999 Words

Swimming With Sharks: notes on (not) missing the movies

Swimming With Sharks is a twisted black comedy film released in 1994, starring Kevin Spacey as Buddy Ackerman, the archetypal high-powered Hollywood movie mogul from hell, and Frank Whaley as Guy, Buddy’s long-suffering assistant. Guy increasingly bears the brunt of Buddy’s relentless abuse, only to rise ironically at the picture’s end to the role of abuser himself.

Michelle Forbes portrays Dawn Lockard, a tough-talking producer working at Buddy’s firm, and Guy’s eventual girlfriend. The veteran Lockard schools Guy on how to negotiate Buddy’s temperament and disturbingly winds up murdered herself. The movie plays this for laughs.

Early on in the story, Lockard asks Guy why in the world he would want to put up with Buddy’s unconscionable behaviour. Why such a desire to swim in Hollywood’s proverbial shark tank? To which Guy replies, “All my favourite memories have been of movies.”

It’s at this time of year that I, too, have frequently felt nostalgic for the last picture show. From 2005 to 2011, I worked every Labour Day long weekend in Colorado as a projectionist for the Telluride Film Festival  — alongside Venice, Toronto, Sundance, and Cannes, one of the world’s five foremost showcases for the cinematic arts.

I learned how to “string up” a projector there. I learned that those dots in the corner of the screen every 20 minutes are called “cues,” not “cigarette burns,” as Tyler Durden would’ve had us believe. I learned a complex skill — an artform, even — that for decades provided a career for thousands of people working in movie houses around the world.

Although after 2011, it no longer made financial sense for a Colorado film festival to fly me from Canada on a temporary work visa to run the projectors when projectors as we knew them were on their way out. With the arrival of digital cinematic projection, the Telluride Film Festival could more easily and economically hire a kid from Boulder to drive into town to push a button.

I’ll always remember the opening-night screening from my last year as a Telluride projectionist. The film was The Artist, the mainly silent black-and-white French-American co-production that would go on to win Best Picture at that year’s Oscars.

The plot concerned an ageing — and foreign-sounding — silent film star anxious about the fate of his career amidst the coming of the “talkies” in the late 1920s. It was impossible not to draw connections with the coming of sound to the nacency of digital cinema and its inevitable replacement of celluloid.

As a projectionist, I got the picture. My little gig, itinerant as it was, was about to disappear. Film was becoming history.

Phonetic sign on the wall of the projector booth, Mason’s Cinema, Telluride, CO, USA.

In the dozen or so years since, a number of analogous digital technological replacements have occurred. The internet has become the largest distribution network for motion pictures, supplanting theatres. Animation today is so realistic, and deep-fake technology so far advanced, that it’s possible for any actor to deliver any line in any movie that anyone could imagine. Not to mention A.I. programmes that can effectively replace roomfuls of writers.

These and other modern tech issues are at the root of the twin writers’ and actors’ strikes keeping many of the film industry’s most essential workers from meaningfully participating in a rewarding part of their jobs: attending film festivals, considering each other’s work, and socializing as humans around cinema.

The movie critic Roger Ebert was an avid Telluride attendee. And among Ebert’s favourite insults of films he didn’t like was that they could have been made by computers. He said it about dozens of Hollywood formula pictures throughout the ’80s and ’90s on TV with his partner, Gene Siskel. Ebert even declared it about Quentin Tarantino, characterizing Pulp Fiction in his initial review as “an explosion down at the old movie genre factory.”

This brand of aggregate self-awareness signalled some Barthes-esque death of the auteur kind of shit for cinema. Tarantino had already in the ’90s acted like some sort of proto-artificial intelligence, obsessively cataloguing and regurgitating movie history, novelty coming more through the assembly and sequence of generic cinematic elements than innovation within them.

Audiences as well began developing artificial tastes, relying more and more upon algorithms to recommend entertainment they might enjoy, based upon the habits of millions upon millions of media consumers.

Technology appears to be completing its own circuit, like some bionic ouroboros, both producing and consuming itself at once. It’s almost a Hollywood cliché — the classic Frankenstein monster theme: don’t fuck with the natural order of things, and the natural order of things won’t fuck with you.

Still, what are we really missing with Hollywood on hiatus? It’s conceivable with the amount of filmed entertainment that already exists out there that a longer-than-average human lifespan could be spent watching end-to-end TV and movies, and still, the library of content wouldn’t be exhausted.

That’s not to say that just because there are more books in the world than anyone could spend a lifetime reading, new books shouldn’t be written. It’s just that cinema is simply bankrupt right now of new ideas. Do we really need humans writing more Star Wars and Marvel sequels? Let the upstart A.I. software take a crack at that. The audience isn’t real, so why should their entertainment be?

In the 20th century, cinematography achieved the seventh and highest artform. But it has returned full-circle in the 21st to the nickelodeon, a cheap, automated peepshow. The novel had hundreds of years to develop as a cultural form before new technologies remediated books. Film is the youngest and most impressionable artform and may not survive its digital competition. To be sure, its stereotypical culture is nothing to preserve. Kevin Spacey’s real-life character is more suspect than Buddy’s, and Harvey Weinstein produced The Artist.

In my time in Telluride, I was privy to Swimming With Sharks-style antics. I saw temper tantrums at Spacey-level pitch. I saw doors slammed, assistants berated, and hamburgers thrown at walls. I witnessed misogynistic harassment that would have made working for Fallon seem like an afternoon at Disneyland. The only reason his staffers complained is probably because Jimmy’s hangovers interfered with their own.

Then there’s Rust. Maybe it’s time to take a pause when, in some perverse Yakov Smirnoff-like reversal, the actors start shooting the cinematographers. Is this the marketing campaign to resuscitate Hollywood’s inhumane image? Should real people die to produce such synthetic junk?

I haven’t been missing the artificial memory-making machine. The remembrance of screens past seems less relevant in retrospect. Anyway, why attempt to remake real life — the perfect film? Let’s not forget that the shark always looked fake.◼︎

Cover image: The director Werner Herzog and the author photographed at the Telluride Film Festival, 12 September 2009.