Sunday, August 1, 2021

The Movie Brats (1979).

Not so long ago I had a chance to watch a multi-part series on Francis Ford Coppola.  What the whole amounted to was more or less a career retrospective.  This wasn't one of those professional, well put together productions like the kind you're likely to find on TV by chance if you're flipping through the air waves.  This was an independent opinion piece assembled by one of by now countless vloggers out there on the Net.  I think I have to give the guy in charge of the whole thing at least this much credit.  He knew how to make it all look professional.  His camera work, lighting, editing, sense of pacing, and overall choice of of clips from the back catalogue of footage that has accumulated around Coppola over years demonstrates a decent enough hand when it comes to technical matters.  I think that's also where the praise has to end, at least with me, I'm afraid.  The reasons for that seem to be twofold in nature.

First, there's the simple matter of individual critical perspectives.  It shouldn't have to go without saying, however the evidence that more than two separate human minds can exist on the same globe should stand as a testament the seemingly eternal fact of individuality.  What I mean by this is that the very fact that other people exist seems like its own guarantee that different life outlooks are pretty much a fait acompli.  That's a maxim that seems to apply to the world of the arts, as much as to anything else.  This in itself does not appear to be outside the norm of things.  I think it's just that I find it ironic for the perspectives it winds up leading me to take.  I have no idea if Patrick H. Willems' viewpoint on Coppola, or film in general, is the de facto paradigm for cinematic or general artistic criticism.  All I know is the more I watched his documentary series, the more he continued to talk about the director, the history or question of Coppola's development as an artist, and how it all fit in with the history of the medium of filmmaking, a funny thing happened.  It would be easy to say I came away disagreeing with Willems' take on things.  It's also selling my own conclusions a bit too short.

What happened, instead, was that I kept paying careful attention.  As the documentary series unfolded, Willems would keep bringing up this or that topic in relation to Coppola's life and work.  As he did so, this in turn would keep triggering a developing line of thought in my own mind.  The vlogger would bring up the topic of, say, the classic style of Hollywood filmmaking, and I would be there watching all this and thinking, "Yes, but have you ever stopped to notice this or that element"?  Or Willems would try to provide summaries of his ideas on what this means about cinema as a whole.  As a result, my mind would perk up and think, "Aren't you forgetting or overlooking something?  What about this author's influence on the medium?  Or what about the context of the contributions of auteurs like Orson Welles?  Why leave all that out"?  Yeah, as some of you can probably tell by now, what happened is that a silent debate got started between a pair of lame wad film nerds.  It's the kind of thing that will never be all that important to the majority of people out there.  That's still the only way I can put it, or the terms I  can discuss it in  The best way to say it is that Willems has acted as a very unintentional springboard for my own thoughts on the subject.

The way he did it was simply by bringing up a lot of topics that were important enough to me, at least, to the point where I felt there just had to be more to the subject he was discussing than the vlogger was even aware of.  A lot of it came from what I can't help but regard as a dichotomy between the way Willems discussed and presented Coppola, and the actual facts he seems to have uncovered, while remaining blissfully unaware of them the whole time.  In that sense, watching the retrospective on the director has been something of an eye opener for me, as has helped to clarify a lot of my previous thinking on many artistic subjects.  The perfection of irony in all this is that it really can be accused of all trending in an exact opposite sort of direction from the one Willems was trying to maintain.  He liked to present Coppola as a "bad boy" who "needed to break the rules".  I think it's a sentiment that jumps out a me for the way the rest of the events he depict subtly undermine that premise without his being aware of it.  Instead, his presentation of the director's life and art sort of help burst a lot of the bubble reputations that have gathered around guys like the director of The Godfather.

It doesn't lesson the quality of that film nor a handful of others.  Films like The Conversation and Apocalypse Now will forever have to remain as milestones in the history of cinema.  It's just that Willems has unwittingly helped me to gain a better sense of perspective on them, one that qualifies and tempers some of the more radical sounding superlatives that have traditionally gathered around them over the years.  Willems did this by showing me more or less "the rest of the story", the one that happened after we stopped paying attention.  I'm not gonna lie, it ain't pretty.  Willems tries to present what happened in the wake of Apocalypse Now as a continued example of the "bad boy" finding ways to stick it to the man.  The reality seems to be a lot more of a tragic case of the author either losing his muse, or else it could be something a lot more ironic than that.  It could just be that the career of Francis Ford Coppola is an object lesson of the filmmaker's ambitions running up against his own limitations as an artist.  After the 70s ended, it just seems as if the director had played himself out.  No other film or topic he turned his hand to after that was ever able to recapture whatever it was he had with films like the Corleone Family Saga.  Instead, he wound up as a guest on Saturday Night Live, or working on a children's TV show, and his boss was Shelley Duvall. 

To be fair, it is possible to defend at least some of this later work.  I like what he did with Duvall on her TV series, and even Michael Jackson's Captain EO has its own 80s form form schlock charm.  The rest, however, is too much of a mixed bag to be of any big consideration.  Willems tried his damnedest to paint the director as being in a much better place than any of his other contemporaries.  However, words from Coppola himself tell a far different story.  "In 2015, Coppola stated "...That's why I ended my career: I decided I didn't want to make what you could call 'factory movies' anymore. I would rather just experiment with the form, and see what I could do, and [make things] that came out of my own. And little by little, the commercial film industry went into the superhero business, and everything was on such a scale. The budgets were so big, because they wanted to make the big series of films where they could make two or three parts. I felt I was no longer interested enough to put in the extraordinary effort a film takes [nowadays] (web)".  As a result, I have Patrick Willems to thank for arriving at a very paradoxical conclusion.  With the case of Francis Coppola, perhaps the real truth has always been that we were witnessing the meteoric rise and fall of a proclaimed giant, while the artist himself was always less than he seemed, or was trumpeted to be.  His greatest triumphs being more the product of the Imagination proper, and far less to do with the personality of the artist as a human being or auteur.

