Melnick warned, “There are no more movies, just content. Content for various delivery systems.”
As an example, take the trailer for Steven Spielberg’s upcoming Lincoln. Even after the follies of the Toronto Film Festival, and the insanities of the Venice Film Festival (which annually awards pretentious epics, this time The Master), most film folk are buzzing about the trailer for Lincoln released on the web last week, timed for the fig leaves to fall from Hollywood’s naked ambition.
A trailer is a perfect form for fall “content”: It’s short; its nature is essentially anticipatory rather than participatory since the narrative is abbreviated to such a point that no cognitive involvement is possible. This may explain why Spielberg, Hollywood’s most envied (as opposed to respected) popular filmmaker, commands the fall arts moment. Not even his movie-brat colleague Brian De Palma’s return to the scene with Passion, his first movie in five years premiering at the upcoming New York Film Festival, has sparked interest comparable to the Lincoln ad.
Brief glimpses at Spielberg’s classically lighted historical images should tickle anyone who remembers his widely panned Amistad—the film the Lincoln trailer most resembles. This new “content” cannot possibly excite those who were unmoved by Amistad. Hollow anticipation is all. This is evident even in Paramount’s new Blu-Ray release of the Indiana Jones series, an event that allows reassessment of one of the late 20th century’s cultural touchstones.
Like every maturing artist, Spielberg has lost touch with the popular audience—especially the audience accustomed to hollow content. Indy vs. Lincoln in a competition between what once was genuinely popular film culture and film that no longer unites the audience—except in shared consumerism. This connects the fall’s Lincoln trailer (the film itself won’t premiere until year’s end, closer to the Oscars) to the upcoming presidential election. It’s another distraction from issues the candidates will not discuss—including the legacy of slavery which will never be mentioned but can be part of how some voters project their hopes onto a candidate’s hollow platitudes.
In the fall arts, content must be challenged by meaning. That’s the opportunity that artists and audiences ought to hope for. Upcoming work by Kanye West, Iris DeMent, Paul W.S. Anderson and the Taviani brothers, whose Caesar Must Die premieres at the New York Film Festival, could show work that goes beyond seasonal hype. They could bring fresh thinking—and real feeling—back to culture.
This CityArts section on the fall season covers the season from the impact of our digital cinema future to celebrations of dance, theater even Streisand’s Brooklyn homecoming.