Filmmaking is a risky business. Movies are expensive to make (more so than, say, your average book or painting or musical composition), and, for that reason, there's pressure to get money back. That's always been the case: nothing has changed. What has changed dramatically is the way in which that pressure exerts itself on the industry, at least in the U.S. In order to illustrate the point I'm trying to make, let's take a look at Solaris (2002), Steven Soderbergh's remake of Andrei Tarkovsky's 1972 film. Perhaps remake is the wrong word, since Soderbergh proved far more interested in the original Stanislaw Lem book and, most intriguingly, in Alain Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad (1961), than in what Tarkovsky did. (I am indebted to Elvis Mitchell, whose lecture on Marienbad and Solaris dealt with the connections between the two films). The result was a picture the country couldn't swallowto be precise, a huge flop. I remember seeing Solaris in the theaters and hearing, at the movie's end, the groans of the audience members. As one couple after another walked out, I heard phrases like "worst movie ever" and "horrible" and "hated it." Interesting. I, for one, loved it. Unlike so many films these days, it seemed to want to really do something. Granted, I wasn't sure what that "something" was, but this film clearly had ambition.
I would say ambition is in short supply these days. Imagine the risks Soderbergh took in making his version of Solaris. He was essentially transplanting Last Year at Marienbad - king of art-house movies, a deliberate, incredibly slow-moving (some would say incredibly boring) picture of existential dilemmas and philosophical puzzles - to the realm of the sci-fi, space-travel adventure. It had special effects, it had a star, and it had ambition. It failed miserably. In Mitchell's talk, he posited the claim that Solaris was the last movie of its kind to come out of American cinema - the large-scope/big-budget experimental picture. I'd add that same year's Gangs of New York, which, in my opinion, met a lot of the same misunderstanding as Solaris (though both films were praised by a handful of critics). But I agree with Mitchell's basic point: that we don't see this kind of "experimentation writ large" (his words) anymore in the movies. Could 2001: A Space Odyssey be made today and be successful? I highly doubt it. And whether or not that's the case, those kinds of movies simply aren't being made in the same number as they were a few decades ago. I'm not just deploring a decline in quality movies. There's plenty of great stuff being made today. My point is it ain't in the big-budget sphere. Directors just don't seem to have the same freedom of experimenting on an epic scale as they once did. Maybe Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate, the 1980 flop, can be identified as the culprit. Maybe not. Even Last Year at Marienbad, not an inordinately expensive picture, though certainly a work of technical virtuosity, represents a sort of willingness to take huge risks (not explicitly financial risks, but risks nonetheless). As Mitchell pointed out, Resnais's decisions to cut in the middle of dolly movements and to depict the same object successively from multiple angles were unprecedented, shocking, and groundbreaking. A new grammar of moviemaking, as theorists would say, was being forged on the screen. These days, when does that happen? The epic has become the realm of the B-picture (see my review of The Lord of the Rings trilogy). Bold attempts to do something new more often that not fail in the box-office.
In the past, it seems audiences were more willing to embrace experimentation. It was genuine risk-taking on a daunting scale that gave us Apocalypse Now, A Clockwork Orange, Aguirre, the Wrath of God, 2001 (photo above), Lawrence of Arabia, Last Year at Marienbad, and countless other great works. Today, what goes down better are the safe movies. The Academy Awards bestow A Beautiful Mind and Chicago with Best Picture, and expensive fluff is the recipe of the day. Maybe what seems to be the current malaise or stasis in cinema is simply the result of a sort of self-imposed restraint. No one wants to do any more risky business.