It's a very ironic (some might even say heretical) vantage point to wind up at.  If that's the case, it's an irony I then compounded by asking myself how did this apply to the rest of the filmmakers of Coppola's generation?  What about the other directors?  Were they luckier than him, or did they all wind up in the same boat?  Which of them were able to swim on, and which sank like weighted stones?  It turned out to be one of those ideas that, once they enter certain minds, they just can't be left alone.  So, like a diligent enough(?) bookworm, the answer was relatively simple.  All one should have to do is go to the back catalogues, and filmography records, and see what it reveals.  Well, I went looking for answers, alright.  Boy did I ever get it.  The final results have been just more of the same, old irony, if that makes any sense.  What I discovered seems to be a continuation and carry-over from the results of Willems' efforts.  I can no longer just leave it at Coppola.  Instead, what I've looked at has forced me to construct a wholesale reconsideration of the cinematic generation of the 1970s, what it was versus what the critics versus the audience thought it was, and what it all means for the state of the art today.

That's where a book like Lynda Myles' The Movie Brats: How the Film Generation took over Hollywood comes in real handy.  It offesr me a further springboard from which to share what I've learned, while comparing and contrasting it with the initial critical claims, praises, and appraisals that greeted this informal collective of movie buff friends as they first started to make names for themselves.  It's a story that's interesting for the final way it all ends up at this current moment.  It's a tale of hindsight versus whatever aspirations might have been in play at the time.  What the final results have turned out to be may come as a shock to some.  However, perhaps its best if we take our time here.  Let's start with the basic premise of Myles' book.

 The Basic Premise.

Lynda Myles was inspired to write on account of her being a careful enough observer.  She seems to have been a product of both the Scottish Highlands, and the then New Wave cinema.  She appears to have developed an interest in film from a very young  age, as by the time she was 20, she was writing a letter to The Scotsman which was critical of the limited choice of titles on display at the Edinburgh International Film Festival.  Both the paper and even the Festival itself were willing to listen to her complaints.  As a result, she now continues to hold the title of director of the venue to this very day (web).  At the she came to write The Movie Brats, Myles had plenty of time by then to keep a close watch on the emerging nature of the next phase of Hollywood filmmakers.  She paid careful attention to the types of movies gaining notoriety, what kind of stories they were, and (most important from her perspective) who were the artists in the director's chair responsible for this seemingly "new" product.

She came away with a list of auteurs that she felt were the big names that anyone interested in the future of cinema ought to keep an eye on.  "At the core of this new generation" she wrote, "are six men.  They, and their associates, have made films more successful than any others in history.  They knew the history of Hollywood from the late night television movies and the corner theaters; and because they chose to learn it at film school; and because they have sought out, analyzed and enjoyed film of every kind.  Their influences live on through their films.  They are rare because their ideas have proved to be commercials; and the hollow studio system is grateful for that.  They fill a need.  Therefore, they have power.

"The six directors form a tribe, with shared gods and idols.  Their careers, their films, even their private lives overlap.  These men are: Francis Coppola, first of the film school graduates to make a feature film and later the director of The Godfather and Apocalypse Now.  It was Coppola who served as a patron to the young George Lucas and produced his American Graffiti; later, Lucas was to make Star Wars.  On that space fantasy Steven Spielberg had planned to help out as second unit director, devising way for intergalactic storm troopers to seethe with green steam as they died.  In the event he was too busy with his own fantasy, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a film on which rode all the fortunes of a major studio.  The gamble was not as outrageous as it might have seemed; Spielberg was also the architect of Jaws.

"At the Burbank studios he shares an office bungalow with his shooting companion John Milius, a classmate of George Lucas in the film school of the University of Southern California.  It was Milius who wrote the original version of Coppola's Apocalypse Now and the horrifying story of the wreck of the Indianapolis in Jaws...With him as producer is Buzz Feitshans; and Feitshans appeared, in 1972, as editor of Boxcar Bertha, the first Hollywood film by Martin Scorsese.  Scorsese is part of the tribe's New York group.  In that city he made Mean Streets and Taxi Driver.  He shared university classes with Brian DePalma, maker of Obsession, Carrie, and The Fury (7-8)". 

"It has taken pain and patience to gain power.  These six directors - sharing projects, exchanging ideas, sometimes presenting each other with shares in profits on their films - did not always have the luck.  They arrived through sheer determination.  They all loved film.  They wanted to make film.  Only Spielberg and DePalma missed the experience of full-time film school, Spielberg because his grades were not good enough. All of them share a basic cinematic literacy and a set of influences and ideas that come from films, and these things are used in subtle forms in their own work.  In the work of Martin Scorsese alone it is simple to trace the influences of a staggering range of filmmakers - Raoul Walsh, Robert Bresson, John Ford, Luchino Visconti, George Cukor, Jean-Luc Goddard, Samuel Fuller, and Francois Truffaut.  The conventions in a film like Star Wars derive from the classics of Arthurian legend, the movie equivalent of chivalric romance.  Before filming, Francis Coppola consciously reexamines the films of masters like Alfred Hitchcock or Ingmar Bergman.  Steven Spielberg's wonders, which sparkle across the screen in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, derive from animated films as diverse as Disney's Bambi and Chuck Jones's immortal Road Runner.  Brian DePalma plays, knowingly, with the plots and methods of Hitchcock films such as Psycho, Vertigo, and Rear Window.  John Milius takes his sense of honor from Japanese cinema.  In business, he says, he keeps to a personal code of Bushido (10)".

