Smart Film vs. Dumb Film
Independent Cinema and Hollywood

As Generation X began to find its footing in the world, a new generation of moviegoers were becoming anxious for something fresh, and so too, a new bunch of filmmakers began fusing their sensibilities into celluloid. The early 90’s saw the Cannes and Sundance film festivals become more recognised and highly regarded than ever before, and for the first time, Hollywood was unable to deliver the right stuff to sate the appetites of the jaded moviegoer. Left-of-centre films such as Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Kevin Smith’s Clerks were the hot topic, not only amongst the critics, but also with a young audience that had become disillusioned with a movie system that was run by the Baby-Boomers of yore. In short, young moviegoers had gotten a taste of independent cinema, and they liked what they tasted.

Early on, Hollywood made a few desperate attempts to claim some of these indie maestros for itself. Mere months had passed since Clerks had hit Sundance when Universal Studios (one of the 'big boy' studios of Hollywood) optioned the rights to Smith’s next movie, and ‘suggested’ that it be a teen comedy. What resulted was Mallrats – a box-office failure and a critical disaster. Hollywood was to learn the hard way that simply buying an independent whiz-kid was not going to be enough to produce a hit.

For a while, independent films were restricted to the festivals and art-houses, while Hollywood continued to do its duty in churning out star-driven spectacles (and continued to reap the rewards from a fat and happy mainstream). But still, the market for independent films was growing by the day, and its hungry audience was desperate for more exposure.

In time, as the independent audience grew, the large studios learnt to co-operate with the Indies. They ended up forming a symbiotic relationship – the studios needing the market that the filmmakers drew, and the filmmakers needing the exposure and money. Murray Smith writes of the dichotomous relationship between this new brand of cinema and the Hollywood system: "There is a kind of cinema, fashionable in the 1990’s, that has emerged through a complex mix of antagonism toward dependence on Hollywood, feeding it and at the same time living off it."

And so, a new breed of cinema emerged, with the talent of the independent scene and the money and distributing power of Hollywood studios. Embracing the freedom of a bigger budget and the possibilities of mass distribution, while maintaining stylistic elements from art cinema and do-it-yourself independent film, 'smart' cinema, as Jeffrey Sconce calls it, was just what the doctor ordered.

Sconce defines these films as 'smart' not only because of their (more oft than not) intelligent subject matter, but because they have the ability to appeal to the mind of the disenchanted Gen-Xer. Films such as Doug Liman’s Go and Peter Berg’s Very Bad Things, with their playful gratuity and ironic black humour, tapped into the self-destructive nature of the Gen-Xer. Movies like Office Space (directed by Mike Judge, of Beavis and Butthead fame), Joel and Ethan Coen’s The Big Lebowski and The Man Who Wasn’t There, and Richard Kelly’s instant cult film Donnie Darko all featured heroes that were as laconic and disenfranchised as their target audience.

An epitome of the 'smart' film would undoubtedly be Paul Thomas Anderson’s (three hours plus) epic Magnolia. A critical hit (and a must-see if you wish to be taken seriously by anyone in the 'smart' audience), Magnolia is about as high profile you can get for a 'smart' film (due mainly to the shrewd casting of Tom Cruise).

Although thoroughly involved in 'smart' cinema from conception to distribution, Hollywood studios’ main source of income was (and is) still the blockbuster and accordingly, the movie factories were pumping them out at a greater rate than ever before. The mid 90’s saw the Michael Bay/Jerry Bruckheimer machine on top of its game, throwing out consecutive hits with Bad Boys, The Rock and Armageddon. Later on in the decade James Cameron, of Terminator fame, cemented his place in the box office top-ten with Titanic. More recent times have seen the rise of the comic-book movie, epitomised in 2002’s smash-hit Spider-Man.

So called 'smart' audiences scoffed at these 'movies', preferring instead their relatively low-profile 'films'. Sconce, who undoubtedly sees himself as a part of this 'smart' audience writes: "smart films share an aura of 'intelligence' that distinguishes them (and their audiences) from the perceived 'dross' (and 'rabble') of the mainstream multiplex." According to Sconce, 'smart' films have an 'audience', whilst mainstream films have a 'rabble'. Can you say elitism?

And so, through all this change and un-change in the land of the silver screen, a question emerges: if a film such as Magnolia is considered 'smart', does that make a mainstream film such as Spider-Man (and by association, its audience) 'dumb'?

The similarities between Magnolia and Spider-Man are few and far between. Spider-Man, at its base level, utilises the age-old narrative structure put in words by Joseph Campbell as 'The Hero’s Journey'. It employs a three act narrative with a protagonist (Peter Parker/Spider-Man), an antagonist (Norman Osborn/Green Goblin) and, of course, a girl (Mary Jane 'M.J.' Watson). The movie has a crisis, a journey, a climax and a denouement – all staples of the conventional narrative – the result being a wholly satisfying cinematic experience.

One of the most talked-about points concerning Magnolia is its lack of a main character and its spurning of typical linear narrative structure. The story follows ten (or so) people on seemingly disconnected and incongruous paths, culminating in a finale where, for some, there is no resolution. The cinematic experience here is vastly different from that of Spider-Man. The audience is forced to try and think, conclude, question, deduce, infer, and ultimately accept that there may be no solution to this film. There are numerous points where the audience is purposefully taken out of the world of the film, and forced to question what is on screen.

