What Happened to the Great American Movie?

What Happened to the Great American Movie?

Dec. 1 2004 11:04 AM

What Happened to the Great American Movie?

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Ben Stein
8:23 a.m.  Monday  9/30/96 

       It would be easy to say that movies are of constant quality on average over a period of decades and that the only variable is the good humor and optimism of the viewer. It would be easy, but it would be wrong, that's for sure.
       Any viewer with even a little bit of discretion knows that there has been no movie of the past decade or of the postwar era that matches the scope and comprehensive vision of Gone With The Wind. Any viewer with even modest experience with movies knows that there are no great sagas of families like The Magnificent Amersons or even (what many called trash at the time) Giant.
       It's not just that today's movie industry throws off extremely few movies that anyone is likely to regard as classics (the last ones were probably Godfather I and II and Blade Runner). The problem is also that the average movie, even the average very expensive movie, is just so bereft of story, feeling, good acting, scope, or visual quality. You cannot watch a movie like Waterworld without feeling genuine sorrow about the intellectual poverty involved in the making of the movie. You cannot watch a giant blockbuster like Independence Day without feeling betrayed by the incredibly derivative, sappy plot and the barely disguised makeovers from a dozen other movies.
       The problem is not the medium. There are still some fine movies made. Many of them are of foreign vintage--I think of the soon-to-be-released, spectacularly evocative Shine from Australia or the recent German Hanussen. But some very clever movies are still being made in Hollywood, such as Escape from Los Angeles.
       The problem is within the minds of the people making the movies. "People are policy" goes the old saw. People are also pictures. In a time when the writers of movies were educated (when everyone was educated), when Shakespeare and European history were known to everyone and were the rocks from which film drama was cut, movies were likely to be bigger and better. In a time like the present when the makers of movies are basically likely to be versed in old TV shows and not very old movies, the movies will be of similarly narrow scope.
       This problem is met by a corresponding diminution in discretion on the part of a totally different kind of audience in movie theaters. The days when college-educated, middle-aged parents brought their kids to movies, and movies were made to appeal to a whole, wholesome family are long gone. Today's audience is young, often not terribly sophisticated, often male and hyped on violence. The movies reflect this audience, sadly enough. It's as if the audience for video games has driven out the audience for The Third Man.
       With the growth of peripheral other forms of amusement and attraction to more facile and lively people--especially the Internet--the movie audience is likely to decline further in sophistication. However bad things are now in terms of appeal to the audience by colors, lights, noise, blood, and sex, the prospects for the future are worse.

Frank Rich
9:11 a.m.  Monday  9/30/96 

       Herb Stein is right to remember the dawn of World War II as a golden age for American movies. And not just Gone With The Wind and Citizen Kane, but Ninotchka, Stagecoach, The Wizard of Oz, The Great Dictator, His Girl Friday, Rebecca, The Philadelphia Story, The Grapes of Wrath, My Little Chickadee, The Lady Eve, To Be or Not to Be, Sullivan's Travels--and that only scratches the surface of 1939-'42!
       Then again, in my own 20s, from the late '60s to mid '70s (another wartime), there were MASH, 2001, Bonnie and Clyde, The Producers, Godfather I and II, Taxi Driver, Nashville, Jaws, Chinatown, among others. Not bad, given that TV had intervened between Herb's halcyon era and my own.
       Are movies this good being made today? (Movies from abroad are a separate discussion, I think.) Sure. But not in such quantity and not by the major studios.
       You could blame the dumbing down of American culture, I guess, but a case could be made that movies, like the rest of culture, rise and fall in cycles. In between the two Hollywood eras cited above came a relative dry spell. Pillow Talk, anyone?
       The dumbing down of American corporate culture may say more about Hollywood's decline. The great movies of a half-century and a quarter-century ago were still ordered up by moguls who, however poorly educated or crude, had showmen's instincts for what would excite an audience. They ruled with an iron hand, but an iron hand exercised with passion (if not always taste).
       Now Hollywood studios are colorless divisions of enormous multimedia corporations, often run by faceless bureaucrats or absentee owners or marketing people, who govern cautiously and by committee. And so you get Independence Day and Twister--products constructed to pander to focus groups, much like slick politicians or new fast foods. These movies know how to press the mass audience's buttons but they have no personality; a strong point-of-view, after all, might drive away a customer in one market or another. (Hitchcock went after the masses, too, but who would confuse a film as idiosyncratic as Psycho with Maximum Risk?)
       When an American movie of real character comes along now, chances are, like Pulp Fiction or Lone Star or Flirting with Disaster, it was made outside the major-studio system, often outside Hollywood. And outside big cities on the coasts it will have to fight to be heard.