Myles lays down and summarizes the basic premise and purpose of her book as follows.  "This book explores the playground as it is now - as industry, as business, and as source of our dreams.  It tells why the race of moguls died out, what happened next, and who took the power to form our fantasies (4)".  "In that tradition Coppola, Lucas, DePalma, Milius, Scorsese, and Spielberg are true movie brats, true children of Hollywood.  They despise the present form of the industry.  They mistrust its corporate managers.  They know the house is empty, but they remain alert to the ghosts.  They are the heir to the grand tradition of American cinema.  This is how they came into their inheritance - what they made, and how they made it (12)".


This is one of those books with a lot to talk about in them.  In fact, I'd have to argue it's one of those text where its possible to have more than one discussion on its general topic.  I don't know how odd that must sound to the average person in the street.  To the bookworms and cinephiles of the world, however, a book like this can sometimes be a goldmine for critical commentary.  Or at least I'm willing to argue it can be so up to a point.  That's something I'll have to work my way back to.  For now, what will probably have to matter the most to the die hard readers and film junkies out there is that what Myles has done is try and tackle what she maintains is an entire artistic movement.  She's even willing to go so far as to say the directors at the center of her text can stand as the most influential in the history of cinema.  Again, that's a claim I'm going to have to get back to.  For now, let's take a look at all the positives her book has to offer.

She does a pretty good job of giving readers an opening history lesson of the event and results that led to the Movie Brats being able to make an artistic stand for themselves.  The way is seems to have worked is that in the beginning, there was the studio system.  And the system was big, and influential, and for the longest time encompassed all there was to know about Hollywood.  This is what was known as the era of of the great moguls.  This is the part where I think Myles is able to do a pretty good service for a lot of potential readers.  For many out there, reading about the pre-history of the New Hollywood movement could very well act as a neat and concise sort of gateway text for younger audiences.  In fact, I can't help wondering if the whole thing wouldn't come off as something close to being a revelation for Millennials.  For instance, it's easy to imagine some of them reading the book, and being all, "Like, who the hell are these people?  How did all that get there"?  If this sounds like a stretch, then bare in mind, if there's one thing recent events has taught anyone, it's that we have an alarmingly poor grasp of our own history.  Therefore no matter how great a shock, it shouldn't perhaps be that big of a surprise if there are some out there who seriously entertain the belief that Tinseltown is a recent thing.

The truth of course is a far different story.  Hollywood seems to have been born almost at the same time as the 20th century itself.  It was the product of an informal collective of producers and risk takers who were willing to bank all they had on this strange, new-fangled novelty some folks were calling "moving pictures".  Ain't that the darnedest thing?  This seems to be a major running theme with reality.  It manages to be just weird enough to catch you off-guard, just when you think you've got the definition of normal well understood.  Looking back on its from today's perspective, I sort of wonder just exactly what was it about the motion picture camera and its potential products that interested guys like Carl Laemmle, Louis Meyer, Walt Disney, or the Brothers Warner.  I mean its true that some, like Meyer, came up from the theater, so they might have had a nascent sort of conception for the potential of films in their head.  The rest though?  I don't know, it's got to be like one of the great unanswered, maybe pivitol questions in the developmental history of the art form.  And yet it's just now that anyone thinks to ask that question.  Sadly, none of this is ever really addressed by Myles, though to her credit, that's really not the point of her book.

Instead, her focus could almost be said to begin in media res.  It's the start of postwar America.  We've had our victories in World War II, the troops are coming home, and the Movie Brats and their entire generation are being born.  For some time now, the movies, and the studio system that created them, have reigned supreme.  Cinema houses have been running steadily in the black, and as far as guys like Meyer or Darryl F. Zanuck were concerned, the sky's the limit.  Then along comes this peculiar looking gadget.  There's not much about it to look at, of course.  At least not in and of itself.  It's the darnedest thing.  All you got here is just this small, funny looking, box-like contraption.  It's perhaps no bigger than a miniature office safe, though it probably weighs a lot less.  It's also more and less crowded than your average safe vault, except maybe just a bit lighter to carry.  If you open it up at the back, what you'll find waiting for ya is all sorts of wires and light bulbs.  The manufacturers are calling it a television, or some sort of nonsense like that.  Still, probably no big deal.  It'll never catch on.  That was at least what the bosses of almost all the major studios was thinking at the time.  The single holdout, the one chief executive who seemed to intuit where things were going, of course, was Uncle Walt.  

He seems to have known when to jump on the next big bandwagon while others like Meyer dug in their heels, and then had to watch as their entire self-made structure was dragged first into the courts, and then into the brave new world of the early gig economy.  At a certain point, the studios sort of lost control of their ability to produce their own movies.  They had to more or less hire themselves out or make deals for the highest bidder.  This was both good or bad depending on who you asked. On the one hand, it opened up new doorways for a lot of artistic talent out there.  Some of them, like Andy Griffith and Rod Serling, have sort of gone on to be considered legends of the television medium.  If you were a mogul in charge of a major studio, the consequences from the advent of the idiot box could be a lot more dire.  It's sort of a cliche these days, yet the general consensus is that the reason for the decline of Classic Hollywood lies in TV sucking all the revenue out of what was once a former goldmine.  It's to Myles's credit that she is able to expand, and sometimes correct this idea.  In particular, she makes a convincing case that another contributing factor to the decline in Hollywood's prestige was the advent of the suburbs.  

