P:O.V. No.12 - Comparing American and European Cinema

Always Leave’em Wanting More

Ray Keyes

‘Always leave’em wanting more’ is the hidden ethic of American cinema (established some time after the maxim, "There’s a sucker born every 90 minutes.") and is the result of a tragicomiculture, a culture that identifies with the tragicomic, in which closure is next to impossible (-- is in fact, literally, absurd); such an obsession with ends, end results, bottom lines that nothing can end and everything takes on soap opera-like continuity; and the principle of a curious mechanism that belies the machine, more is less: more fancy footwork, less meaningful discussion afterward leads to a craving for even more fancy footwork. More of almost anything addictive leads to higher tolerance and greater craving; more of anything essentially empty is less than what you will ultimately need.

To address a point made by actor Jeremy Irons, that American films, like expensive prostitutes, offer many things save feeling and true human contact, some American films make one feel too much – that one’s feelings are being manipulated. Emotional exploitation and overblown sentimentality, especially with respect to Americana, is Steven Spielberg’s trademark and goes all the way back to Frank Capra, and probably farther, but one important thing to note is that Spielberg and Capra are much welcomed, much celebrated anomalies on the American cinematic scene. They are anomalous because their films are so bereft of the near-standard tragicomic irony characteristic of the typical American movie (though there really is no typical American movie as each tragicomic American movie is tragicomic after its own fashion), perhaps exemplified most recently by the work of the Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, not quite so recently by the ultra-violent Quentin Tarantino, and assorted creators of edgy, offbeat comic dramas. What makes Spielberg’s syrupy sentimentality stand out so much against these is their common distrust of feeling, lack of feeling, subversion of the expected reactive emotions and with it the undercutting of stances, vision, and finality, in the sense of a final statement.

Now irony, while on the surface ruthlessly unfeeling, can run deep, be very real, and very much a part of humanity as well as reality. And a keen sense of irony, or an affinity for it, may be inevitable in a culture that is so new, yet has undergone so much social upheaval; is so full of political correctness and democratic privilege and legally enforced balances, yet fraught with racial tension and class divisions and de facto inequality; has found itself to be the reigning superpower as if by accident, as if it were an undue honor. After all, the United States has no singular cultural roots, only founding fathers together with a few exceedingly high-minded ideals, and is beyond multicultural at this point. So what of its essence can take credit for its outrageous fortune but its ideologies, which have worldly clout and presence only as long as they serve well or remain relevant to the world at large? If success cannot be accounted for or accredited to an innate quality or state of being, it becomes suspect, dubious; achievement is tainted as though there may be some great ironical joke behind it.

What is really ironic though is that a culture so ill-disposed to closure should focus so concertedly on ultimate ends and that that should work to prevent endings altogether and encourage continuity.

An American movie is not a work to be completed but a production. The end results involve, potentially, sequels, videotapes, novelizations, awards, TV movies, made-for-pay-TV series, bankability, advertisability, stars as vehicles, vehicles for stars, reviews and interviews. Now, not to say it is all purely a money machine, there is a tremendous interest these days in the making of movies, in acting techniques, in the creation of scenes and characters, in scripts, but it does not appear to be a terribly artistic interest. More, the interest appears to be in success itself, talent itself, greatness however defined or perceived; that is, in the ends themselves, the ultimate goals or ideals. Whether by watching James Lipton interview Julia Roberts or Christopher Walken on Inside the Actors Studio or Oprah Winfrey, Americans search for the keys to that final door to human perfection, or achievement. For this same reason, reality TV shows, like The Real World, Blind Date, Big Brother, and Survivor, and pseudo-documentary films like 25 Dates are watched for other than their voyeuristic value and soap opera-like formula of continuous Sturm und Drang and melodramatic cliff-hanging. Often the overall sense may be that there is no door, that it is sealed shut, or that human achievement is oxymoronic, but there seems to be a tremendous need for re-affirmation, relearning, rediscovery of this negation.

Or there could be an extremely positive effect: the contemplation of paragons and epitomes, whether they exist in one instance or another, whether something is or isn’t the ultimate in whatever, which is a typically American preoccupation. But this is not fodder for mature discussion at all but the germination of contentions of belief. There is no room for ruminating over gray areas; there are no gray areas and everything is geared toward shutting down discussion by counterexample or disbelief, unless there is some underlying agreement.

Viewing movies as a conversation with an audience, American film accommodates the American mode of discussion, or non-discussion, and gives the audience what it wants: paragons of craft, epitomes of attitude, style and ideology, clashes of opposites, more extreme opposites, more action, more bedazzlement, more and more artistic realism, more and more of whatever can be ratcheted up. Viewers’ cravings and tolerance rise and everything is collaborated to death, as no single vision could meet such a series of mechanically incremental demands. It is a mad science of drama, from sequel-producing blockbusters featuring action heroes to the almost embarrassingly large-scale scapes of Titanic, Saving Private Ryan, The Matrix, and Oliver Stone. Even the pop-sensational HBO series The Sopranos is bursting with layers and conglomerations of conspicuously achieved effects, an orchestrally human, artistic, gritty, humorous, panoramic and exploitative treatment of a crime family, full of excess. Like a drug, people can never get enough, and yet the primary discussions that have sprung up concern the success of the series. More is inexorably less.

This is not a living cinema. It is a dead mechanized hulk. Here, there are no renderers of the inner mind or heart, only knowing engineers of composite dreams, collective consciousness, and fanciful illusions and would-be architect-inventors of themselves.

to the top of the page