Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Sunrise Boulevard: Growing Up In Hollywood

If people ever ask me where I grew up, I often say Hollywood. Now wait a minute, I am British, I was born in London, spent my adolescence in a village halfway between London and Oxford, and never even set foot in Los Angeles till 1987, at the not so tender age of 29, so how do I come by the wisecrack about growing up in Hollywood?

But it really is true. I arrived in Hollywood as a script doctor at the start of 1989 and lived there just over a year. It really did feel like the sun had been switched on for the first time and I loved it. I couldn't believe the warmth in the air and the warmth of life in general. So different from the cold and miserable 60s that passed for my fragmented Dickensian childhood and the endless recession that Britain always seemed to be in.

Some plants need a lot of water and some need a lot of sun. It turned out that I was of the latter variety. I had a wonderful time in Hollywood, found friends, was helped out when I needed it, and had a lot of fun even without a lot of money. I couldn't understand why people complained about it - everybody knew what Hollywood was like, so if that wasn't your cup of tea, don't go there, I couldn't help thinking. After all, there's always Paris or Budapest or Ulan Batur, if you can get the visas.

At least one of the friends that I made there went on to become a major producer, though it took him a fair while. I left on my own terms when I felt that it really would not be possible to make the kinds of films that I like to see - intelligent films for adults, with charm, a lot of irony, some sophisticated humour and no violence. Fitting into this non-genre at the time I could see only Woody Allen and a few French directors (including Truffaut, whom I once nearly met, but was already dying of cancer), but that was about it. It has been a long time since Hollywood made these kinds of films, and I was aware that a lot of what it had come to produce was problematic and not very helpful to the world.

For me, the real golden era of film making was from about 1930 to 1960, especially the films of Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges and Howard Hawks, though there are many others. Not too heavy on the gritty realism - for me that belongs better in the news, current affairs and geo-political analysis, which I like to devour. Judging by Sullivan's Travels, Sturges would agree - in hard times, we all need to find an excuse to smile.

I keep hoping that one day there will be a revival of films like the ones I love - and just maybe the Internet will make this possible. I think it would be nice to think of an old-fashioned Cinema Paradiso on every corner, but that is a bigger stretch to imagine, at least for now. Unfortunately I suppose it all comes back to the little matter of economics. Films usually take a lot of money to make (though they didn't always) and somehow they have to get distributed and somehow money has to flow back to the producers.

With the problems besetting the rest of the media world - newspapers closing down, publishing companies freezing new acquisitions - this looks like a bad time to do anything except batten down the hatches and hope that the storm passes before you run out of corned beef and rum. There may be some parallels between the way the arrival of television affected film in the 1950s and some of the effects of the Internet now - the web is paradoxically in some ways killing traditional media even as it greatly expands the audience for its content.

However, the upending of the old sneering line "If you don't like the views of this newspaper, go and start one yourself - it's a free country" has also genuinely been accomplished by the Web. The Huffington Post is one of the most extraordinary examples, but if you get the tone and message right, it is amazing what can be done and who you can reach.

Could this come true for films (and perhaps by extension television drama and sitcoms), funny or otherwise? Could we have a new wave of sophisticated, excellent cinematic story-telling? Of course making movies will still take money, and writers, actors and crew will need to get paid, and we still seem to be a long way from finding any reliable way of converting pixellated eyeballs into dollars, euros or renminbi.

As I have mentioned when talking about the decline of the print media, there may be some hope for a virtual complementary currency and maybe the principles of micro-blogging can be metamorphosed into micro-finance so that we can easily and safely pay small amounts for certain pages or pieces of media. There are also possible analogues with recorded music and royalties, though that is a pretty complex operation. However it is done, the economics would have to be carefully worked out, and things could go wrong, but that remains true for every medium and just about every product.

I caution myself that I remember talking a bit like this in the mid-1990s when I was studying journalism in Texas and getting really excited about the web and thinking that real high speed Internet connexions were just around the corner and high quality film could be delivered through fibre-optic cable. The dot bomb helped scupper that idea, but I can see now that my exuberance was premature. Maybe the timing is still not right just yet, but the technical jigsaw does finally seem to be slotting into place for some wonderful new possibilities in the moving picture department.

And if these wonders do come to pass and we have a new golden age of film making, I hope it happens where you are, just in case the experience does for you what Hollywood did for me - switched on the sunshine and showed me people at their kindest, offering an altruism that still warms me to this day.

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