This is sort of an important setting for Myles's thesis.  As it's where the majority of the Movie Brats got their start.  Creators like Spielberg and Lucas where the products of the WW2 Generation's mass flight from the towns and cities of the pre-war era.  This meant their initial impressions of existence stemmed in large part from the then sedate pace of a semi-civilized natural setting.  Lucas, for instance, found all his early impressions gathered from growing up in the small town of Modesto, California.  His future collaborator, meanwhile, seems to have had his mind in general (and his imagination in particular) expanded as part of a Jewish household living in Phoenix, Arizona.  It's easy enough to observe how both of these settings find their way into works like American Graffiti, or E.T..  It even manages to find its way into seemingly non-related works like The Last Crusade, and Back to the Future.  These are all moments where the artists seem to have no choice except to wear the influences on their sleeve.  Their childhood settings keep cropping up as recurrent leitmotifs that seem able to span the decades.

Martin Scorsese's work is another example of this.  His status as a lifelong New Yorker sort of makes him an odd man out in this mostly ex-urban milieu.  Nonetheless, the irony remains that you could almost count the times when the Big Apple doesn't appear in one of his movie on the fingers of just one hand.  It's as much a part of him as a person, as it is in his work as an artist.  Nor is this an aspect of their talents that escapes any of Myles's notice.  It's what allows her to provide a rather useful summary of this particular collective aspect.  "The change in audiences and attitudes made it possible, indirectly,  for the children of Hollywood to make careers as filmmakers.  Directly, it helped make their films successful.  The hit movies mirror society.  Consider the careful, almost archeological, attention to suburban detail in Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind; and the idealized adolescence of George Lucas's () Graffiti, the golden past of the first generation of American children reared in the life-style of suburbia, with suburban aspirations and fears.  The children of Hollywood understood, intuitively, the changes we describe here.  That is why it was they who inherited from the mogul's panics in the 1940s and 1950s (24)".

What she doesn't bother to bring up much is the way both of them utilized these settings in their works.  By setting a great deal of their stories on any street USA, the kids from California and Arizona in particular seem to be following or else unconsciously obeying part of a larger trend in the arts of the time.  By doing this, they are almost taking up where literary artists like Ray Bradbury left off.  Very much in the same vein of the Waukegan fantasist, Lucas and Spielberg are often trying to bring the artist's canvas all the way down to earth, so that they may then lift Main Street into the realms of the mythic.  The result has become a trope that is pretty much a part of the collective background knowledge of a great deal of the viewers out there in the aisles. It's also a legacy that Myles herself seems to have a bit of difficulty in dealing with.  

There are parts of this lack of insight that can be explained away.  Her book came out in 1980, at a moment in time before the titular film brats had yet to see their careers take off in a big way, thus helping to grant a discernible image or idea of what their work was amounting to.  In that sense, looked at from a chronological perspective, Myles has very little choice except to be as much hovering in the dark as her own readers when she first published her text.  If that were all that was wrong, however, then there'd be no need to bring up anything else up about it.  As it turns out, however, Myles's lack of insight into this facet of the Movie Brats legacy in itself functions as a good pointer to some of the biggest failures of the author as a critic, as well as the overall major misreading of the artistic moment she was witnessing.  It's a problem that can cripple her exertions more than some might realize.

The Major Weakness.      

It's true there is a lot in Myles's book that worth praising.  Her greatest strength has to be in providing glimpses and insights into lesser known filmmakers like DePalma and Milius, as well as even trying to summarize and describe what amounted to a genuine advent of the new type of film that would come to dominate Hollywood.  She deserves her fair amount of praise for all of these things.  The trouble begins once you start to look at the book from the perspective of hindsight.  That's when you discover there are many things you can criticize Myles's book for.  The biggest example that's sure to jump out at most readers will come from the moment where the author voices her judgment call on an indie hit known as Star Wars.  She notes how that film "has been taken with ominous seriousness".  Then she goes on to declare, "It shouldn't be.  The single greatest impression it leaves is of another American tradition that involves lights, bells, obstacles, menace, action technology, and thrills.  It is pinball, on a cosmic scale (136-7)". 

The other one that jumps out at me is the moment where it sort of becomes clear that, when it comes down to it, Myles is the kind of critic who ultimately views all art as a mere tool of ideology.  She does this when she bring up the following: "The new (directors')...films satisfy the social, economic, and class needs of groups the old moguls might never have recognized as potential audiences for their product.  For as the charts of power in Hollywood have changed, so too has the ideology of the industry - the system of ideas which lies, implicit and concealed, within American film.  This is the other part of the private grammar of film (7)".  It's mainly down to the way she uses words like class and ideology that set the alarm bells going off in my mind.  So I guess that means I'd better explain myself.  

I once heard it said that all art is propaganda.  I'm willing to go far enough to admit that there may be individuals (both behind the camera and in the aisles) who will probably always feel a some sort of compulsion to try and make other believe that propaganda is all that art amounts to.  However, I've never been one of those who was ever convinced by such an argument.  I'm not saying that it's impossible for art to include a moral subject as part of the DNA of an given story.  I would, however, claim that there is a discernible difference between films like Black Klansman and In the Heat of the Night, and something like the live-action Mulan remake.  

