Cinema varioso 

A sports car speeds through tight streets, overturning curbside stands and sending citizens running for their lives. Right behind it, another banshee-mobile spews hot lead at the driver of the first. Quick — which movie is this from? Or two studs kick the crap out of each other in some postmodern playland, until the guy we care about sends his sneering adversary crashing through plate glass, in slow motion of course. Ring a bell?

These obligatory riffs are just the tip of the mountain of clichés and stock situations passing for much of American filmmaking these days. The rest of the profile reads like a shoot-by-numbers textbook: serial killers, special effects, clairvoyant children, comics acting like fucking idiots, fart and barf jokes, cruel slapstick, homophobia, etc. Well, no harm in a little entertainment, right? But when you’ve watched enough of this stuff, even the “well-made” versions, you start wondering what it’s doing to your imagination.

One man who’s been looking elsewhere for more than 25 years, and making it possible for others to do the same, is Detroit Film Theatre founder-director Elliot Wilhelm. We talked to him the other day about the shape of films to come, the way they’re made here and abroad, the current state of movies-as-art and other cinema scuttlebutt of vital interest.

Wilhelm, who books one compelling film after another into the DIA auditorium each weekend (and Monday nights too), has seen trends come and go, controversy rage and alternative movie popularity rise and subside. For instance, his selection this weekend, Humanité by director Bruno Dumont, won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival, but has set off a furor with its stark emotions and demanding narrative style. Other offerings this fall include two brilliant Holocaust documentaries, the latest works from audience faves Zhang Yimou, Carlos Saura and Tom Tykwer (director of 1998’s sensational Run Lola Run) and a whole cinematheque’s worth of stimulation. But, says Wilhelm, audiences today are different from when he started the DFT.

Elliot Wilhelm: Many things have changed over the years, not the least of which are audience expectations — and certainly younger audiences’ experience in terms of growing up and what they want from movies. We could talk until we’re blue in the face about the impact of the end of the Vietnam War, films like Star Wars, Rocky — the re-Hollywoodization, in a sense, of younger movie-going audiences and the kind of “feel-good” as opposed to “feel-bad” movie that we used to expect.


Metro Times: You’re saying we’ve shifted over to a feel-good model for U.S. movies?

Wilhelm:Rocky seemed so revolutionary because the character at its center actually “went the distance” and he was standing up, he survived, at the end of the film. That now is the theme of every movie that plays in every theater, every sports movie that every kid sees about teams that ultimately get together, losers who finally turn out to be winners by virtue of their going the distance and learning about teamwork and sticking together. It’s such a pervasive theme that you even see it in films from other countries like Shall We Dance which, when you break it down to its skeletal structure, is really The Mighty Ducks in disguise.


MT:So there’s been international fallout from this American attitude to the big screen?

Wilhelm: Ultimately the films that a lot of Americans considered to be navel-gazing movies, in which Swedish people would play chess with Death, or French people would sit around at parties and talk about their love affairs (whether they should, whether they shouldn’t) for four or five hours before actually even asking someone to have coffee, that kind of thing. It’s not really true, of course, those weren’t really what those films were like, but nevertheless that kind of perception of what the foreign language film experience was, was something that in the post-Rocky era became very, very difficult to dissuade American audiences from believing was really what they would get if they went to a so-called foreign film.


MT:But what about positivity, good vibes, uplifting stories?

Wilhelm: You know, I like feeling good. And I’d be crazy to say that I don’t. What I don’t like is being artificially made to feel good … being told “Now you feel good based on the reaction shots I’m going to show you. I’m going to show you a bunch of people in the other scenes of the movie all looking happy and that means you should feel happy, and the music’s going to swell …”


MT: So instead you bring in films, such as Humanité or Marcel Ophuls’ Holocaust masterpiece The Sorrow and the Pity, which some viewers prejudge as depressing.

Wilhelm: There are few things more depressing than a subject like the Holocaust, but it’s difficult to imagine any great work of art being depressing — because although its subject matter may be, it’s transcending that subject matter and taking you to a new place and showing you the world in a new way. At that point, I won’t say the subject matter becomes unimportant, but it’s transcended. And I think it leads back to something Roger Ebert put what sounds at first awkwardly, but I think very eloquently: “A movie is not about what it’s about. A movie is about how it’s about what it’s about.”


MT: In other words, it matters how we’re treated by a film, by the intelligence (or not) of the screenplay, the challenge (or lack of it) to our imaginations.

Wilhelm: It brings us back to the whole idea of experimentation and risk-taking at the movies. There’s a kind of safety which has pervaded the entire industry, in which Hollywood is not simply trying to make films that they think audiences are going to want to see — they’re trying to do it scientifically. They’re getting focus groups together, doing studies, assembling screenplays and putting movies together based on almost a computer model of what it is that’s going to please the greatest number of people … If you base the works of art that you’re creating exclusively on what the public wants, and on popular taste, you’re doing an enormous disservice to the potential of the medium.


MT: So what about Dumont’s controversial Humanité?

Wilhelm: It’s the work of a very brave artist who has attempted to use the medium in ways that are clearly not the result of focus-group study, clearly not the result of polling, clearly not the result of computer-generated script design. It’s a very personal movie made on a very vast, beautiful canvas. It’s the kind of film that, certainly, if we didn’t show it we’d be completely remiss. We would not be doing what we are supposed to be here for, and that is to present alternative views of the world.


MT: Are people less willing to read subtitles than 20 years ago?

Wilhelm:They’ve always been unwilling to read subtitles, at least always unhappy about it. The one good thing is that now at least nobody expects movies to be dubbed. Pauline Kael once said people would use any excuse to not go to a movie.

But once the films become available for showing, then there’s an equal responsibility on the part of exhibitors and audiences to find each other, and to find a way to explore that work and to see those films. That’s the challenge.


George Tysh is the Metro Times arts editor. E-mail him at

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