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Ed Driscoll

How Western Civilization Lost It at the Movies

December 4th, 2012 - 2:43 pm

“Movies really have become awful, haven’t they?” Ace writes. And who can argue with him?

I don’t mean politically; sure, there are a lot of liberal zingers put into movies for no very good reason, except to make the filmmakers think they’ve done something positive with the piece of shit project they’re foisting on people.

Hollywood has always made most movies for a juvenile crowd. A producer, I think his name was Zanuck, worked out the logic like this: Girls will see anything boys will see, but boys will not see most things girls will see. Younger kids will see anything that older kids will see, but older kids will not see things made for younger kids. Adults will see most things that older teenagers will see, but older teenagers will not necessarily see things that adults would see. Therefore, the correct money-making demographic to make a movie for is a 17 year old boy.

Read the whole thing, and follow Ace’s link to screenwriter Eric Heisserer, at the appropriately named industry blog The Bitter Script Reader.

So is the real problem the declining intelligence and taste of the average 17-year-old male, or is it the declining intelligence and taste of Hollywood, or do the two — along with the declining intelligence and taste of the American education system — combine to form the complete Red Queen’s Race to the bottom? I’d blame the latter scenario, especially after contemplating what the average 17-year-old male likely dug when he went to the movies over the years:

  • 1950s: Alfred Hitchcock’s best decade, and loads of war movies, both pro and con (Strategic Air Command, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Paths of Glory, et al).
  • 1960s: The birth of the James Bond movie franchise, plus big-budget middlebrow epics like Spartacus, Lawrence of Arabia, and Dr. Zhivago, plus the rise of the counter-culture, with Dr. Strangelove, Blowup, Bonnie & Clyde, 2001, and the Beatles’ movies.
  • 1970s: More Bond, rock movies (Woodstock, Gimme Shelter), B-movies/exploitation/violence galore (Easy Rider, Clockwork Orange, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, Taxi Driver, Death Wish, Dirty Harry), the Godfather movies, and then the rise of Spielberg and Lucas, which led to…
  • 1980s: The Empire Strikes Back, ET, Jedi, Blade Runner, the Star Trek movies, Platoon, Wall Street, Full Metal Jacket, and the SNL movies (Stripes, Trading Places, Ghost Busters, et al). Plus plenty of horny teenager movies (Fast Times, Risky Business, etc.)
  • 1990s: T2, the Batman movies, and the omnipresent summer action movie with Arnold, Bruce, Tom, Harrison, et al. Plus the 1998 digital mind-f*** movies: The Matrix and Dark City. And Titanic,  which brilliantly combined the chick-flick with an ending filled with plenty of digital FX and carnage for the boys.
  • 2000s: Brit-lit such as the Lord of the Rings and Narnia, the horrible but exceedingly profitable Star Wars prequels, and wall-to-wall superheroes.
  • 2010s: Avatar and even more superheroes. Did I mention the superheroes?

Sense a trend here? And don’t forget — a tiny percentage of the most aggressive of those moviegoers in the ’70s and ’80s are the ones who headed to Hollywood to write today’s drek. Their idea of deep and complex middlebrow culture aren’t the books that inspired Hollywood’s golden age, but the actual movies themselves. Or as John Podhoretz wrote at NRO on the eve of 9/11, “A century dominated by movies has left the movies starved for inspiration.”

Even beyond that mammoth dumbing down of the average hit movie’s writing when middlebrow culture was nuked and paved by the new left, after 9/11, the combination of PC and fear of failure completely numbed Hollywood, resulting in the Big Screen’s current malaise. And oddly, television’s renaissance, a topic that Mark Tapson discusses at Acculturated.com, in his review of television critic Alan Sepinwall’s new book, The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever:

In “an interesting role reversal” with the movie biz, the TV revolution gained momentum as “the 21st century slowly saw the extinction of the middle-class movie. If a film couldn’t either be made on the cheap or guarantee an opening weekend of $50 million or more, it was out.” That meant that studios began to depend heavily on big-spectacle blockbusters (something I touched on in the previous article in this series). “Movies went from something really interesting,” as The Sopranos creator David Chase put it, “to what we have now.”

That left a growing void of more artistically and dramatically compelling fare–a void that television filled with Sepinwall’s list of the dozen American TV shows “that changed TV forever,” as his subtitle puts it: The Sopranos, Oz, The Wire, Deadwood, The Shield, Lost, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 24, Battlestar Galactica, Friday Night Lights, and, of course, Mad Men and Breaking Bad.

As an example of this revolutionary fare, Sepinwall points to the balls-out opening of Breaking Bad, in which former sitcom father Bryan Cranston’s character–a middle-aged, cancer-ridden chemistry teacher wearing saggy tighty-whities and a gas mask–careens down a desert highway in a mobile meth lab, a dying pair of drug dealers on the vehicle floor behind him. At the end of that jaw-dropping sequence, your inevitable two responses are “What the hell was that?” followed by “More, please. Now.”

The revolution didn’t materialize ex nihilo: “The millennial wave of revolutionary dramas,” Sepinwall writes, “was built on the work put in by a group of other series” that paved the way: cop dramas like Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue, the hospital dramas St. Elsewhere and ER, the sitcom Cheers, the “MTV cops” of Miami Vice, the hallucinatory Twin Peaks, The X-Files, and others.

But hey, cheer up movie fans, because help is on the way. Who’s up for Ridley Scott’s production of Monopoly: The Motion Picture?!

Or this: “What Hell Hath Disney-Lucasfilm Wrought? ‘Star Wars’ Meets ‘Extreme Makeover.’”

Update: In addition to the dumbing down of American culture via PC, I should have mentioned how the need for a film to compete in a worldwide marketplace can also dumb down the writing. Tapson addressed this in his previous essay:

As an example, [David Denby] notes that 2010’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon, which he calls “a thundering farrago of verbal and visual gibberish,” grossed $1 billion worldwide in a month: “Nothing is going to stop such success from laying waste to the movies as an art form.”

It doesn’t help that international audiences now account for two-thirds of box office receipts. Denby feels that this makes studios gun-shy about making their movies about anything. “Aimed at Bangkok and Bangalore as much as at Bangor,” Denby writes, “our big movies have been defoliated of character, wit, psychology, local color.” He cites director Christopher Nolan’s Inception as an example of “a recent trend in which big movies have been progressively drained of meaning.”

That essay/extended blog post by Tapson is also well worth your time.

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