I got further confirmation of the decline of Hollywood the other day from my Fedex delivery man. He showed up at my door on the eve of Thanksgiving with yet another pile of Academy screeners I was required to sign for fear, if they were not delivered to me personally, they could end up being whisked over the Internet to waiting DVD pirates in Hong Kong. (They should be so lucky.)
As I dutifully signed, the Fedex guy asked me what I thought of the movies that were arriving. He had evidently been getting feedback from others. (Don’t shoot me, but I live in a neighborhood dotted with Academy members who vote in the Oscars). Before I could answer — maybe he was reading my blasé expression, or did I let out a weary sigh — he said that’s what everyone on his route was saying. It was a lousy year.
Lousy, indeed. Of the thirty or so screeners that had already arrived at my house, there was hardly a one I wanted to see — even for free. Voting in the Oscars, once a thrill, was getting to be a chore.
In fact, it had been a chore for a number of years now. Movies were on a steep decline and everyone knew it. The films of today — from the puerile eco-babble of Avatar on the one hand to you pick the solemn indy of the year on the other — were a far cry from Casablanca and Lawrence of Arabia, almost not the same art form, certainly a lesser one.
It set me to wondering, once again, why this was happening. Sure, there was the well-known excessive liberalism of Hollywood, but that was there back in the seventies when they made The Godfather and Chinatown.
No, it was something else and I have to think the very technology we love plays a great role in it. The medium has outrun the message (the message in this case being the art of film… as well as other art forms, I’m afraid.)
One of outgrowths of high-tech, the Internet, etc. is that we now have the attention span of the proverbial gnat. In fact, maybe the gnat pays more attention. We have to sit still for art, whether it’s Don Quixote, The Seven Samurai or Oedipus Rex. In some ways, we live in a world that is too fast for art, particularly dramatic art with its controlled rollout of character and plot.
I know I don’t have the patience I used to. Like a junkie, I want the quick hit. Three minutes on YouTube and I’m out. Well, not always, but you know what I mean.
Of course, the creators of art, in this case film, are living through the same phenomenon. It’s almost as if they know they are making disposable items for a disposable world. Their movies are defensive and not ambitious in the real sense. It’s hard to think of a film of the last ten years that we will want to watch ten years from now. (For those who say we didn’t know that about the aforementioned Casablanca and The Godfather, I submit they are wrong. We knew from the outset — and we have seen them over and over again.)
Speaking of which, it’s no accident that the exception to all this may be the films of Pixar, which, if any will survive, will certainly be among them. Steve Jobs — the man who, more than any, made technology friendly and aesthetically appealing — was our Francis Coppola (more of a winemaker than a filmmaker these days) and David Lean rolled into one. The Pixar animations are yarns in the way the old Hollywood movies were. They take us in and tell us tale that can be relevant to everyone in the family, every American really, without insulting their intelligence. Somehow we are able to give them our attention without wandering. So it can be done.
Which leads me back to that stack of Oscar screeners sitting on my desk as I type. There is one that I lag on popping into the DVD player soon, although it is a mere sequel and, I am told, not nearly as good as its predecessor. Still, it is, as the Fedex man said, a bad year. So cue up: Cars II.
UPDATE: Larry in Tel Aviv has a comment on a movie this year that I was involved with – A Better Life. I have a “story” credit on the film. Those credits are the decision of a Writers Guild committee when there are multiple screenwriters on a projection. Actually, I was the first writer on the film and wrote many drafts of the screenplay.