An open letter to Doug Liman

Doug_liman I was sad to see, in the recent New York Magazine treatment of Doug Liman, a note of agony.  Liman talks about his new film, Jumper, as something that "completes my sellout trilogy."  He calls Swingers, his first film, "the one film that was truly not a sellout."  Liman believes that Mr. and Mrs. Smith cost him his "indie credibility." 

There is something faintly old fashioned about this agony.  From an anthropological point, I can’t help feeling like I am looking at a little bit of New York history, an artifact of a time gone by.  What we are hearing in Liman is the modernist insistence that the world must be dichotomized into art and commerce, that those who make one can’t make the other, that art is necessarily worthy and commerce necessarily craven, that credibility goes to art, condemnation to commerce.  Those who engage in commerce instead of culture are "selling out."

From an anthropological view, this concept was installed with special virulence in popular culture sometime after World War II.  Any one who made culture for commercial purposes (art directors, copywriters, TV producers, Broadway producers) were filled with self reproach.  It was customary for ad executives to let you know that they were "working on a novel," lest you imagine that they took advertising seriously.  The wonder is that Manhattan turned out so much brilliant popular culture, when so many of its meaning makers were so conflicted, so self hating.

But there it is, the modernism was clear on this: culture that comes from commerce was compromised, bad, dirty and wrong.  From an anthropological (aka, a Martian point of view) it was an amazing vital and formative cultural construction.  And it exists still.  It torments still.  When Liman talks of "selling out" for making films that have entertained millions, it is virulent.

But here is the post modernist view.  (I wonder if we shouldn’t call this the "past modernist" view, because when we wish to say "not modern," we don’t necessarily mean what "post modernism" has come to mean.)  There are two ways to make the case.

First, culture that comes from commerce has got steadily better.  This says the "art vs. commerce" argument was wrong.  People insisted TV was a waste land from which nothing good could ever come.  And of course, now we watch The Wire, Six Feet Under and other HBO productions with the conviction that its pretty good indeed.  Even the major networks now turn out great work, as I think Raines, Life, 30 Rock demonstrate. This evidence is extraordinarily damaging to the "art vs. commerce" argument.  Good work should never have come to TV or Hollywood, if the dichotomy were real.  (See the work of John Carey, Tyler Cowen, John Docker, Steven Johnson, D.L. LeMahieu, and Robert Thompson, as below.)

Second, we are coming to see that art and commerce are not mutually exclusive, that it’s ok to do both.  This argument accepts the original argument: art is better than commerce.  But
it says that we no longer have to choose.  People who do one can do the other.  Specifically, people who do commerce can still do art. (Actually, it might be that the argument still works when transposed.  It may well be that those who do art can’t do commerce.  That would be agonizing…but it is a topic for another post.) 

When Elvis Mitchell asked Steven Soderbergh what he was thinking as he prepared to make his movie Out of Sight, Soderbergh replied:

If you blow this, you will be doing art-house movies for the rest of your life and that’s as bad as doing big budget things.  I wanted to do both.

This is I think the signature of our postmodernism, that conviction that we will not submit to the tyranny of dichotomous categories, that we will not submit to choosing between art and commerce, that we want both.  The post modern self is a voracious creature.  We want everything on offer.  Now.  Ours is a time of expansionary individualism.   

This is not to say that there are not moral issues here, that we are not obliged to think about the kinds of value that different kinds of film-making creates, that we are not obliged to choose with care.  It is merely to say that the art-commerce dichotomy is now an exhausted cultural artifact, a moral antique. 


Carey, John. 1992. The Intellectuals and the Masses: pride and prejudice among the literary intelligentsia, 1880-1939. London: Faber and Faber.

Cowen, Tyler. 1998. In Praise of Commercial Culture. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Docker, John. 1994. Postmodernism and popular culture: a cultural history. Cambridge. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Fishman, Steve.  2008.  The Liman Identity.  New York Magazine. January 21-28, 2008, pp. 36-41, 124.

