My esteemed colleague and occasional friendly sparring partner Richard Brody notes today that the "Who killed the movies: Jaws or Star Wars?" debate has broken out yet again, this time attracting an eclectic intellectual array that includes David Edelstein, John Podhoretz, Roger Ebert, and Ross "Chunky Reese Witherspoon" Douthat to its potentially brain-annihilating flame. "It's always the end of the world, and things were always better before," Brody wryly feints in his lede. This is one reason Brody works at The New Yorker and I don't; I would've started off with something like, "Jesus H. Christ how many fucking times do I have to see this complaint will you shut the fuck up already." Ahem. Brody gently decries the nostalgia inherent in such musings, and it reminded me of something that some semi-bright younger thing wrote about eight years ago, apropos David Thomson's anti-Star-Wars fulminating:
The usually persuasive Thomson's terminology, the implied eye-rolling over junk food and video games, really give him away here; not to put too fine a point on it, but he basically starts to stink of old-fardom. Not that I'm a huge fan of such modern or postmodern phenoms as junk food and electronic Ping-Pong myself, but, you know, get over it, Dad. Because when you come right down to it, so many Star Wars haters of a certain age won't, or can't, engage Star Wars on its own terms; they engage it, rather, as the grave marker for their own glorious youth. It echoes an argument you hear a lot when you talk or read about rock and roll. John Lennon's "Elvis died when he joined the army" remark was the first, and most genuinely provocative, of such throwdowns. They've been coming fast and furious ever since. Kevin Kline's character in The Big Chill has a much quoted "no good music since year X" line that I can't bring myself to cite accurately, as it would mean looking at the movie again; but wait, there's critic Jim Miller, in his book Flowers in the Dustbin, admitting that he basically lost interest after the Sex Pistols broke up; there's thousands of people probably younger than me, and maybe you, for whom it all ended after Kurt Cobain killed himself; et cetera. My favorite curmudgeon in this respect is the writer Nick Tosches, who will sometimes argue that Elvis himself killed rock and roll, and who will then, elsewhere, extoll the virtues of the latest Iggy Pop release. (And just for the record, movie critics have been trumpeting the death of film since before sound actually, really, killed it.)
Who's that smart guy? Oh, it's me, in my introduction to A Galaxy Not So Far Away: Writers And Artists on Twenty-Five Years Of 'Star Wars,' edited by me and featuring contributions from Jonathan Lethem, Tom Bissell (the book was really his idea), Neal Pollack, Harry Allen, Lydia Millett, Todd Hanson, Arion Berger, Kevin Smith, and scads more. I think this was the only Star Wars themed book to ever lose money, but don't worry, if you buy it now, you won't change that, so go on ahead. Anyway. I wrote that bit while I was still in my 40s; now that I'm past 50 I agree with every bad thing that David Thomson and Peter Biskind ever said about Star Wars AND Jaws. Okay, not really. But rock and roll actually IS pretty much dead now, for real, at least as a culturally galvanic force, isn't it?
It was actually my friend Tom Carson, another Galaxy contributor, who wrote the ultimate rejoinder to the who-killed-the-movies whingers way back in early 2002, in Esquire, in a column called "McCabe and Mrs. Kael," which I quote from liberally in the above-cited essay. I shall do so again:
The larger fable goes like this: Once, we lived in a movie paradise, with one bold masterpiece after another engrossing a public finally willing to grow up. Then George Lucas ruined everything by turning the audience infantile again, abetted by a craven industry that turned off the money tap for the visionaries as soon as the receipts for Star Wars rolled in.
As a product of this era, I can say that just about the only part the myth gets right is that it really was a wonderful time to go to the movies—if, that is, you were part of the relative handful queueing up for Mean Streets rather than the hordes waiting to see Airport, Earthquake, The Towering Inferno, or The Exorcist. At the time, my friends and I knew we had to catch the movies we were excited about fast, before they flopped.
Game, set, and match AND case fucking closed, as far as I'm concerned. (I don't know if there are enough "fucking"s in this post. What do you think?) Although Brody correctly notes today that some of the films beloved by the nostalgists were, "to a greater or lesser extent," commercial successes. (He cites Chinatown and The Godfather, among others.) Mr. Brody and I disagree on much concerning the contemporary cinema, but I think we're completely on the same page in our determination not just to explore and and interpret cinema's past, but to try to maintain a similarly exploratory attitude towards the present, mindful that the truism that 80 to 90 percent of EVERYTHING is crap has always been a truism and that cinematic greatness might not trend as obviously in the current atmosphere as it did in a past one, but that it's always possible, as long as people are still making films. So again: Jesus H. Christ how many fucking times, etc., etc.