The first two films are helmed by artists who know that they have to trust the story proper to do its job.  The latter, however, is clearly the product in which the narrative is a made-to-fit backdrop for what turns out to be a very muddled lecture. It's the kind of strategy where even if there's a good point to be made, the way everyone goes about it just serves to shoot the whole thing in the foot.  I'm even willing to go a bit further and claim there is a major difference between a real life topic like Civil Rights, and the kind of mere ideology that Myles seems to be hung up with.  The first topic is a vital, indeed, a natural component of Democracy.  All the other one seems to have ever been able to do, however, is just take the conversation out and away from the borders of logic, and into the realm of what John Lennon referred to as "Ism-ism-ism".  It's the sort of territory where the rights of man terminates.

It's not a sound strategy for keeping anything valuable afloat, in other words.  It's just playing with loaded guns, and sooner or later one of them is bound to go off.  After that it really is just a matter of whose hands are dripping with someone else's blood.  However, perhaps such talk is taking us too far afield of the topic at hand.  In a way, none of this gets at the heart of the issue.  All I've really done so far is tackle a pair of mere aspects of the central problem of Myles's text.  We only really start to approach the core of the matter when we take a look at how everything has shaped since 1979, when she wrote and published the book.  

What has become of her much touted movement with the passage of years?  What is this advent of the Movie Brat generation, and what have been its effects and overall legacy?  I think the first part of the answer reveals itself when you start by asking what's happened to the names on Myles's list?  Where are the Movie Brats today, and how do they fare?  From what I can tell, the answer to that question goes as follows.  Milius, DePalma, and Coppola seem to have faded out of the spotlight, or else have allowed themselves to fall silent.  Only Lucas, Scorsese, and Spielberg seem to have been able to successfully keep their hand in the game.  What does this tell us, then?  More to the point, how did all of this happen, or come about?

To start with, I think it helps to do two things.  First, go and look up the IMDB pages for each of the directors that Myles chooses to highlight as part of her thesis.  Or else you can view their filmographies on pages like Wikipedia.  What should occur to you is a slowly emerging picture that tells a story at more or less complete 180 degree odds from the narrative Myles is trying to sell.  Let's put it like this.  When it comes to the rosters of guys like Milius and DePalma, what jumps out to even the most casual viewer is just how sparse their creative output is.  This is not only just in terms of the relative dearth of titles they've released under their respective names.  There's also a somewhat inevitable commentary contained in there on the overall uneven quality of their collective oeuvres.  The simple fact is that whatever kind of promise Myles thought she might have seen in filmmakers like DePalma and Milius, history shows that neither of them were ever really able to go as far as she seemed to want them to.  In each case, we find ourselves dealing with up and coming mavericks who wanted to make a name for themselves.  In both cases, however, what seems to have happened is that each of them was granted maybe one or two flashes of brilliance that they ironically never seemed able to recapture.

In some ways, I think DePalma has fared a bit better in this regard than Milius, though even this is by a very faint stretch.  In Milius's case, his fame seems limited to just three standout moments: Dirty Harry, Big Wednesday, and maybe Conan the Barbarian.  Then again, I'm not even sure how many viewers out there remember the film in the middle.  These days, whenever anyone can recall Milius at all, its as the off-screen collaborator on films like Jaws and Apocalypse Now.  It's true he worked and/or helped out on the screenplays for both of those movies, yet how many know he did the same thing on works like Used Cars, 1941, or I Wanna Hold Your Hand?  Perhaps one reason why is because neither or the latter three just listed amount to any great shakes.  Instead, its more like an artist blazing for a short span of time, and then somehow bowing out without even trying. 

DePalma's career seems to have followed a very similar trajectory.  If we know him at all, its as the guy who made Carrie, The Fury, Dressed to Kill (maybe something like Blow Out counts as well, yet that's stretching it to me), and then or course there's Scarface and The Untouchables.  That's three more up from Milius, and the kick in the teeth is that this is all it remains as.  Beyond these titles, it seems difficult to know just what he's been up to ever since.  Like, there was one moment where I  I thought I recalled Black Dahlia, and for a second there it was like, oh yeah, I didn't even know DePalma made that one.  Then my memories cleared, and I realized all I'd done was mistake his film for David Fincher's Zodiac.  The result is a muddled legacy that he almost barely is even a part of in some places.  Each career is a copy of the other, in which the artist's capacity for creativity seem able to go just so far before the engine powering things begins to reach its limit, and then can go no further for some reason.

It's when we return once more to Coppola that the irony trebles itself to an audible hum (albiet perhaps the sound still remains very faint for all that).  This is the part where you realize that the fame of the same wunderkind a lot of folks still like to lionize all rests on the shoulders of no more than just four films made in quick succession during the course of a single decade.  They were all critical hits, and the irony is they remain all anyone cares to talk about.  The catch here is that Coppola's fame has rendered him somewhat historically landlocked.  It's like there's this sort of taboo in place.  You can sing the praises of The Godfather Part II to rafters all you want.  Just don't you so much as ever dare mention the existence of something like One From the Heart, and there is no such thing as Jack.  Is that clear?  The result is a kind of fragile bubble reputation.  The director is lionized for what he did right.  The only problem is in order to preserve that public perception, the rest of the story has to get swept under the rug.  To be fair, though, I can almost understand the logic of such choices, even if I don't agree with them.  Once you factor the rest of Coppola's career into the equation, the final result stands as a sort of parable for his entire generation of movie making. 

