Television: The Movies

Mpepper/ October 29, 2020/ Reviews

This is a 2019 documentary miniseries from CNN that my husband and I watched via streaming. Rather than watch them in the order that Wikipedia lists, the streaming service (I can’t remember which one it was on now) had them in chronological order by era/decade. So we started with the “Golden Age” and moved to the 2000s. I’m not sure if that affected my overall perception of the series, which in short is that it was well made but very biased.

I have a film degree. And I’ve worked on film sets. I’m not saying this to be superior, since I know there is still a lot about movies I don’t know and the industry is always changing. I just want to give context to my point of view. And that POV is: what a bunch of old, white men congratulating each other.

This is nothing new in any industry, really, but it felt so obvious in this context. Each episode of this series goes over the films that made a big impact in any given decade, and more often than not then discusses the directors and their grand visions and how they brought the films to life on the big screen. There is a reverence for, not just the films, but the men who made them. The token effort to talk about films that were made by POC or women only makes the elevation of these men (Hitchcock, Kubrick, Scorsese, Cameron, Hughes, Tarantino, Ridley Scott, etc.) more conspicuous.

Maybe it’s a quantity issue. There are, after all, so many more old, white men making movies than there are women or POC. It would be impossible to talk about film history without talking a lot about these guys. But rather than choosing one film per auteur as representative of his work, The Movies presents a catalogue of films by these directors, hailing each of the titles as groundbreaking, and then tosses in a mention of Spike Lee or Jane Campion or Ryan Coogler or Kathryn Bigelow to call it even.

Look, I get it. It’s meant to be a celebration of film, not a deep dive into the inequities of the industry. The goal is to keep to tone light and happy and remind people of how great movies are. But as I watched the episode about the 70s, it was crystal clear that men were making movies for other men. That they were satisfying themselves rather than thinking about the wider world. So to celebrate that is to celebrate selfishness.

Then again, the industry has never minded selfishness so long as it makes a profit. Yes, yes, it’s a business. Its goal is to make money. But if you’re going to elevate it as art, you have to remember that a lot of great art never made any money. So when the focus is on dollars, you are already eliminating a large swath of people and points of view. You’re chasing either the lowest common denominator or the people with the most expendable income. You’re chasing popularity and then making a miniseries on how great popular films and directors are. If it were high school, it would be like making a documentary on how great the athletes are and ignoring what the art students or French club or whoever else is doing because “no one is interested.”

Sorry, that was probably a stretch as far as metaphors go. But I just really found this docuseries to be indicative of a wider problem, and it stirred up all my frustrations with the film industry.

It is possible, too, that much of what they chose to highlight in The Movies has to do with who they were able to interview. This is a chicken-or-egg kind of question. Did they ask Spielberg and Scorsese for a chat before or after deciding to venerate them? They didn’t get Tarantino, but maybe enough other people wanted to talk about him that they couldn’t avoid making much of his work? Was it a question of: “Here are the sound bites, the things most interviewees mentioned, so let’s focus on these”?

The lack of love for screenwriters was also telling. Not that it’s anything new. But it was summed up in the 2000s episode: first there was the studio system, then the rise of directors, then megastars, and now we’re in the era of IP. Where are the writers in all this? Well, they’re around… A lot of directors also write their own movies, though nowadays there is a small pool that people dip into for things like Marvel movies or whatnot. I won’t bother to moan over the death of originality, since it’s all been said, but I do believe it’s harder than ever to break in as a writer unless you happen to create or have rights to an amazing IP—that is, you’ve written a book or comic book series that has already made you a name. Gone are the days of spec scripts or shopping anything completely new.*

*I know they’re not really, completely gone, but it feels like it sometimes. As ever, it’s who you know, etc.

tl;dr: This is a pretty predictable series that highlights exactly the movies and directors you would expect, which means they are playing into the same lowest-common-denominator fad as the films themselves. As a retrospective and celebration of film, it’s passing fair if unremarkable. More interesting would be a deep dive of indie and fringe film, movies made for and by POC, and women in film.

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