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June 24, 2010

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Jeff McMahon

Both Vixen and Star Wars, though, were movies that happened to be at the right time to capitalize on trends that were already taking place anyway in the country's demographic and economic shifts. And of course, for every I am Curious (Yellow), there were a dozen cheapo European knockoffs, just to show that Russ Meyer wasn't the first.

But considering that 30 years ago, if you lived in the middle of nowhere, Wyoming, and wanted to watch Weekend in its proper aspect ratio, you'd be SOL, whereas today that same person has any number of options for viewing online, via Netflix, etc.

Stephen Whitty

@fuzzybastard

Well, again, my small point was just that the people who decry the current state of Hollywood films are wasting their time blaming "Star Wars" and "Jaws" (which, for what it's worth, I happen to think were pretty good films).

The real problem, I think, is that too many studios (and some filmmakers) saw only the grosses of those films, and thought they offered a magic formula (huge opening, big effects, merchandizing, etc) that was far more important than style or content. Copied for all the wrong reasons, the films became a misunderstood template -- a dress pattern for blind tailors.

Were the studios just giving the people "what they want," as you write? Well, yes, of course -- some of the people. And that's fine, as long as those aren't the only people you're making films for. But soon that imagined lowest common denominator came very close to being the only denominator, as far as the studios were concerned.

And the sad thing is I don't believe the American audience was suddenly struck stupid, and was no longer interested in seeing other, more complicated fare.

After all, the same decade that saw "Jaws" and "Star Wars" also saw some relatively popular releases from Altman, Truffaut, Bergman, Wertmuller, Fellini, Polanski, etc, all being written about in daily papers, talked about on "60 Minutes," nominated for Oscars and showing other signs of mainstream American acceptance. It wasn't as if the audience suddenly changed. The old audience was still there.

I think it still is, too; it's just too often being ignored.

Let me say, I do understand feeling that our cultural standards are slipping. I feel that way myself sometimes. There is a meanness in society today, and a definite vulgarity. It used to be a credit to be seen as one of the "elite," someone with high standards and a critical taste -- now it's practically a slur. Perhaps you're right, and there aren't as many people who truly care about serious conversation, and all kinds of film (although you couldn't tell it by the comments on this blog!)

Still, I'm not sure of the overall cause and effect of some of the examples you cite.

Are today's TV talk shows crasser because the audience is -- or because intelligent people no longer find it as fascinating to watch, passively, as other intelligent people talk on TV?

Is there a smaller circle of people aware of and interested in art films because the populace is less cultured -- or because the films themselves often aren't as compelling, or because the rise of cable and DVDs killed the arthouses that used to promote them?

Are audiences truly only interested in the often mediocre films at the multiplex -- or has the movie system, like our political one, become so cravenly dependent on huge infusions of cash (and, therefore, offending the fewest numbers of people) that our possibilities are limited from the start?

I don't think the answers are obvious.

But I really don't blame the audiences. I think there are still fervent film lovers out there. I still think great films are being made (even if fewer people seem to hear about them). And I truly believe that if studios (and theaters, and the mass media) gave audiences more choices, more people would make them.

hisnewreasons

I grew up in the 'blockbuster era' of 1975-1984; saw "Star Wars" in a drive-in when I was five; remember "Superman" as being the first movie whose story I could recall from beginning to end. And I have to say that feeling grumpy and old isn't confined to the ones who might have seen "Persona" during the 60's in a New York theater. What's a big hit nowadays usually strikes me as clumsy of plot and thoughtless of visual. I understand it that, yeah, I'm not a kid anymore and that I enjoyed things in my youth which aggravated my parents. Still, I look at something like "Transformers" and think, "You're willing to settle for that?"

But, as others have said here, it's best to concentrate at the corners where you can make your own action. However...this seems to be a good place to raise a concern. I found a theater which promotes itself as an art-house venue. So I went to see a recent Andre Techne film. But they weren't showing a reel of celluoid. They projected a DVD onto a screen. I actually saw a Title Menu as someone selected the play feature.

