Peter Bart: CNN’s ‘The Movies’ Honors The Hits, Skips The Ego Wars And Studio Strife

Forrest Gump Steven Spileberg Jaws
Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump, left, and Steven Spielberg on the set of "Jaws" Shutterstock

Tom Hanks considers Fargo the “perfect movie.” But Alec Baldwin feels Chinatown is the “perfect movie,” as does Morgan Freeman for Moulin Rouge. And Steven Spielberg always felt Lawrence of Arabia represented perfection, until he saw The Godfather.

I elicited these random superlatives from CNN’s star-laden, six-part series The Movies, whose initial run concludes this weekend. Arriving at a moment when some gurus are predicting the demise of theatrical films, the series represents a smart, passionate if occasionally repetitive exercise in cinematic hubris.

Executive producers Hanks, Gary Goetzman and Mark Herzog have managed to assemble a world-class array of film clips, which are duly applauded by a blur of top actors, directors and critics. Not only applauded but adulated. The litany of “greats” ranges from pre-war King Kong through West Side Story in the ’60s to Jaws ’70s, ET ’80s, Titanic ’90s and Harry Potter post-2000 — every clip accompanied by its superstar advocate.

But does it work? Re-living the great moments of film is akin to gaining admission to an elite cinema club whose membership is pledged to mutual admiration. Hanks is not only a producer but a frequent commentator along with his frequent collaborator, Spielberg. Hanks proclaims Jaws “a masterpiece,” while Spielberg gapes at Forrest Gump, also lavishing praise on Raging Bull, duly reciprocated by Martin Scorsese.

Somehow the hits, brilliant as they are, seem too easy and inevitable: No one gets around to citing the conflicts and the reshoots and the flops. Even Woody Allen’s hits are honored, without mention that no American company wants to distribute them anymore. A flashing Variety headline hints at Titanic’s production strife, but there’s no mention of overages or the resulting studio body count.

If hit-making is so easy, why aren’t there more of them? Or, more important, why have those memorable “character movies” disappeared beneath the tidal wave of franchises? None of this is analyzed, nor is there any hint of studio intrigues or presence of studio executives, past or present.

The Graduate
“The Graduate” Moviestore/Shutterstock

The emergence of low-budget, personal films of the ‘60s is explained as a cultural phenomenon. In fact, the most important factor was that the studios effectively had run out of money – no fat budgets for superhero franchises. Mike Nichols famously explained (but not in this show) that The Graduate was a better movie because his tight budget made him cut corners.

While the picture-by-picture analyses by filmmakers are insightful, the thankless job of creating transitions between the epochs is assigned to critics, with dubious results. Chris Connolly reports that ’80s movies often emulated those of the ’70s, thereby ignoring the box office dominance of “high concept” studio movies like Top Gun and Beverly Hills Cop. And Neal Gabler tells us that Heaven’s Gate triggered “the end of the auteur,” thereby setting up confusion for viewers of the next segment, which details the imperial reign of George Lucas and Spielberg.

At several moments, The Movies effectively comes to a halt to pay homage to the work of particular artists – Meryl Streep receives her appropriate acclaim, as does the late John Singleton, who was a passionate student of film. Too often, however, the flow stalls as filmmakers confide their unstinting admiration for their own work – Larry Charles tells us about his artistry on Borat. (Full disclosure: I am briefly present in two pieces of The Movies relating to The Godfather and Harold and Maude).

Whatever its issues, the timing of The Movies is somehow almost poignant. As the streaming revolution dominates the Hollywood conversation, it is rewarding to see fine filmmakers revel in the audience response to their memorable scenes (like the orgasm joke in When Harry Met Sally…).

Yes, there once were audiences back then, laughing, applauding and, now and then, simply streaming out.

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