Johnson, Steven. 2005. Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter.  New York: Riverhead.

LeMahieu, D. L. 1988. A culture for democracy: mass communication and the cultivated mind in Britain between the wars. Oxford : Clarendon Press.


To Eunice Hong and The Brown Daily Herald  for the photo above.

13 thoughts on “An open letter to Doug Liman

  1. Rick Liebling

    It’s interesting that you use the example of Steven Soderbergh. I just rented ‘The Good German,’ a film that in many ways tried to be an ‘art’ film, yet featured George Clooney, Cate Blanchett and Tobey Maguire. The result: One of his lesser works in my opinion. Would it have been better with unknown actors and a budget 1/5th of what they had? Would it have been better if he had created a straight ahead mystery thriller, more like a Borne film? I’m not sure, but it felt like he tried to straddle the line and the result was a film that satisfied no one.

    I think that’s tough, audiences don’t know what to do with that sort of product. A great arthouse film has more in common with a great summer blockbuster than it does with a bad arthouse film.

    If the dichotomy of art v. commerce is no longer as relevant, I think the dichotomy of good v. bad is still there. People are willing to accept an artist changing genres – Ang Lee directed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon AND Brokeback Mountain – but they aren’t willing to accept poor quality (He also directed the Hulk).

  2. communicatrix

    I read that article about Liman and felt the same thing. I also felt the point the writer made (strongly): that Liman is living in the great, long shadow of his father, who did not see the value in farting around (farting around being an essential step in the art-making process). Dad lived and succeeded in the corporate world, and while Dad was apparently pleased to hear of Liman’s success with Swingers (an excellent flick!), it was no big-budget, Hollywood commerce.

    On the other hand, Liman may just be using the dichotomy as a way of expressing budget and crew size. And there is a measure of sellout in any big picture until (and often even if) one is a big, big name. If you’re a young director and you take a big picture, you necessarily sell off a little of your say for a while. When the stakes are smaller, you can buy back more of your autonomy.

  3. srp

    There is a similar dichotomy in the tech world, or rather there is a similar 2D status coordinate system–great tech vs. great business success. Hollywood has the art/commerce coordinate system. (BTW, wsn’t Casablanca a frankly commercial product?) Different people prioritize these attributes differently, but the social result is an aggregate status level (measured, say, by how happy people are to get you rather than others to come to their parties or to say good things about them).

    An interesting question is whether status relations in these 2d systems are quasiconvex or quasiconcave, i.e. whether it’s good to be on the 45-degree line or whether it’s better to be all of one and little of the other. The more you have the “modernist” sensibility Grant describes, the more you have quasiconcavity and the high-status spots are far on one axis and close to zero on the other. (I’m assuming that despite the hostility to commerce mentioned here, one’s aggregate status in the community doesn’t actually go down with commercial success holding artistic merit/intentions constant.)

  4. Jared

    I know you have an uneasy relationship with postmodernism, Grant, blending “high&low”, art&commerce is just postmodernism straight-up, no need to waffle about “past modernism”.

  5. Hooser

    And then you have film-makers who have somehow managed to not sellout and simultaneously have made good films. The two that initially stick out in my mind are the Coen Brothers and P.T. Anderson.

  6. Rick Liebling

    I wonder where the “Oscar-bait” category of films falls in this discussion? Atonement isn’t an arthouse flick, but neither is it a simple attempt at a money grab. These films are slightly different than the Coen Bros., who seem to make movies that are true to their vision and achieve both critical and commercial success. I don’t think they say, “Let’s try to win an Oscar” before they start making a film.

