November 01, 2003
"De-Hollywoodization" from Hollywood as well as from the BBC

Last night, winding down from being Mein Host at my last-Friday-of-the-month evening, I watched a Steven Seagal biff-fest (The Glimmer Men), and I noticed yet again how grim and dark the colours are in the average action movie with lots of stunt men in the credits is these days. This is not an isolated circumstance. Grim, noir-in-colour gloom seems to be the visual order of the day these days. Indeed, when I bought a TV a few years ago, I really looked at the colours of what I was seeing for the first time, and I thought that there was something wrong with the colour balance. Where were the blues and pinks. It was all yellow and dark grey.

The point was rammed home yet again by a review in today's New York Times of a recent BBC TV Doctor Zhivago which has just been shown in the USA. The reviewer, not unreasonably, compares this, as he calls it, "De-Hollywoodization", with David Lean's famous 1965 movie version:

Lean's gloriously vivid colors are gone, replaced with more realistic Russian shades of gray and brown. The film director's sweeping, chimeric landscapes have been ruthlessly reshaped: the sparkling palace of crystal and ice where the lovers seek refuge is once again a drafty old dacha. …

Even Lara, described in the novel as "fair," is a dirty dishwater blond.

And it's true. The abiding memory for me of Lean's Doctor Zhivago is not grimness and misery, but all that joyous colour photography of melting snow and spring flowers, despite the fact that this is a movie set in one of the grimmest times and places in all of human history.

If glossy colour is what you mean, most Hollywood movies now are "de-Hollywoodizations" also. Compare the opening battle scene in the recent Gladiator with the battle scenes in something like El Cid, or that naval battle in Ben Hur that simply makes you want to go on a Mediterranean holiday, just like if you were watching Audrey Hepburn visiting that part of the world. Okay Gladiator was Germany and El Cid and Ben Hur were further south, but is Germany really that smoky and depressing? Even battles and Russian revolutions looked up-beat and sparkly in the sixties. Now, if things look sparkly, it's irony, as in American Beauty, or a knowing "homage" as in the latest batch of romantic comedies that hark back to those Doris Day/Rock Hudson glitter fests.

I can remember Cold War movies with the likes of Lawrence Harvey done in the sixties where they even managed to make places like East Berlin look colourful and exotic. The conversation in the foreground was turning cynical and drab, but the photography was still sixties New York advertising first generation wow-isn't-this-just-so-much-prettier-that-black-and-white? Remember how they used to boast about whichever colour photography system they'd used – filmed in "Panavision" – filmed in "Technicolor".

Now, even space travel is grim and depressing. As I remember it, one of the first movies to reflect this new grunge-grimness aesthetic was the second of the Star Wars movies, the one where all the goodies, human and humanoid, get dumped in a rubbish skip. Then followed the Alien movies, all damp and darkness. Now they're all at it. Watching something like that weird one where they all die at thirty starring Jenny Agutter and Michael Yorke, where although the text is grim the subtext and visuals remain happy and upbeat (and it must be admitted rather cheap), is to switch back to a wholly different world, of shiny buildings and sparkling green grass and glittery interior decor. Logan's Run, that was it.

I think part of it, as I say, is first generation colour photography, and the film makers celebrating what they could finally do with their new toys, and then their successors wanting to do something different. But I think the generational dramas within film-making reflect contrasts over time in the world out there.

In the fifties and sixties a whole generation of people came into their inheritance in the form of lovely houses with lovely wallpaper and lovely furniture and happy smiley kids. But the happy smiley kids then faced a problem, when they grew up. What were they supposed to do with their lives? More of the same? There followed a sour grapes generation, who couldn't repeat the same domestic successes that their parents achieved, and who wanted to be told that they didn't have to. This all these grungy movies do. The world's not like that? The world is a grim and depressing, dirty and drippy place, and it's all we can do to stay alive! Aging Generation X couch potatoes can look at their drab and seedy surroundings and say, well, it may not be Versailles, but nor is it the prison colony in Aliens 3.

Grunge world is not true. In fact it is every bit as much of a fantasy world as sparkly Doris Day New York Advertising world. But it is comforting.

Now I'm going to watch some Keanu Reeves thing in the things exploding genre. I wonder what the grungometer reading will be on that one.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:33 PM
Category: Movies