The New Middle

The “auteur” is a filmmaker who is generally expected to make personal cinema. Auteur-films tend to be celebrated for how well they relate unique experience – in terms of theme, Bergman’s preoccupation with death or Truffaut’s with youth; in terms of style, Hitchcock’s use of suspense or Rossellini’s minimalism; in terms of location, Scorsese’s Little Italy or Paul Thomas Anderson’s Valley or Malick’s countryside. The specificity of the auteur’s experience is met by a specific audience. In other words, a limited one.

One way to gnaw away at the dominance of auteurism in today’s movie culture is to dismantle the notion that a film’s quality is proportional to how much it can alienate mass audiences. 1930s French cinema and classic Hollywood cinema both managed to produce movies that could unite disparate audiences without sacrificing quality. Even Hollywood cinema in the 1970s, so often lauded for its auteurs, could be argued to have produced good movies more as a result of its knack for finding a wide audience. In fact, it was the pomposity of auteurism that ultimately ruined the cycle of great ‘70s cinema: Michael Cimino made sure of that by demanding an outrageous sum of money to realize his all-important “vision," Heaven’s Gate. The commercial and critical failure of Heaven’s Gate signaled the end of that great era. But the ‘70s paradigm emerged once more in a movement that is often referred to as “Indiewood,” or the “New Middle.” Read on...

In 1989, Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies & videotape became the first crossover indie hit. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, was distributed by Miramax Films, and proceeded to gross $24.7 million at multiplexes across the nation. The film’s budget had been an estimated $1.2 million. Suddenly, indie movies were on Hollywood’s radar. The independent production and distribution companies that had been in business since the late 1970s or early 1980s – New Line Cinema, Island Pictures, Miramax Films – were now on the map. In the 1990s, new indies emerged: companies like Good Machine, Killer Films, and The Shooting Gallery, which were based out of New York and devoted to “director-driven films." The major studios responded to this phenomenon by buying out some of these companies, as in the case of Universal Pictures and October Films, or creating their own art house divisions, as in the case of Sony Pictures and Sony Pictures Classics. In certain cases, both of these things would happen, as in the case of New Line, which created an art film division in Fine Line Features and was then bought out by Time Warner. The idea of these companies, from the start, was to make films that were smaller and artier than typical Hollywood fare, but could play to wider audiences than the indie films of the 1980s. Films like Pulp Fiction, The Usual Suspects, Se7en, Fargo, Boogie Nights, Rushmore, and Election proved that this model had economic and artistic currency.

The rise of the mid-size movie in the 1990s was a direct result of new studio executives – Lorenzo di Bonaventura at Warner Bros., Amy Pascal at Sony, Stacey Snider at Universal, Mike De Luca at New Line and later Dreamworks – who consciously moved away from what Peter Biskind calls “the we-know-best, anti-filmmaker arrogance” of the Michael Eisners and Sherry Lansings who preceded them. But the public face for the mid-size movie – the figure most publicly associated with the phenomenon, at least among cinephiles and film critics – can be found in Steven Soderbergh.

After directing what was arguably the first entry in the genre of the mid-size movie, Soderbergh spent several years directing personal films that proved totally uncommercial (King of the Hill, Kafka, The Underneath, Gray’s Anatomy, Schizopolis). In 1998, Soderbergh reinvented himself by directing his first studio picture, Out of Sight. What he and his audiences discovered was that he was better in the studio environment. In addition to directing some of the best mid-size movies of the 1990s and 2000s (The Limey, Erin Brockovich, Traffic), Soderbergh also ignited his own production company, Section Eight, which has devoted itself to the production of other mid-size movies, like Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Far From Heaven. According to Soderbergh, the idea of Section Eight “was to offer indies he admired a financial incentive to do more commercial projects”:

"I feel there’s dissatisfaction at both extremes. People who go to see art house movies are frustrated with what they’re seeing, and people going to the big star-driven vehicles are also disappointed with what they’re seeing. There’s a middle ground to be had as there was in the ‘70s. Movies that were being financed by studios with stars in them were being made by really interesting directors. I’ve always thought that I’d rather see a movie in four thousand theaters by Todd Haynes than some hack."