It's also kind of unfair when you stop and think it over.  When all the Movie Brats were just getting started, Coppola was the one out of that whole group that the critics, the press, and the public zeroed in on as the de facto voice, leader, and new, bright, and shining talent of the bunch.  The net result is that he wound up getting a lot pressure placed on his shoulders.  The paradox is that it was a role Coppola seemed more or less willing to accept.  A lot of the reason for this was because he at least could be (a) very good at his job on occasion, and (b) do it in such a way that was able to satisfy the critics, thus giving them what they either wanted, or what they thought they deserved from their tellers of tales.  

This whole setup was enough to bring about a series of punchlines.  To start with, because Francis was willing to bask in the limelight as Hollywood's new boy wonder, that took all the pressure off of guys like Lucas and Spielberg, who were more or less left alone as a result, and allowed to do their own thing, mostly free from the scrutiny of the critical establishment.  The only other name in the bunch who seemed to get anywhere near to being a contender for the throne was some New York kid named Scorsese.  For the longest time, however, all eyes remained focused on whatever it was Coppola would do next.  The critics did have to agree, however, that a film like Taxi Driver was a more than decent enough film in its own right.

Still, it didn't do much to change things, at least not to begin with.  For the moment, Coppola remained the face of the movie brat movement.  The rest of the gang were more or less forced to bask in his shadow by the critics.  What none of the opinion makers seemed to have realized was that perhaps they were always looking at the situation and mistaking it for something it was not.  When you step back and take a good look at Coppola's work as a whole, movies like Peggy Sue Got Married stand out as more the norm, where a work like The Conversation is the anomaly.  This was still all in the future at the time.  For a moment during the 70s, Coppola was the director who could do no wrong.  Then came One from the Heart.  It was a passion project for the director, similar to Apocalypse.  The difference is this time, everything sort of went to hell.  The final product was a textbook exercise in style overwhelming the subject.  I'm not so sure it helps any that Coppola's desire to pay tribute to the romantic musical comedies of his youth never could find the necessary extra mile to like Lucas and Spielberg were able to muster in cases like Raiders of the Lost Ark.  That's a case of a tribute managing to stand on its own legs.  One from the Heart wasn't so lucky, even if it really did come from Coppola's heart.

What also didn't help things is that Francis released this film at what was perceived to be the apex of his career.  After the release of Apocalypse Now he was seen as the director who could do no wrong.  His next film had the effect of shattering each and every one of those perceptions.  He went from being the voice of the new film generation to the laughing stock of Hollywood.  His star didn't so much plummet as reveal itself for what it was, thus shattering a lot of critical idols in the process.  I can't help thinking that some of those idols are the same ones that Myles set up for unintentional target practice in the course of her book.  It was written and published just before Coppola set to work on Heart.  That makes it a text primed for getting knocked off its pedestal in a big way.  The funny thing is that the name she gave to her subjects seems to have more or less stuck, it's just her outlook in her text, along the whole collective, critical zeitgeist that I think could use some needed reevaluation.

Conclusion: A Flawed Necessity.

In some ways, I think I've got to apologize right up front here.  I've been rambling all this time about the details of Myles's book, and the cinematic generation at the heart of it.  Throughout, though, I'm still not all that sure that I've ever gotten anything like a main point across.  Let me rectify that now by saying that the main point I've been trying to get to this whole time has been the clash and dichotomy between Myles as a critic, her collective subject(s), and the goals she either has for them all, or else what she believes them to represent, versus who they really are as artists.  It's been kind of a fascinating topic to explore, in many ways.  It's just kind of a shame that pretty much none of it stems from what Myles set out to accomplish.  Like many 80s kids, the idea of the Movie Brats was just a concept I heard tossed around along the way as I continued exploring the films that I liked a lot growing up.  This was often brought up in the course of documentaries on Lucas and Spielberg.  It planted this idea in my head of something like Freaks and Geeks or the D&D campaigns like you see in some episodes of Stranger Things.  That's not entirely what is going on here, however.  Though it is true (at least in George and Steven's case) that a shared love of pop-culture is what wound playing a perhaps defining part of the whole enterprise.

If that's the case, then it's also a shame this is the single trait that Myles can neither get behind, nor lower herself to.  It's become clear soon enough that Myles is not the kind of viewer for a story like E.T., or The Goonies.  She's the type that wants everything to be a kind of continuation of films like Mean Streets, or Manhattan.  It just seems like the zone where she's the most comfortable, or at least a bit more knowledgeable.  I suppose my main problem with this is that you just can't shake the sense of snobbery lingering about the place.  If that was all there was to it, however, then there wouldn't be much to talk about.  The second thing that bugs me about this whole setup is that I'm dealing with snobbery wedded to a flattening sense of ideology.  Myles's goal never seems to be the proper study of films as art.  Instead, all is grist.  It's only important inasmuch as it can be mined for whatever ism is in command of the moment.  The final nail in the coffin, however, is that none of this has anything to do with the subject of her book, the exact topic everyone going in was expecting to be her main subject.  Instead, the movie brats wind up just being used as ciphers for an ill-defined sense of un-Romantic, fundamentally non-artistic political thought.  The fact that the writer has trouble even defining her terms is telling.