I was annoyed enough to get up and walk out, six dollars spent on a ticket or not. I thought -- why should I go to the theater for something that I could rent through Netflix?

Was that just snobbery on my part? Or is this something worth getting irritated about?

Kevyn Knox

Fucking Hallelujah Glenn!! Great piece (and I think you needed one more fuck so there you go!) and what a ridiculous debate. Obviously it was Thunderbolt and Lightfoot that killed cinema.

I have an old friend who (honestly) believes the cinema died when sound came along - so there!!

It does seem more crap is being made today (less true masterpieces) but then we don't get to see the boatloads (or is that buttloads) of crap being made in the golden age of Hollywood these days (the US output was actually higher then than now!) just the so-called greats and/or hits. Recently I have been searching out and watching a lot of movies from Hollywood in the early sound days, and though their are many a great films indeed (new discoveries for me include Three on a Match, Sinner's Holiday, The Strange Love of Molly Louvain, Wild Boys of the Road, Union Depot), there are a lot of movies that range from mediocre to dreadful - just like nowadays. Even though nowadays they seem even more dreadful.

I guess what I am saying is, yes Glenn, 80 to 90 percent of EVERYTHING is and always has been crap!!

Don Fabrizio

Actually, it wasn't the Jaws/Star Wars blockbuster-type that destroyed Hollywood films, because, in reality, for a long, long time, the only people who were really successful at that form were Spielberg and Lucas, either directing or producing.

The most detrimental development on the content-shaping end was really the introduction of Diller/Eisner/Katsenberg -- who came from TV and decided to simplify movies into the formula of TV.

Another development from that era was Syd Field's Screenplay which created the standard screenplay template that studios subsequently expected.

Plus, Vietnam had ended by the mid-70s, and babyboomers were having kids and entering the corporate workforce. Etc, etc, etc...

Everybody was complicit.

But what happened for that brief period was really not dissimilar to what happened in the '90s with indie film where it was briefly considered both creative and profitable -- and now it's in complete disarray.

I'd say we're shortly around the corner from another mainstream explosion of alternative culture. Happens every generation or so. Just as the '50s beats inseminated the '60s counter-culture and '80s hardcore begat '90s grunge... the past half dozen years of niche online DIY culture in film and music will eventually break out.

The Siren

Would anyone care to join me in the seating section marked “Eastmancolor killed the movies”?

Even the devoutly retro Siren doesn’t think the movies are dead, or dying, or even feeling a bit faint. And she’s past the point of wondering why this assertion keeps coming up. Like Glenn, she just wants it to die.

Catholicity of taste is overrated, however. But not as overrated as The Exorcist.

Tom Carson

I dunno, Siren. Despite being a DC lifer -- and "the 'Exorcist' steps" are still known as that to this day in Georgetown, which is some kind of pop-cult validation -- I couldn't stand the movie then and haven't watched more than 20 minutes here and there since. But now I wonder if its very weird mix of vulgarized-for-Protestants Catholicism, anti-'60s backlash and prurient shock tactics didn't crystallize something nobody saw coming, not least since there's only one letter's difference between "Regan" and "Reagan." And something in me itches to rewatch it and KISS ME DEADLY on the same day.

Stephen Whitty

Siren,

Is that the row ahead of "Vistavision bollixed up everything"? Because I think I'm already sitting there. (It's across the aisle from "What's with this Pathecolor crud?")

Seriously, I think what Glenn quoted, very early on, is true: 80 percent of everything is awful, and always has been. The only thing that's changed, I think, is that finding -- and seeing -- that remaining 20 percent is getting harder and harder.

And, by the way, I'd put the new "I Am Love" on that worth-seeing A-list, which I think might be a Siren favorite. Hope you see it and weigh in on it soon.

