11/09/2013 11:25 BST | Updated 09/11/2013 05:12 GMT

The Formula: Where Hollywood and Washington Meet

Aesthetically speaking, Hollywood is in terminal decline, its output trash. When lauded American film reviewer Pauline Kael asked why movies were so bad for an essay which appeared in The New Yorker in 1980, she drew attention to the sudden disconnect with film-making aesthetics precipitated by Reaganomics...

Aesthetically speaking, Hollywood is in terminal decline, its output trash. When lauded American film reviewer Pauline Kael asked why movies were so bad for an essay which appeared in The New Yorker in 1980, she drew attention to the sudden disconnect with film-making aesthetics precipitated by Reaganomics.

Thirty years on and the situation is pronounced: movies are now poorly conceived but as popular as ever, arguably the most essential opiate of the people.

With this sad state of affairs in mind, I contacted Frank Serpico (above) to ask of him his views on modern America, and what he told me stopped me in my tracks. He referred to the people of the country of his birth as a "degenerate race".

Serpico is the retired New York City Police Department officer best known for testifying against police corruption in 1971 and was immortalised in the 1973 Sidney Lumet film starring Al Pacino.

As a man who took a bullet in the face as a direct result of fighting institutionalised corruption, his words still carry weight after 40 years and chime with the feeling abroad that something is amiss with the US, for a degeneracy is evident in its cultural and political spheres.

Conflict with Syria looms, American diplomacy shifts into high gear, and the facts - yet again - refuse to stack up. As ever, the White House is insisting on telling a tangled tale badly, such hamfisted skills possibly borrowed from Hollywood.

A sloppiness has crept into American art and realpolitik, and the onlooker is left unconvinced and dissatisfied.

The degeneracy spoken of by Serpico is also evident when a large chunk of the US populace loses its critical faculties and can no longer distinguish between fact and fiction; one might take the election of Obama as Commander in Chief as amounting to little more than the latest episode of 24.

Churlish perhaps, but an electorate which chooses to ignore the fact - by dint of who he is - that Obama's presidency has been as militaristic as Dubya's is one content to be viewed as wilfully and politically simple-minded.

So the line between reality and fantasy seems permanently blurred. Take the Syrian ruse. The script has been poorly written, and even a viewership reared on a diet of schlock isn't buying this one.

Ideas, they're the problem. They're hard to sell. The public rejects them. Ideas mounted in art challenge cosy misconceptions about oneself and one's place in society. Ideas can only destabilise audiences and liquefy their existential bedrock. Ideas make audiences forget the pure purpose of American life which is to make money.

When it comes to Hollywood, the reality is this: the vagaries of cinematic storytelling had for too long stymied Hollywood's moneymaking mechanism. The mercantile art of divesting a thrill-seeking public of their dollars relied upon the mercurial genius of scriptwriters who misguidedly attempted to elevate a schlock industry to one of high art.

But though attempts occasionally worked with the creation of towering achievements such as Citizen Kane (1941, by Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles), Casablanca (1942, written by Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch), and Chinatown (1974, Robert Towne), the thinker and writer, keen to share his thoughts, was eventually banished from the studio lot.

It became evident to studio chiefs that there was no role for the scriptwriter within any viable business model. His services were, and still are, no longer required, because his influence proved to be disruptive. He was too human. He was finally supplanted, after much prayer by film producers, by the formula.

The formula is iron clad. A century of film-making has preceded its writing. It can be taken as the purest form of wisdom upon which all studio business decisions are made because it generates vast revenues. That is, it works. The alchemist's dream made reality. Hollywood bosses, it can be seen, reap gold from dross.

Take Steven Soderbergh. Here is a film director who has bowed out of the industry. He has had enough of the obfuscation of the studios, the bone-headedness that accompanies their decision-making, their entrenched philistinism.

In his keynote speech at the 56th San Francisco International Film Festival, Soderbergh said: 'Art is simply inevitable. It was on the wall of a cave in France 30,000 years ago, and it's because we are a species that is driven by narrative.

'Art is about good ideas followed up by a well-developed aesthetic. Cinema is under assault by the studios and, from what I can tell, with the full support of the audience [...] You've got people who don't know movies and don't watch movies for pleasure deciding what movie you're going to be allowed to make.'

Moreover, the ideas of film-makers like David Lynch, William Friedkin and Paul Schrader have lost momentum in a community with a fierce aversion to financial risk. Anyone or thing that has challenged or seeks to challenge the mighty cash-producing formula appears to have been black-balled.

'Don't trick your audience' is the age-old wisdom handed down from agents to writers manqué, but the modern audience is a perverse entity. Give it the truth and it shields its eyes. Lie to it and it'll choke joyfully on its popcorn.

'An audience is never wrong,' once joked Billy Wilder. 'An individual member of it may be an imbecile, but a thousand imbeciles together in the dark - that is critical genius.' His sarcasm was prescient.

Quentin Tarantino's success in conservative Hollywood can be attributed to his adherence to the formula, his films strictly auteur-lite and schticky. He remains the public's darling. He writes his own scripts. They get made. Because they stick to the formula.

But how best to describe this thing? In his novel Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury's disparagement of constant, sensationalised news primed us for the modern, formulaic news output courtesy of the major news organisations. We need only compare a blockbuster like Olympus Has Fallen with a Fox News bulletin to see that both are interchangeable visual tracts comprising car bombings, soundbite dialogue and subliminal cuts. And busty blondes.

Therefore, we find ourselves at a juncture when the scriptwriting craft is better suited for the State Department whose audience is truly global, and whose plotting is bereft of complexity and in need of a 'Hollywood treatment'.

In short, a well-written Syrian script we'll better appreciate, and with US foreign policy demanding an injection of characterisation, motive and plot (there is always, after all, a war to sell to the public), perhaps Mr Soderbergh should ply his trade in Washington or in Langley, Virginia where his skills will be fully appreciated. High dudgeon calls for high drama.

The new power mandarins of American cinema and politics dictate financial terms while ignoring the writer's craft. Herein lies the seed of the ultimate destruction of American culture. The once sacred word is now valueless, debased at every turn, our language corrupted by the very people who profess to revere it: the storytellers.

Frank Serpico, ever wary, ever watchful - and wherever he may be - makes a point well. He always did. And the film of his life? It's worth watching again, if only to remind ourselves of how great Hollywood once was.

© Jason Holmes 2013 / / @JasonAHolmes

Photograph courtesy of the Free Information Society