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Oscar and The Death of Movies

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.