It speaks of a critical lens in which the real interest, whatever it may be, can never rest in a simple appreciation of the art of storytelling.  It's a bit of a disappointment, really.  It means the reader has sort of been cheated of the actual history of a real life artistic moment.  It almost begs the question of what Myles might have to say about her work all these years later?  It wouldn't be much of a surprise to hear her call her text, and the real life people in it as an example of bourgeoisie immaturity.  Perhaps she's moved on beyond these filmmakers, and is now firmly focused on...What was it she wanted?  And that, right there, is kind of the problem.  We're dealing with a book and an author that can't seem to define her way of out some ideological muddle, and the subjects have to suffer as a result of that.  It's disconcerting, to say the least.  What it tells me is that perhaps the Movie Brats have maybe never gotten to the full and proper critical aesthetic examination that they deserve, both individually, and as an example of the sort of artistic collectives and movements that tend to crop up across various societies in moments of great creative ferment.  Nor am I sure how well equipped I am to do the job.  The best place I could even hope to start with such an endeavor is to take things as they stand at the present moment, and then read my way backwards from here.

To me, the greatest irony of the Movie Brat generation remains the difference between what critics like Myles were saying about them, and the reality of the situation that time has more or less revealed to all, or at least anyone whose been paying any sort of close attention.  With the passage of enough time, it is just possible that we are reaching a point at which we can start to make something like an actual judgment call on the whole movement.  It would probably have to go as follows: what happened way back then in reality seems to have really been about the advent of modern Hollywood's reigning cinematic trio.  There were others who tried to join in, and yet for various reasons, all of the filmmakers on Myles's list has fallen silent, except for the triad that still manage to make their voices heard.  If I had to take a guess, then perhaps the uniting truth about guys like Milius, DePalma, and Coppola is that we were always sort of dealing with a problem of outsize ambition combined with an amount of talent that was probably always more limited than we hoped.  The best demonstration of this stands out to me once you place the careers of Coppola and Scorsese side by side.  When I compare both of their respective filmographies, I always come away thinking that it's the director Goodfellas who really went on to have the kind of career that Coppola was expected to have.  It's a distinction of that might almost be described as too obvious to see.  It's there, and apparently it takes a lot of effort to see clearly.

So, what does that leave us with?  In terms of how things have shaped up, what is revealed is less an awaited Renaissance of gritty realism, and is more like a steady resurgence of the kind of Romanticism that populated the pages of writers like Blake or Wordsworth.  That's a statement that may sound counterintuitive, so let me explain.  If I had to sum up the kind of critical thinking that underlies all the original celebratory praises of the Movie Brats, then it would have to be described as a kind of free-floating, snobbish, naturalist realism.  There seems to have been a mistaken notion going around at the time about just what a film was, or what cinema could be.  They were willing to prop up the supposed realism of Scorsese, or the urban sophistication of a Woody Allen.  Yet woe betide them, or anyone else who tried to mix sophistication with any of the popular narrative traditions.  That seems to have meant you could have sex and violence, and yet you could only develop the dramatic possibilities only so far.  If you tried to discover if there was any meaning to be had in any setup matching those terms, then you could be accused of a cloying sentimentality.  This type of critical establishment setup could be somewhat amusing whenever an artist came up with a fundamentally Romantic concept that was able to sneak right past the critic's radar.

For instance, it may sound contradictory to call a film like Taxi Driver Romantic, in the literate sense of the term.  That film is one of the best feature length journeys through the dark night of the soul.  What everyone seems to miss is that the director can't bring himself to throw in the towel, not even on his main protagonist.  There's a lot of ambiguity going on with the ending of the story of Travis Bickle, and that is sort of the point.  The key thing to remember, however, is that Scorsese is never entirely willing, even in his darkest material, to let a total sense of nihilism have the final say.  This didn't keep the critics from reading his work that way at the time, or even now, for that matter.  Just as it didn't and hasn't kept a note of derision from cropping up every time the conversation turns to the work of creators of Minority Report and Indiana Jones.  It all amount to a kind of aesthetic snobbery that has the effect of blinding the critics to the exact nature of what was going on at the time.

I've called the advent of the cinematic three a Romantic sort of movement.  This is because, as the ones who largely went on to determine the nature and type of modern film we have now, each of them relies on traditional modes of narration to tell new stories.  And then sometimes they've also shown they know how to tell old stories in a modern look.  Throughout it all, there's a sense of narrative continuity about all their work.  While each of the three filmmakers I'm thinking about may be modernistic to their core, each of their own movies contains the kind of literacy that tells of a familiarity with much older forms of media and storytelling.  This has turned out to be true even the case of films like Hugo, or The Gangs of New York (a film which almost acts like a prequel to none other than Don Bluth's American Tail).  That's why I'm comfortable going out on a limb with this one.  I'd like to state here and now that it's precisely because the films of these three directors has such a good sense of literacy and continuity with a lot of older forms of storytelling that, paradoxically, made them so attractive the youth culture audiences of the 60s, 70s, and 80s.  It was this Romantic form of filmmaking that ultimately won the day, and helped define our notion of what a film is, or could be, even now.  It therefore makes sense to me to look back at the Movie Brats generation and declare that what it really amounted to was the advent in the careers of three specific artists: Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg.

