Where has all the mystery gone?


- Perhaps it was forfeited with the arrival of color, along with dollar signs, and the misplaced value of things…
Gazing at old black and white pictures of Hollywood stars of yesteryear, from candids to set photos – it looked like, and was, a whole other world. Was it that the advent of color contributed to the fading away of that world? Before, seeing images and films was like seeing something that was a degree removed from reality. We see things in colour, so the B&W aspect was reserved for the stars (apart from your family photo albums – but even then, those were records of ‘special’ moments and occasions) – Hollywood was a special occasion unto itself – for all the rest of the world, it may as well have been permanently in Black and White – the world of celluloid existed within a special moment. (Keeping aside that equally marvelous Technicolor decades of the 60’s and early 70’s)

Nowadays, we look for the broken, the incomplete hero, the tormented soul, the dirt behind the velvet curtain, the drugs in the drawer, the running mascara… it’s all about the real (and the advent of reality TV), when celebrities are portrayed as just people, as they always have been, flawed.
Of course Hollywood has long been known as the place of lights and shattered dreams, but that’s not the focus here. I want to know if there’s a suitable compromise. At best we’re treated to isolated occurrences where a rare modern film can transcend era’s to offer something that would succeed anywhere and still hold true to that sense of mysticism, prestige and allure that was the bread and butter of ‘old Hollywood’.

We can talk about art and life, integrity and business, and how one side of the industry needs the other to survive, and how the audience will watch what they’re given, or whatever the hype machine spews out… the talk of blockbuster tent-pole productions and that Hollywood is no longer so much a community as it once was, the exclusive hallowed league it once was (or was thought to be) – and we can ask: can that element ever be replicated?

When I did ‘The Great Escape,’ I kept thinking, ‘If they were making a movie of my life, that’s what they’d call it – the great escape.’
Steve McQueen

Steve McQueen

“I think that I used to love Hollywood movies. I remember great phases and moments. But, unfortunately, now is not the moment.” Bernardo Bertolucci

- “When an actor plays a scene exactly the way a director orders, it isn’t acting. It’s following instructions. Anyone with the physical qualifications can do that.” James Dean

In today’s tinsel industry, money is the currency, when talent once was (or at the very least it was more of a narrower contest). We’re desensitized, to the extent that now people seem to want the wool to be pulled back over their eyes, because gritty realism just isn’t real enough, because once Hollywood finds a formula (and makes it a cliché), it will grind it out till every morsel is had. It’s the ‘golden woman’ – that complex that promises everything and brings you so far, but still only ‘so far’, always keeping that last little something out of your reach, because as an audience, we can never be satisfied. I am in a position to look upon those old images with nostalgia because I have the benefit of hindsight – looking at a past I was never a part of and can never be… so it will always seem that much more appealing, or was it just that appealing? Of course it could’ve been made so because the world was a different place, with World Wars, dark and unknown countries, no internet… and the media was a different animal, sort of… So, with surrounds made up mostly of dark things, the glamour, appeal and shine of that old-school tinsel, was made that much more brighter, stars glinting – because the world wanted the mystery, because everyday reality was often not such a great dwelling place. Shining lights and Smoke and mirrors – it’s what the world needed back then… and maybe, probably, it’s what the industry- the world – needs right now, again, even if we ignore the dust on the lights, the fire causing the smoke, and the cracks in the mirrors.

“Fame, it’s like caviar. It’s good to have caviar, but every damn day?… [wild laughter]… Fame, is a fickle thing…” – Marilyn Monroe in her final interview, two days before she committed suicide.

Perhaps its wishful thinking in hoping we can get some of that essence back, considering that the central totem to what made ‘old Hollywood’ so endearing, was the warped innocence of those stars, themselves struggling to come to terms with fame, shoved into the limelight and experiencing the two edged sword of a thing called celebrity.
You’re not a mega star, until the people make you one.
“The Golden Age” – this ironically does not refer to the actors of films – but rather the powerhouse companies who blossomed because of them. Companies that were products of the Golden age – names we’re very familiar with: Columbia Pictures, 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros., Paramount Pictures, Universal Pictures and (MGM & United Artists). [Time Warner now owns both WB and New Line Cinema; MGM, which merged with United Artists, are owned by Sony Pictures; Miramax/Dimension Films and Buena Vista owned by The Walt Disney Company]
So what can be done, or what has been done, because the people most acutely aware of all this, are those in the middle of it; the actors, the producers and directors? They form this triangle, three centres of an industry, all struggling and dancing around one another. At times one of the three stands tallest (in Hollywood it’s inevitably the Producers), whilst on rare occasion, they manage to form a balance of power to yield a taste of filmmaking in its purest form. However, such occurrences are always brief, ensured so by those who hold the cheque.

MarilynMthought“The star system has gotten way out of hand. We’ve let the inmates run the asylum, and they’ve practically destroyed it.” — 20th Century Fox [then} vice president, Peter Levathes after Marilyn Monroe only reported for work 12 out of 35 days whilst working on what would turn out to be her last project, the abandoned film ‘Something’s got to give” (this despite reports that she had been physically ill when filming started)[/column]

If that was then, then we can only look at the way things are with greater understanding of what took place. Producers/Studios sought control, and seemingly launched a full scale takeover, with little power and sway left on the table for the rest of the players. Although most of the major Companies only handle distribution, one still needs the backing… A demonstration of this supremacy has been noted, particularly since the buzz phrase in tinsel town these days is “multi-picture franchise”:

“… in order for Christopher Nolan to get the opportunity to make Inception, he had to direct Batman first.” As it happens, Nolan’s next film, Interstellar, is an original project, but this past year several other widely respected and successful filmmakers like Spielberg, Lucas, and Steven Soderbergh have quite publicly lamented how hard it is for even them to make original stories that are not tied to pre-existing material.
“It’s telling that aside from The Hunger Games or Twilight… if you think about where most of the [intellectual property] that people really talk about comes from, it’s all pretty much from at least 20 years ago. It’s all Marvel, DC, and remakes and sequels to things that have been around for a long time.” – Damon Lindelhof (Screenwriter; Star Trek: Into Darkness, Prometheus, World War Z) >> Article “Can Marvel take over Hollywood”.


  • Filmmaker

    You know, Steven, I once wrote a personal piece about this, called The Real Gag. I quote “The appeal of WWE Smackdown as opposed to The Young and the Restless is the death of imagination”. I quote you here: “the dirt behind the velvet curtain”. It’s all the same. We are revealing too much…

    • http://stevenbenjamin.weebly.com/ Steven Benjamin

      Thanks for sharing. It does seem like cinema, as with all art forms, is going through a self rediscovery phase, trying to reestablish what its actually about… Although many (Tarantino) believe its just dying a slow death, having lost its sense of self.