'Smart' audiences would undoubtedly demote Spider-Man as a mere 'popcorn' movie – fodder for spectacle-hungry commoners. But the reason why Spider-Man was such a hit (and a movie that will stand the test of time) has less to do with the amazing spectacle of computer generated imagery and more to do with the classical narrative structure which it employs. The reason so many films use this structure is quite simple – it works. Clichés have become clichés for a reason. Crises and resolution, chaos and order, consciousness and unconsciousness, life and deathcall it what you will – the simple fact is that the classical structure of Spider-Man, and almost every other well told story, works so well because it resonates deeply with the human experience.

Dan Harmon writes: "All life, including the human mind and the communities we create, marches to the same, very specific beat. If your story also marches to this beat – whether your story is the great American novel or a fart joke – it will resonate. It will send your audience’s ego on a brief trip to the unconscious and back. Your audience has an instinctive taste for that, and they're going to say 'yum'."

Within the guidelines of classical narrative structure, there is still plenty of room to play around. Classical story-telling would have the hero end up with the girl. In Spider-Man however, Peter Parker gets a choice, and although he’s been chasing the girl for the whole movie, circumstances lead him to choose not to be with her. It’s a subtle play on the conventional that manages to leave the audience satisfied.

Quite clearly, Magnolia defies convention also, although instead of playing within the tried and true guidelines of classical narrative, it chooses instead to turn them on their head, or otherwise ignore them completely. Classical storytelling would have the 'loser' character (Peter Parker in Spider-Man, Quiz Kid Donnie Smith in Magnolia) eventually overcome their ineptitude and succeed and conquer. Instead, Magnolia has its 'loser' try and try again to trounce his own shortcomings, only to be smacked in the face by fate (quite literally, in the form of a frog), with no reason as to why. It is this 'irony' that Sconce attests to as the perceived 'intelligence' of Magnolia.

The real reason some Gen-Xers abhor mainstream cinema is because of their need to rebel and feel part of a select few. 'Smart' cinema is just the elite group they’re looking for. 'Smart' cinema really isn’t all that smart; it just makes the viewer feel smart. To a 'smart' moviegoer, becoming lost in the myth, fantasy, drama, romance or action of a film seems dumb because it appears to require less brain-power. 'Smart' moviegoers want a film that makes them think, thus making them feel smart. But what 'smart' moviegoers like Jeffrey Sconce don’t realise, is that it takes more intelligence on the filmmaker's behalf to have an audience become 'lost' in the movie, than to have them constantly question everything they see on screen. 'Smart' film wants to be overtly smart. It wants to show off its intelligence to the world. Mainstream cinema is content doing what it's always been doing – entertaining. Although Magnolia has some truly human and touching scenes, they are overshadowed and quickly forgotten when the film tries to be too 'smart'.

Spider-Man’s subtle play on convention (such as Peter Parker not getting the girl in the end) seems a much more intelligent way of going about things, but this is only noticeable when one digs and analyses of one’s own will which, for the average satisfied moviegoer, is rare. Magnolia prompts the viewer to analyse immediately – as in the infamous frog scene – making the viewer feel smarter for having done so. Even if they don't 'get' the frog scene, they still feel as if they are part of a cinematic experience that is 'above' the average mainstream movie.

To the average moviegoer, the intelligence of Spider-Man is invisible. The same moviegoer who was entertained and satisfied with Spider-Man will become confused and annoyed when Magnolia rains frogs on him. He doesn’t want to feel smart, he wants to be entertained. But he needs a truly smartly constructed movie such as Spider-Man to do it.

As for the frogs – confusing people is easy. Making sense on a level that resonates deeply takes some serious skill.

Kevin Smith, mentioned earlier as an independent pioneer, has since embraced Hollywood, even after his damning experience with Universal Studios and Mallrats. He went on to make Chasing Amy, a dramatic twist on the romantic comedy, Dogma, probably the most philosophical mainstream Hollywood movie, and most recently Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, an unabashed celebration of Hollywood. Smith could have easily gone down the 'smart' film path, choosing to produce movies that were overtly critical of Hollywood and its conventions. But instead he decided to work with all that Hollywood could offer, and ended up producing some truly unique and entertaining movies, all of which could be enjoyed by the average moviegoer and the 'smart' Gen-Xer alike.

One scene in Jay and Silent Bob Strikes Back has a couple of characters browsing through damning internet user comments on a Hollywood comic-book movie in production (i.e. it hasn’t even been released yet). Upon reading a particular arrogant and unflattering comment, one of the characters asks, "who the fuck said that?" to which the other replies, "someone who calls himself 'Magnolia-Fan'."


Harmon, D 2004, Story Structure 102 - Pure, Boring Theory, Channel 101
Lewis, J (ed.) 2002, The End of Cinema as We Know It, New York University Press
Muir, J K 2002, An askew view: the films of Kevin Smith, Applause Theatre & Cinema
Sconce, J 2002, Irony, Nihilism, and the American ‘Smart’ Film, Screen: Volume 43, Number 4
Smith, M 2001, Smoke 'til your Blue in the Face, New York University Press
Tasker Y (ed.) 2002, Fifty Contemporary Filmmakers, Routledge London
Toplin, R B 2002, Reel History: In Defense of Hollywood, University Press of Kansas

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.