Soderbergh cites the 1970s New Hollywood movement as the influence for a kind of cinema that, as Stanley Cavell would say, attracts both its most elite and its most ordinary audiences simultaneously.

Though the mid-size movie has been on the rise since 1989, the trend has culminated recently in a host of projects and much popular excitement. If 1989 was the starting-off point, 1999 might have been its peak, a year that boasted an impressive roster of interesting mid-size films, including The Limey, Magnolia, Being John Malkovich, Election, Fight Club, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Three Kings, Cradle Will Rock, Go, and The Straight Story. In the 2000s, mid-size movies have graduated from being nominated by the Academy for Best Screenplay to winning Best Screenplay and being nominated for Best Picture (see Lost in Translation and Sideways). (We will leave aside this last year's horrorshow, for the time being.)

In a 2005 New York Times article, A. O. Scott defined the mid-size movie both economically and in terms of exhibition: “the films in question are neither extravagant would-be blockbusters nor shoestring, seat-of-the-pants productions. . . . The public they seek is neither the global mass audience nor the coterie of cinephiles, but rather something – ideally something profitable, as well as Oscar-worthy – in between."

Indie companies like Focus Features, Lionsgate Films, and Fox Searchlight have certainly been doing a good job finding a middle ground for the American public. The problem with the New Middle is the same one that existed for the 1970s New Hollywood: a dependence on the auteur.

In his article on the mid-size movie, A. O. Scott notes that all of the indie subdivisions seem to be united by their remarkably consistent emphasis on “the importance of the director." Peter Rice of Fox Searchlight posits, “I think we’re becoming more and more a director-based company. Find an original voice, come with original material, be bold, and we’ll back you." James Schamus of Focus, also a film history professor at Columbia University, evokes the heyday of auteurism by proclaiming, “The politique des auteurs is still political with us."

Indeed, all of the mid-size movies in question are typical auteur vehicles, often written and directed by the same person, and almost always marketed as if authored and owned by one individual. For all of Soderbergh’s anti-auteurist rhetoric, Section Eight’s guiding principle is to provide financing for inspired directors. Section Eight’s productions are almost entirely auteur films, sometimes by Soderbergh himself (Full Frontal), but also by George Clooney (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind), Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven), and Christopher Nolan (Insomnia).

Though the mid-size revolution, which has bled over from the 1990s into the twenty-first century, may seem quasi-utopian at the moment, the ominous question remains: how long will it be until Spike Jonze makes his Heaven’s Gate? Arguably, some of the most prominent mid-size auteurs are well on their way. For every Lost in Translation, there has also been a Life Aquatic. In other words, the mid-size movie is just as susceptible to the faults of auteurism as movies big and small. Giving Wes Anderson a medium-sized budget will not affect one way or another his usual ability to pack the frame with clever mise-en-scène and his usual inability to write a coherent narrative.

One need not dwell on Anderson to make this point: a recent photo spread in Vanity Fair dubs Dan Harris (Imaginary Heroes), Jared Hess (Napoleon Dynamite), Richard Kelly (Donnie Darko), Ben Younger (Boiler Room), Tod Williams (The Door in the Floor), and Zach Braff (Garden State), “The Young Hyphenates,” a title that is meant to compliment them on their “bucking [of] the usual grotesque odds” that accompanies smuggling unique “visions” into Hollywood product. While these filmmakers may very well represent the next generation of auteur-hyphenates, it is not Generation-Y but Generation-1984, a generation that finally proves how apocalyptic auteurism can become. Needless to say, I do not think highly of the Young Hyphenates’ films. Artistically successful or not, it is only a matter of time before one of these directors demands an outrageous budget, à la Cimino, and when the resulting film fails at the box office, the era of the New Middle will be over.

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