Joe Queenan
9:55 a.m.  Monday  9/30/96 

       I have never had the faintest idea what people are talking about when they refer to Gone With the Wind as a great movie. I have always found it a ridiculous movie, with an idiotically affectionate attitude towards the Confederacy. Yes, it is well-filmed and well-acted, but its story line is preposterous. I think we would all have a hard time finding African-Americans who think that Gone With the Wind is a great movie. Or anyone under 40.
       So I think we must all be very careful when we refer to a golden age of cinema. Herb Stein is right on target when he suggests that we tend to think that the golden age of cinema coincides with our own youth. The same is true of popular music: People who grew up in the '30s believe that the big bands will never be surpassed; people who grew up in the '60s feel the same way about the Beatles. Personally speaking, my favorite American dramatic movies are not the Hollywood classics of the '30s and '40s, but films made in the early '70s when I was in my early 20s. None of the gangster movies of the supposed Golden Age of Hollywood can hold a candle to the first two Godfather films. They simply did not have that kind of sweep. I feel the same way about Chinatown, The Conversation, Five Easy Pieces, Carnal Knowledge, Days of Heaven, Taxi Driver, Mean Streets and Badlands. These movies captured America at a time that our society literally seemed to be coming apart at the seams. We have not seen anything like that since. In the late '60s and early '70s, Americans thought that they were living through a golden age of music. They were actually living through the age of James Taylor and Paul Simon. But they--we--were living in a golden age of cinema. As golden ages go, it didn't last very long, and it didn't produce very many great films. But the great dramatic films that it did produce were on a par with anything that Hollywood manufactured in the '30s and '40s.
       I have used the word "dramatic" to qualify my thoughts on this subject, because clearly the early '70s did not produce a large number of comedies that could rival Bringing Up Baby, Arsenic andOld Lace, or the great films of W.C. Fields and The Marx Brothers. Laughs were hard to come by in the Nixon Years, so we, as a people, did not laugh very much. If it hadn't been for Woody Allen's early brilliant films, we wouldn't have laughed at all. And ever since Allen retreated to Central Park West and Elaine's, the chuckles have been hard to come by. In any event, I think it's important at the beginning of this online forum to state that we are not all in agreement about how "great" the great films of yesteryear were. If I never saw Gone with the Wind or It's A Wonderful Life again, it would be too soon.
       Now, as to the question of why today's films are so bad, I lay the blame directly at the feet of Lorne Michaels. For the past two decades, American entertainment has been dominated by alumni of Saturday Night Live. This cultural hydra has produced hundreds and hundreds of atrocious motion pictures, replacing the Age of Hepburn, Grant and Tracy with the Age of Belushi, Aykroyd and Another Guy Named Belushi. Four years ago, halfway through researching an article about the pernicious influence of Saturday Night Live, I abandoned the enterprise because the SNL alumni could make bad movies faster than I could write about how bad they were. And I write fast. I do not think it is an accident that the shrinking size of the movie screen and the rise of the multiplex coincide with the triumph of SNL, because a small screen is the perfect medium for small talents. The large screen was designed to accommodate glamorous, talented actors like Irene Dunne, Greta Garbo and Jimmy Stewart; the small screen diverts the public's attention away from the unglamorous appearances and demeanors of people like Chevy Chase, Joe Piscipo, Dan Aykroyd, Adam Sandler, Chris Farley, etc. The small movie screen is really nothing more than a large TV screen, and all of these actors are TV performers, with television-sized personalities and television-sized talent. American cinema will not return to its former greatness until Saturday Night Live is firmly repudiated as a cultural incubator. I do not expect this to happen any time soon