The Siren

Tom, you got me--I don't have anything vividly original to add to the usual raps against The Exorcist. I saw it for the first time in college, and it struck me as horrendously dated and not very scary at all, except insofar as it showed a vision of women in general and their sexuality in particular that would scare the living hell out of me if I encountered it in a man I knew in any intimate manner. Sure, it crystallized a lot I suppose; and it remains interesting that, as you point out, such a profoundly conservative movie acquired such a reputation for shock. But I can't imagine watching it again, not even with Kiss Me Deadly as bait.

Stephen, I will most definitely put I Am Love on the worth-seeing A-list, right after the usher escorts the late arrivals to the "who needs stereophonic sound" section.

Jeff McMahon

The Exorcist is, for me, one of those 'reactionary' movies that I, a pretty solid liberal and atheist, nonetheless absolutely adore. I hope that doesn't mean I hate women.

The Siren

Jeff, sorry, hope I didn't imply that liking The Exorcist means you hate women. Not at all!

MAKING The Exorcist, however...

Tom Russell

I'm still not a fan of the Exorcist-- or of its director in general-- but HOT DAMN, is Paul Schrader's prequel a thrilling and resonant piece of cinema. Just wanted to say that.

brad

The fuck is wrong with Jaws?!?!

Partisan

I could make the argument that "The Exorcist" is the most perncious movie of the seventies. I know you're not supposed to make ideological attitudes trump aesthetic principles, and personally I think "The Exorcist" starts off well and becomes weaker as it becomes more literal. But where other horror movies, regardless of their quality, simply scared the audience who then went on their with lives, "The Exorcist," for no other reason than sheer greed, helped convince a not insignificant portion of the American population that exorcism is a sane response to mental distress. That's pretty hard to forgive.

Joseph Neff

Glenn asked in his post: "But rock and roll actually IS pretty much dead now, for real, at least as a culturally galvanic force, isn't it?"

And a while later Don Fabrizio posted: "I'd say we're shortly around the corner from another mainstream explosion of alternative culture. Happens every generation or so. Just as the '50s beats inseminated the '60s counter-culture and '80s hardcore begat '90s grunge... the past half dozen years of niche online DIY culture in film and music will eventually break out."

I strenuously DON'T think we're around the corner from any kind of movement/explosion, and that's due to simple supply and demand. Beat, hippie, punk, '80s underground and grunge/'90s alt-indie were all linked to the fact that standard service providers (record labels/movie studios/etc) were either initially ignorant of or stubbornly unwilling to provide what a thriving number of people needed. In the late '80s, if I wanted to hear music that satisfied me it required a 45 minute drive from my city to blindly buy records based on reviews in fanzines that I subscribed to in the mail. If I wanted to watch a non-mainstream contemporary film in a theatre in my city, I was way Shit Out Of Luck. Go to Washington DC or forget about it. The reason more people went to see WEEKEND in the theatre in the '60s is because they couldn't wait for the VHS/DVD/Blu-Ray. Today, if I want to hear a potentially interesting band or watch a critically lauded but non-mainstream film, I just get on the internet. Netflix, Itunes, Emusic, Mubi, Amazon. And not to sound crass, but people that can't currently afford the internet are probably concerned with things other than making/listening to music or watching/making movies.

I love seeing films well projected in a theatre. I've made many hour plus drives to screens showing new and old work, STALKER, 2O46, VETRIGO, SARABAND, JUNEBUG and KILLER OF SHEEP among them. I also currently work as a projectionist in a suburban movieplex, one of those newfangled dinner & a movie places that are part of the attempt, along with the reignition of the 3D craze, to continue getting asses into seats. Earlier this year my employers took a chance on week long runs of both AN EDUCATION and CRAZY HEART (due to their Oscar status). The total receipts for both films for the week wouldn't have sold out a theatre for one show. We can joke about how both of those films are rather crappy, and I personally preferred THE CRAZIES to CRAZY HEART, but they are essentially mainstream films, not challenging or difficult (or artful, heh) in any way, so what do you think would happen to WILD GRASS or WINTER'S BONE? And I don't think that people were smarter then or are dumber now. Not at all. I know numerous folks out here in the Northern VA 'burbs who care about the state of contemporary world cinema. Most of them just turned their back on theatrical viewing a long time ago. Sure, they might go see the latest Tarantino or TOY STORY 3, but not much else. Blaming Lucas or Spielberg or Friedkin or Avildsen for the "decline" of current cinema seems to be really off the mark, though. The culture of the cinematic event, the sleeper, the cult movie, the controversial film IS in serious decline, but I think that's because what's happening right now is region-free DVD players, streaming video, burn on demand lines and prestige labels. That might not be as sexy as driving 35 miles to stand in line to see THE GODFATHER, but it's a hell of a lot more practical.

