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Klavan On The Culture

Oscar and The Death of Movies

January 30th, 2012 - 7:00 am

I read the list of this year’s Oscar nominations and thought at once, “The movies are over.”

This is not to say that the movies are bad. Not to say that the people making them are untalented. Not to say that some films don’t make money. It’s simply to point out that the form is sinking into social irrelevance.

Every art form has peaks and valleys of relevance. Shakespeare could say of stage actors that they were “the abstract and brief chronicles of the time,” whose portrayals could destroy a reputation. Percy Bysshe Shelley could declare with a straight face that poets were “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” James Joyce could have a budding intellectual novelist proclaim — with youthful grandiosity but not without legitimacy—that he was setting out on his career, “to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” Which stage actor — which poet — which intellectual novelist — could say such things today and be taken seriously by anyone but his doting mother?

So too, there was a generation of movie makers—several generations—who brought the dreams of the world to life. Neal Gabler in Empire of Their Own talked about how movies once “colonized the American imagination,” and in the same vein Geoffrey O’Brien called film The Phantom Empire because it captured — in more senses than one — the way people thought and felt about their country and the world. But the list of nine Oscar nominees shows how far the art form has receded from its imperial moment. As John Nolte at Big Hollywood pointed out, only one of the nine nominees — The Help — was a major hit, and the films of the year that were major hits — Rise of the Planet of the Apes, X-Men: First Class — weren’t Oscar-worthy. In other words, Hollywood is less and less capable of making important pictures of high quality that the general public wants to see.

In a wonderful post earlier this year, Nolte offered his advice for how to bring the movies back to full vigor: give us real movie stars, stop insulting America and Americans, emulate the NFL’s respect for its audience, etc. But I wonder if Doctor John might be writing a prescription for a patient who has already died.

It’s true that movie stars aren’t really stars anymore. Talented and attractive as present day actors and actresses may be, no one goes to see a movie merely because Brad Pitt or Charlize Theron plays the leading role. Someone like Julia Roberts, in her heyday, could make even a stinker like Sleeping With The Enemy a hit. People went because it was the new Julia Roberts film. There’s no one like that now. Lists of “most popular” actors are fakes — it’s the franchises that are popular, as we see when the actor steps out of the role of Jason Bourne or Captain Jack Sparrow into a non-franchise film that immediately vanishes without a trace. When we are told that, say, George Clooney’s movies made more money than those of others in a given year, it’s only because he made more films that year and the numbers have been added together.

It’s also true that Hollywood’s left-wing and feminist agendas alienate the industry from the mainstream. Make a movie trashing the war in Iraq or slandering Margaret Thatcher or elevating Valerie Plame, and you may poison the minds of a few ignorant kids and win some awards from your fellow travelers, but you’re not fooling the rest of us. The truth is out there nowadays, and when you lie like that, you just look like blithering idiots with your pants around your knees. We stay home rather than suffer through your self-humiliation. Likewise when you rewrite every fairy tale to make the princess a kung-fu fighting, sword-wielding hero, all you do is make little girls feel bad about their real daydreams, which aren’t like that at all. They’ll stay home too and watch the DVD of Disney’s Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast, because Disney got it right.

But low-watt stars, dishonest leftism, and hectoring feminism may be the symptoms of the art form’s decay rather than the causes. Technology and time may have killed the business and leftists and feminists may be the maggots feeding on its corpse — all that remains after the best writers and actors have headed for television, and the brilliant visual guys go into video gaming and apps.

It’s no accident, however, that unlike today’s films, the most vibrant and popular forms around at the moment — TV, video games, and young adult fiction — often manage to convey images of good and evil, masculinity and femininity, war and peace that are at once modern and timeless. Art forms come and go. That’s the way of the world. But — no matter what the leftists and feminists tell us — the moral reality of the human imagination remains unchanged. Let the left have cinema then and go down with it. We’ll always find new tools and new workers to forge the uncreated conscience of our race.

The movies may be dying, but long live the arts.

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