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Los Angeles, California

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I Walk the Line

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While America can’t claim ownership of the movies, it’s fair to say that it holds a considerable stake in the craft and commerce of the seventh art. In March, at the Academy Award’s foreign-film symposium all but one of the filmmakers nominated in the category confessed to a desire to work in the Hollywood system at least once before hanging up their viewfinder.
What the individuals in the quartet cited as the carrot for them was the vast resources of talent that the city afforded. Again and again they noted that back home—whether that happened to be Canada, the Czech Republic, Sweden or Holland—they were encumbered by the often grim prospect of having but a single choice in casting a particular role or key production position. In America, they could imagine having dozens of options in the selection of a cinematographer, costume designer or film composer.
The contribution of artisans and craftspeople to making U.S. movies a staple in the cinemas of seven continents should not be undervalued. It remains the world standard and that’s a fact often forgotten here simply because we are almost exclusively exposed to product from the American majors and the very best international films in terms of both dramatic and physical values.
About a quarter century back, I remember the joyous experience of seeing the modestly produced American independent film Hester Street. The film was a deft re-creation of the turn-of-the-century immigrant experience in New York City. It was warm, humorous and gritty and had a gravitas that could be partially attributed to a shoestring budget that allowed for few production frills. It’s also worth noting that the film preceded the explosion of the American indies in the late 1970s. At that moment in time most non-studio fare consisted of safe genres such as horror, action and teen musicals.
Shortly after seeing Hester Street, I happened to be talking to my sister and mentioned the film. She had read something about it and planned to catch it when it opened in her town. I said that I thought our parents would love it. “Oh, it will never fly with mom and dad,” my sister replied. “They’ll never get past the fact that it looks cheap and probably goes out of focus.”
Now the observation shouldn’t have surprised me. We were all brought up on films from the dream factories that employed the best artists and technicians. However, my generation was also exposed to a tidal wave of idiosyncratic international filmmakers including Fellini, Resnais, Antonioni, Kurosawa, Bergman, Bunuel and Godard that would come to influence the next generation of American filmmakers. The freewheeling Godard was particularly intent on putting cinematic convention on its ear.
The influence of the auteurs has been considerable, just as the work of the American pioneers had informed their work. But no less important are the legion of craftspeople that could be mentioned though not exhausted in a hundred columns. One hesitates to even start the process and cite Greg Toland or Margaret Booth, Max Steiner and Cedric Gibbons. Each is a legend in his or her own right, distinctive, innovative and a testament to a studio system that at its best nurtured and encouraged people to be creative.
However, with or without the studio infrastructure, talent will excel and one can add to the previously cited quartet—Conrad Hall, Dede Allen, Jerry Goldsmith and Dean Tavoularis as prime examples. I hesitate to go beyond the obvious and inarguable names because it doesn’t even begin to address the units they command or all the other areas involved in the production of motion pictures. The bottom line is that some time during the nascent days when the peep show was evolving into a legitimate form of entertainment, the way it looked became very important. The herky-jerky movements were replaced with smooth transitions and original scores were composed to heighten the experience.
Hollywood poured the foundation for entertaining movies and we, the audience, were spoiled. We got to see command performances for the price of a bus ride and it all looked so easy and natural that we tended to take it for granted. The giants became the “little people” and that’s indeed a sad legacy.
American politicians may be losing the hearts and minds of the world but the people creating movie comedies, dramas and fantasies continue to enthrall audiences in every corner of the globe. The nation’s greatest export is not a chemical, biological, animal, vegetable or mineral. It is a natural resource loosely labeled intellectual property and movies are a major part of its composition.

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