ratzkywatzky

@keith uhlich: "I'd be very interested if you could speak from your own experience about those areas of the country where a dearth of film choices was/is the norm. Were there more in the past? More now? Same as it ever was, maybe just always in motion so you can never quite fully grasp the implications?"

In my small town area in the 70s, on two screens (not counting the drive-in) we got every Robert Altman film up through Quintet, every Peckinpah, every Coppola and Scorsese, every Woody Allen, including Interiors. Now there's 10 screens, and it would never happen. But those were all major studio films. And my homedown did screen Tetro. (But hasn't shown a Woody Allen film since the drive-in had a double bill of Manhattan and Stardust Memories.) I wish they'd screen Winter's Bone, because the people would love it.

Tom Russell

"...those areas of the country where a dearth of film choices was/is the norm."

Being a lifelong Michigander, I have some experience with that. While the arthouse theaters in Ann Arbor or Royal Joke will play "independent" and "arthouse" fare like, um, Juno or Little Miss Sunshine amid their repertory showings of Labyrinth and Bubba Ho-Tep, it's extremely unlikely, for example, that the new Resnais is ever going to play there. It's pretty much major and mini-major studio fare all the way, with only the most high-profile of foreign films getting a one or two week engagement.

I should add that the films programmed by Detroit Institute of Arts have ameliorated the situation somewhat, though in my opinion their programming-- which shows a given film either one time or three, depending on the schedule-- was a trifle bit more adventurous in the past (ANDREI RUBLEV one week, CREMASTER CYCLE a month later, a twelve week Ozu retrospective: those were good times). Or at the very least they were programming more films that I actually wanted to see, so take what I say in that regard with a grain of salt.

The one thing I envy about New Yorkers (not that there aren't other things to envy, of course), and the only thing that would ever pull me in that direction after a lifetime of eating paczkis and drinking Faygo Rock 'n Rye, is the sheer number of choices a cinephile has there. And, having a number of acquaintances from New York and LA on the twitter, it'd sure be nice to be join a contentious discussion of This Film or That One without waiting a year or a year and a half for the damn thing to get a DVD release.

brad

One of those articles noted the silliness of blaming it all on Star Wars and Jaws by noting that well into the 90s, summer "popcorn" flicks were pretty damned entertaining fare - Indiana Jones, Back to the Future, Ghostbusters, E.T., etc etc. It's really only the last decade with the comic book obsession that it's gotten so bad. And yes, that sounds exactly like the underlying premise of the nostalgiac patina that obscures the shit...but there's a lot of truth to it. The problem is that 20 years ago 80% of it all was indeed shit as always, but now that number has gone over 90%. Just look at the top ten films right now...half of them have terrible reviews but are still raking in tens if not hundreds of millions. a 10% rotten tomatoes score is irrelevant for the new Adam Sandler/Chris Rock/other guys buddy movie...it'll still make it's $150m.