  7. Jeppe Linnet

    What is also interesting is whether this dichotomy varies across societies. Of course the romantic notion of the artist creating “sacred” singular products vs. the businessman creating “profane” commodities like block busters, these ideas are quite universal to the Western world. But still I am surprised that the dichotomy is so strong in the US. I would expect it to persist much stronger in socialdemocratic welfare states such as Scandinavia, where the employees of a large public sector, and many state-supported cultural producers, can live their professional lives without having to orient themselves towards the Hobbesian world of commerce. Further in this direction, in the socialist system of the former Soviet union the tendency to see “Kultura” as the only dignifying sphere of human activity was very strong. Many artists in those societies were receiving small pensions that they expected to sustain them for the rest of their lives, and today they live poor and alienated lives in Eastern Europe´s climate of cowboy capitalism (“New Europe” as Rumsfeld coined it being much closer to the US in this regard than Old, Western Europe). One thing I found in the Baltics of today, where I did anthropological fieldwork in 2000, is that the absence in those societies of the hippie movement and the revolts of ´68 means that there is not the same ironic, distanced attitude to hierarchies and appearances, such as those of the business sphere, as there is in much of the Western world.

    So what about American society and culture continues to create this dichotomy? Would younger American directors be as affected by it?

    Talking about artists that have retained their “cool” while selling massively, wouldnt´t David Bowie and Tom Waits be the primary examples of the music scene?

  8. Erik Loehfelm

    Very interesting. I can relate to this position in a personal way. A close friend of mine is an extremely talented graphic designer. He was working in a small two person design firm in the South. I am also a designer without nearly as much talent yet I was able to worm my way into much larger initiatives and visibility – I eagerly ‘sold out’ as it were. My friend on the other hand struggled with paying rent and keeping food on the table while holding onto the purity of design, as I recall him framing it. After a conversation with his mother – of all people – who begged me to talk some sense into her son, I convinced my friend to move back to the North East where he finally was rewarded for his talent and abilities by working in a much larger shop with much larger clients. I haven’t spoken to him in awhile, but I wonder if he feels as though he sold out by not being ‘indy’ and small. Even though, on a whole, he is much more successful and recognized for it.

  9. srp

    Jappa: I saw an interview with David Bowie where he claimed to have been made very uncomfortable with the mainstream success of his “Modern Love” album. He intimated that that was why he immediately began the less accessible Tin Drum project.

  10. Doug C.

    If he say’s he sold out I would believe him. I don’t believe Liman is saying he sold out because of the larger budgets. I think he is referring to the compromises he made to receive that budget.Not all artists can switch between the freedom and commerce, it’s not part of their instincts.(Read about the behind the scenes control exerted by producers and executives on almost any large budget film)This isn’t about high and low, it’s about compromising what you believe to be true. If you have watched Orson Welles “Touch of Evil” in the studio edited version and the recut version(from Welles’ sixty pages of notes begging for a recut)you will see clearly Welles’ version is a better more understandable and engaging film. The studios didn’t get it and in the battle of ideas vs. commerce the ideas often lose.

    And Modern Love was the first Bowie Album I hated. It feels like it has sellout written all over it, and in fact, a decade or so later Bowie(no stranger to pop hits) said he sold out to make it.

  11. depaul area bars

    Swingers was distributed by miramax, allegedly had a250,000 budget. He had talented actors but they were flying by the seat of their pants. Dead reckoning. It took alot of stones to make that movie. The adrenaline rush of becoming successful through taking that sort of risk would be hard to replicate. They were having fun.

  12. john masheter

    did my last comment go the way of the nickel cigar or what? Favreau used to bartend in Chicago, the depaul area bars. He “wrote” it from those experiences. They took a chance, a gamble and it paid off. Liman was pround to tell his father of the success of his movie. It has stood up well to the test of time.

  13. john masheter

    does doug liman actually read this? I could use a job in his next film. Depaul area bars and john masheter posts were mine. Saw Kate Bosworth last night at grocery store, she has some kind of tatoo on the upper middle of her back. I was in left field and didn;t pay much attention to her. trying to lose some weight and exercise more sort of a 50ish Rocky theme going on. I think President Obama used to live in my building in Rogers Park(Chicago} in the early 1990’s.

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