None of this is stuff you'll be able to pick up on by reading Myles's book, by the way.  If hindsight really is everything, then the most charitable thing you can say about it is that shortsightedness is it's real strength.  It's clear that the book has bigger fish to fry, that's kind of why it doesn't really do as good a job of describing the artistic movement which is ostensibly at its center.  This leaves readers with a somewhat important question.  What are we to make of it?  How you size up a text like The Movie Brats, knowing all that we do now?  I've got an answer to that question, yet perhaps that just means the final irony is all on me.  Is it a good book?  No, not by a long shot.  Does that mean you can just toss it aside with ease?  Well, that's sort of the punchline, really.  While I can't say it does a good job at giving a necessary overview of the artists involved, there is one service it can at least provide.  It stands less as an objective critical examination, and more like a snapshot of a way of thinking, and how this impacted the writer's view of a bunch of talented Hippies with cameras.  She misreads all of them in various ways, and yet even this is able to provide its own form of negative insight.  I can't call The Movie Brats an informative read.  However, perhaps its one of those texts that can go on to work as a springboard for future critics.  

Rather than being good in itself, it's real value seems to be in the way it forces the reader to find a clearer vantage point from which to view things.  All the commentary in this study is outmoded in several different ways, and yet it's kind of a mistake to just ignore the whole thing, if that makes any sense.  It's one of those books were the text does and does not do it's job well.  Such anomalies can be an interesting bunch in their own right.  What holds it all together is a prescient, and worthwhile topic of study that forever remains somehow incomplete.  It's as if Da Vinci had got started on the Mon Lisa, and then got bored for some reason and shelved the whole thing.  All that's left is the faint trace outlines of the famous smile.  The result is intriguing merely as a great, unanswered what-if.  In this is the case with Myles's text, then the question is what would a complete, competent, and reliable chronicle of this moment in time, and the directors who helped shape it look like?  Even if we're going off of the way things stand now, odds are even the final result might still come off as somewhat lopsided.  It'd be like looking a group picture of the Brats as if they were framed in one of those Back to the Future class photos.  At first the whole gang is there, and then slowly three fade away, leaving just three others with the whole playing field.  It's a strange end to a nonetheless fascinating story.

So there you have it, it's not the best critical examination out there.  It's not much of a start, and I can't even tell how what is now close to being the ending must look like to others.  Then again, the irony is that history has vindicated George, Marty, and Steve to such an extent that all of the others on Myles's list just wind up basking in their shadows.  The last punchline might be just how little others seem to mind or notice.  I'm not sure I've ever had an experience like a book such as The Movie Brats, and yet in a way, I'm not sorry I picked it up.  It doesn't work as a whole, and yet it is in the minutiae of historical detail, and scattered background information which is where its true value lies.  In that sense, however ironic this may sound, perhaps it will have to go down as one of those flawed canonical texts, both for what it gets wrong, as well as a few of the insights that it gets right.


  1. (1) I've never seen "The Conversation," which is a major oversight on my part. (I did recently see "Dementia 13" for the first time, though! It was alright.) As for Coppola's later work, I love "Bram Stoker's Dracula" and, though I only saw it once, enjoyed "The Rainmaker" well enough as a standard legal thriller.

    (2) "Myles is the kind of critic who ultimately views all art as a mere tool of ideology." -- All too common, though I do like that line about Star Wars being little more than cosmic pinball. I disagree with it, but it's a good line. A ridiculous sentiment, though. Even so, this sounds like a book worth reading!

    (3) "I would, however, claim that there is a discernible difference between films like Black Klansman and In the Heat of the Night, and something like the live-action Mulan remake." -- Generally, I agree with you. But there *is* a political value in the mere decision to make the Mulan film, and a political value in the decision to skew away from the plot of the Disney cartoon itself and toward having it appeal to audiences in China by more closely dramatizing the original legend. One could even make the argument that something like Spike Lee's movie is art about politics, whereas the Mulan remake IS politics. So I'm kind of on both sides of this argument.

    (4) I will forever love John Milius because of my adoration for "Conan the Barbarian," but yeah, overall he amounted to little. I'd like to see "Big Wednesday" someday, though.

    (5) "She's the type that wants everything to be a kind of continuation of films like Mean Streets, or Manhattan." -- Somewhere, she's enthusing over "Uncut Gems," I bet. And hey, I love movies like that, too, so no problem. I distrust ANY viewer who only wants to see one type of movie, though, no matter if it's popcorn or politics.

    1. (2) The phrase "cosmic pinball", in and of itself, detached from its original context, might one day find a proper place of expression, though like you say, "Star Wars" just isn't it.

      (3) My own thinking seems to boil down to a single maxim. Propaganda, by its very nature, can never amount to art. Now, with that said, I am also aware of the charges open to such a statement. Some will want to point to films like "Black Klansman", and ask if that doesn't amount to propaganda?

      If this is really the case, then I'd hold that Lee's film wouldn't work even half as well as it does. The key element seems to come down to a confusion about the subject of the film, and a vital distinction that needs to be made about it. Some viewers appear to be confusing a democratic matter of common sense, in this case Civil Rights, with mere ideology, as if it were just a vague, abstract notion, rather than a fact of human life, that needs addressing. Lee seems to be too aware of the costs involved to let his film fall into that kind of mistake.

      I suppose a better way to highlight the distinction would be to frame it this way. Politics needn't be Democratic in order to be political. In that sense, the difference between Democracy proper, as opposed to mere ideology, becomes perhaps a bit more clear.

      ...What was I talking about again?

      (4) Too bad, I guess.

      (5) Like I say, her entire book, and the glaring contrasts between it and the reality of where we are now just sort of helped me to take stock of all the big talk surrounding that era, and allowed a kind of paradigm shift for me in seeing it for what it was. The result is a picture of that decade and its cinema that is a lot more popular, and perhaps less snobbish, though nonetheless sophisticated for reasons other than what the critical consensus was. I'm just surprised I was able to find all the right words for that, or as close to whatever I was looking to say as I got.