Which leads to my alternative argument for the breaking point: The Phantom Menace - a bloated nonsensical CGI extravaganza of mediocrity that made hundreds of millions of dollars - proving definitively that it didn't really matter if the movies were GOOD...they just needed a little hype. Prior to tPM, summer tentpoles were held by films that were at least trying to do something funny, cool, unique. Of course many failed, but a whole lot of them succeeded. in the 12 years since tPM, however, each year has been worse than the last....with almost nothing worth getting excited about among the big dogs. Put a comic hero in some CGI and you have $200 million in tickets, nevermind dvds and toys. Like so much else it's gotten so rote and mindless that the slightest evidence of cinematic skill - The Dark Knight - gets hailed as the greatest movie ever made. And this summer seems to be only making things worse...It's either a retread or a comic book and all of them suck. Prince of Persia, Clash of the Titans, Robin Hood, etc etc etc.

The only 'big' film coming up that seems to hold any promise at all is Inception...but we don't know yet. The other I'm hoping will be good is "Red" - if only because I really want to watch Helen Mirren kill people. But more Angelina Jolie killing people/Tom Cruise trying to be clever/Cameron Diaz on a movie screen is depressing.

ratzkywatzky

Another difference for small-town theaters in the 70s was that they often showed double-bills. Separate admission was unheard of, as, just like a grindhouse, people would go in sort of randomly and stay until they were tired of seeing movies. I believe A Wedding was on a double bill with Movie/Movie, and the Frank Langella Dracula with A Little Romance. I saw a double bill of American Gigolo and Friday the 13th. I think that they generally tried to double their admission by showing films together where no one would want to see both features on the bill.
One thing that can be traced to Star Wars is that these small towns used to not get films until 2 to 6 months after they played in big cities. The studios realized that more prints would get them more money, and (I'm making things up now) maybe made rental a little more reasonable? Or small town theaters realized that ponying up for a higher rental would make sure people didn't drive to Olympia to see Empire on the first weekend.

Chris O.

Not to hijack or change the subject (the comments are closed at the entry where I was going to post this), but there's a big Zizek article in the Guardian today:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2010/jun/27/slavoj-zizek-living-end-times

LondonLee

I might be contradicting what I said to Fuzzy Bastard earlier but I will grant that there used to be something called the "arthouse hit" which, when I was an eager movie-going 20-something in London in the 80s, was movies like Diva and Jean De Florette that you felt compelled to see and would play to packed houses. Admitedly I was living in London then and am a lot older now (with a wife and kids) so I'm more out of the loop but is the "arthouse hit" vanishing? I know it happens occasionally - now I guess it would be called an "indie hit" - but there was a time when I had heard of and seen most of the movies nominated for the Best Foreign Picture Oscar, now I'm lucky if I've seen one of them.

Tony Dayoub

No, the "arthouse hit" isn't vanishing. But one like THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO sure looks a little too mainstream to contemporary eyes. Maybe the passing of a considerable amount of years will be kind to it, like it's arguably been to DIVA.

I.B.

Uhm... haven't seen 'The girl with the dragon tattoo', but, aren't you taking "arthouse hit" as "successful non-American film"? The thing looks very mainstream: I don't think they take it as an "art movie" in Sweden. I live in Madrid, and according to my observations in the subway, the Larsson's novels are as popular as the 'Twilight' books and whatever shite Dan Brown has unleashed lately. And the movies are dubbed and getting big crowds in the multiplexes here.

Tony Dayoub

I.B., I agree with you're characterization of GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO as mainstream. That is the point I was trying to make in response to LondonLee. Here in the U.S., a combination of the majority of the public's aversion to anything subtitled pushes a film such as this into arthouses, and it is designated an "arthouse hit" simply because it is in a foreign language (which is, at least in part, why I assume LondonLee put that signifier between quotes in the first place).

I haven't seen one of LondonLee's examples, JEAN DE FLORETTE, but with respect to DIVA at least, TATTOO is cut from the same cloth.

Kevyn Knox

My wife and I run an arthouse cinema in Harrisburg PA (the capital but still a small town) and we get to program films with less of a mainstream flair. We play things (recently) like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Secret in Their Eyes, North Face, The Art of the Steal, The White Ribbon - and we had The Hurt Locker months BEFORE the hoopla. Of course we are barely hanging on financially - but we are at least hanging on.

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