Last weekend, my wife and I watched Raiders of the Lost Ark, a Paramount movie, at the theater in Santana Row — our local Northern California holodeck recreation of a fin de siècle European village. It’s fascinating to watch a movie made 30 years ago — after the cultural revolution of the late ’60s and ’70s, in which Hollywood had its first go-around at burning down traditional American values — and realize it probably couldn’t be made today; PC would transform those ’30s characters into oblivion. And then the following day, watch the latest Star Trek movie, another Paramount production, and realize (SPOILER ALERT) that it’s a 190 million dollar sci-fi bit of 9/11 trutherism.
As late as 1981, Hollywood could still muster up enough energy to care what the audience thinks and want to please it. Today, the American moviegoer is anathema, particularly now that he’s no longer buying sufficient quantities of DVDs to support the lavish lifestyle of Hollywood elites, despite following the advice of Hollywood elites who told him to stop buying DVDs.
In 2012, David Brooks (of all people) explored “Why Our Elites Stink” in the New York Times (of all places):
Through most of the 19th and 20th centuries, the Protestant Establishment sat atop the American power structure. A relatively small network of white Protestant men dominated the universities, the world of finance, the local country clubs and even high government service.
Over the past half–century, a more diverse and meritocratic elite has replaced the Protestant Establishment. People are more likely to rise on the basis of grades, test scores, effort and performance.
Yet, as this meritocratic elite has taken over institutions, trust in them has plummeted. It’s not even clear that the brainy elite is doing a better job of running them than the old boys’ network. Would we say that Wall Street is working better now than it did 60 years ago? Or government? The system is more just, but the outcomes are mixed. The meritocracy has not fulfilled its promise.
Christopher Hayes of MSNBC and The Nation believes that the problem is inherent in the nature of meritocracies. In his book, “Twilight of the Elites,” he argues that meritocratic elites may rise on the basis of grades, effort and merit, but, to preserve their status, they become corrupt. They create wildly unequal societies, and then they rig things so that few can climb the ladders behind them. Meritocracy leads to oligarchy.
“Credentialed, not educated,” as Glenn Reynolds would say.
And certainly lacking in wisdom and street-smarts. Compared to the Ivy League-credentialed elites who run it now, the men who created the movie industry were largely uneducated immigrants who fled to Hollywood in the first decades of the 20th century to escape antisemitism, and to build what film historian Neal Gabler described in 1989 as “An Empire of their Own.” Given their own personal experience, the original Hollywood moguls had every reason to be crass and cynical about their audiences, and yet, somehow, they produced a far better product than their peers today. Why should I care about Hollywood’s future, when so many of its elites loathe wide swatches of the Americans who support it?
Update: “Connecticut stops offering Hollywood a luxurious tax break.” Presumably, those in Hollywood who promoted Occupy Wall Street, and railed against George Bush’s tax cuts view this as a good thing, right?
Related: “Occupy the multiplex: Class warfare in this summer’s movies.”
image courtesy shutterstock / angelo lano