David Spaner urges us to throw shit at the screen
It was one of Hollywood’s queasiest moments, and it happened in front of millions of viewers. The year was 1999, and legendary filmmaker Elia Kazan was being presented with a lifetime achievement Oscar by the vaguely uncomfortable looking team of Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese.
Kazan had already bagged two Academy Awards during his career, but honouring the director of On the Waterfront for his life’s work meant forgiving Kazan for co-operating with the House Un-American Activities Committee in the '50s—and there were plenty of people who weren’t prepared to do that.
In his outstanding new book Shoot It! (Hollywood Inc. and the Rising of Independent Film) (published by Arsenal Pulp Press), Vancouver-based film critic David Spaner relates the amazing behind the scenes story of the situation, in which—according to Sophia Loren—“seven eighths of the Academy did not stand for Kazan.”
Spaner’s information came from Norma Barzman, a writer who fled to Paris with her screenwriter husband Ben when they both ended up on the blacklist.
“It was one of my favourite interviews,” Spaner tells the Straight, in a call from Toronto. “We sat in a Los Angeles deli, Nate 'n Al’s, for five hours, eating and talking—and it was just fantastic. And her story is really representative of that era in a huge way. Here’s this spirited woman, goes out to Hollywood, actually does it, she’s facing a lot of gender discrimination that took place at the time, she becomes active in the Hollywood left, and then both her and her husband end up in exile in France for decades. And then, ultimately, triumphantly to some extent, she makes her return.”
Norma actually spearheaded the effort to remind the industry of Kazan’s treachery. She told Spaner: “The plan was for every limousine heading to the big show to have a Hollywood Reporter or Variety magazine with a full-page ad urging: ‘Don’t applaud. Sit on your hands’ when Kazan got his award. I must have called 4,000 people.”
On the surface, the blacklist and other tales of Hollywood’s war on the militant tendency might seem incidental to Spaner’s subject matter, but even as a worldwide phenomenon, the amazing persistence of independent filmmaking is intimately linked with the history of the studio system in America.
In a highly readable and very entertaining book stuffed with interviews (including Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, Catherine Breillat, Seymour Cassel, John Sayles, François Ozon, Sally Potter, Henry Jaglom, Miranda July, Gus Van Sant, Woody Allen, Claire Denis, Sarah Polley, and many, many others), one of Spaner’s great achievements is to illuminate this combative relationship and the underreported history of activism in the Dream Factory. He begins Shoot it! with a vivid account of the great Hollywood strike of 1945-46, which became a seminal moment in the industry’s thrust for absolute power.
“When you’re covering movies on a regular basis, you see a lot of really, really bad movies,” Spaner says, explaining the origins of the book. “And so the question kept arising for me: ‘Why are the movies so bad these days?’ As you start researching it, like many things in our society, you find yourself ultimately looking at corporate power as a root cause. So I started looking at the evolution of the studio system into an increasingly corporate entity. And the big question in terms of moving to the independent stuff was: ‘What was the impact on local film cultures when a huge corporate film culture dominates local film screens?’”
Spaner’s inquiry ultimately fans out across the globe, and he examines the varied and irrepressible waves of indie filmmaking in countries as diverse as France, Mexico, Romania, and Canada. In each case, the story is the same: local film culture battles American behemoth. And it’s an ugly fight. When South Korea dropped its import restrictions in the late '80s, the sudden flood of Hollywood movies incited people to throw shit, smoke bombs, and live snakes into theatres.
As Spaner writes, when the MPAA’s cartoonish super-villain Jack Valenti then tried to bully South Korea into dropping its homegrown quota system in the '90s, “113 Korean directors and producers shaved their heads and went on a seven-day hunger strike.”
“Isn’t it amazing when you look at the passion that exists in some of these countries for cinema?” he says. “And also the South Korean quota is an interesting thing, how they had the will to fight for this thing and maintain it, whereas other countries like Canada just haven’t. Look what happened to Canadian music with the quota on radio, and what might that have done if it had been brought in back in the '60s or '70s for Canadian cinema? If it’s brought in now, what might it do? There’s all these questions.”
Indeed, and then there’s also Spaner’s passion for the more artful side of resistance. The other half of Shoot It! consists of his commentary on key movies—independent either in spirit or substance— as varied as Daughters of the Dust, Destry Rides Again, Me and You and Everyone We Know, and Alain Resnais’s Wild Grass.
His fluency on the topic means that he gets a lot of juicy quotes from his interview subjects—“I thought it was important to not just talk about it in terms of their ideology, but also in terms of their loves, and emotionally how film has affected them”—and the book ends on a magnificent rant by indefatigable New York auteur Tom DiCillo. Without giving away the ending, neither Spaner or DiCillo have much time for “cool-hip” Hollywood ringers like Jason Reitman or Christopher Nolan.
Meanwhile, unlike most things on planet Earth in 2012, the future of indie film is looking pretty bright.
Says Spaner, “If you’re just looking at one filmmaker, like, say, Henry Jaglom in Los Angeles, or Bruce Sweeney in Vancouver, or Axelle Ropert in France, or Tom DiCillo in New York, or whatever, if you look at people in isolation, it may not seem significant. But if you look at it collectively, and you realize there are people all over the world that share those sentiments, then it becomes almost like a movement, and I think that’s what I was trying to depict in this book—that these problems and successes and this consciousness exist everywhere right now, and with the rising of digital it becomes more and more accessible, and it’s exploding.”
David Spaner reads from Shoot It! at the Royal Bank Cinema - Chan Centre for the Performing Arts UBC, on Friday (March 30). The free event also includes a screening of Bruce Sweeney’s Live Bait, and a Q&A featuring Spaner and Sweeney, moderated by Live Bait star Tom Scholte.