Jack Valenti
1:40 p.m.  Monday  9/30/96 

       The past is always more pleasant because it isn't here. It is true that many films we watch today on television are considered classics because they have been measured and tested by time. Movies like Gone With The Wind, Ben Hur, The Ten Commandments, Citizen Kane, It's A Wonderful Life, and others. My own judgment is that this current group of filmmakers (producers, directors, writers, and actors are the most literate and educated that we have borne witness to in a long time.) If Steven Spielberg's ET and Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather and Kirk Douglas' Spartacus (from the early 60s) and other such great films are watched, applauded and beloved by audiences 30 years from now, then they will be classics. I think they will.
       The only standard of excellence that one can employ to judge films is first "do I like it?" and "does it remain as alive and fresh to audiences seeing it for the first time as it did when it premiered?" Movies are delicate creatures that fly on gossamer wings and each movie is different from all other movies. You cannot measure a movie's greatness by computers or even the views of current critics because we live in a world blurred by unpredictability and environment. Balzac once wrote that "Chance is the world's greatest novelist." If he were living today, Balzac would say, "Chance is the world's greatest filmmaker." This means, of course, that when a movie is completed not even its creative authors can forecast how their movie will be received. But, when that movie in a darkened theater collides with an audience and sparks fly up, then you know that whatever you have done seems to be right.

Herb Stein
2:45 p.m.  Monday  9/30/96 

       We should have asked the panelists to reveal their birth dates, so we could tell whether we are dealing with something other than generational prejudice. Obviously, we have no 25-year-olds on the panel. Everyone seems agreed that there was a golden age, and although they may disagree about when it was at least three out of four agree that it isn't now. Valenti's position is unclear, but I notice that the most recent picture he mentions is ET.
       We haven't had any discussion of what makes a great movie, and that is probably a subject on which it is hard to be both specific and general. But we could try an experiment. One movie that comes up in the lists of greats from Ben Stein, Rich and Queenan, and Valenti is The Godfather. What makes that a great movie? The New York Times Sunday Magazine this week asks some experts to choose movies that will still be cherished 100 years from now. (The Times seems to be afraid that someone will beat them into the next century.) Janet Maslin, chief film critic of the N.Y. Times, chose The Godfather, about which she says, "... great story-telling. Realistic acting and painterly visual compositions won't go out of style." Is that what makes a movie great, or made this movie great?
       We have a number of explanations on the table for the low state of today's movies. Ben Stein thinks today's writers of movies are less well-educated than those of an earlier day. I am surprised at that, given the increased educational attainment of the population at large. I thought that all the scriptwriters in Hollywood were Harvard graduates who had worked on the Lampoon. And the most successful scriptwriter in Hollywood today is a well-educated, although self-taught, English woman who died in 1817. When Valenti says that the current group of filmmakers are the most educated in some time, does he include her?
       Queenan blames the influence of Saturday Night Live. That brings up an important point about what we mean by a Golden Age. It is not an age in which no bad movies are produced. Whatever one thinks was the golden age, it was a period in which probably 98 percent of all movies were not very good. But there were a few great ones. Saturday Night Live may explain why the terrible movies of this generation are what they are. Does it explain why there are few, if any, great ones?
       A similar question can be asked about Rich's explanation. He blames the bureaucratization of the Hollywood production system. I suppose that there is a lot in that. But he recognizes that there are some movies made outside that system, and if there were, say, five great independent movies made each year we would not think that the present crop is so thin. Is there something about the economics of the industry that severely limits the possibility of independent production? Probably Valenti can tell us something about that.
       Maybe I should be asking why this is not a golden age but why there ever is a golden age. Why does the production of great movies tend to cluster within limited periods rather than being spread out throughout the century--one ever five years, for example? Does the production of one great movie elevate the standard, both for producers and for audiences, causing more to be produced? Maybe the process is perfectly random. Mozarts and Shakespeares are not evenly distributed through history. Maybe Balzac and Valenti are right and chance is the world's greatest filmmaker.

Ben Stein
2:57 p.m.  Monday  9/30/96 

       Jack Valenti shows why he is so highly prized as a spokesman for Hollywood by his articulate poetry. The problem is that even such as he or I, paid (modestly in my case) by Hollywood, might be hard pressed to find movies that are not only liked by an audience of nine-year-olds, but are admired and respected by grownups, intelligent men and women--and shed light on our life and times. Can any person truly say that any modern movie speaks as much to American longing and hope as Gone With The Wind? Does anyone think that any movie of the '90s says anything as lasting about heroism as High Noon? Or, to put it another way, does anyone think that a movie industry willing and eager to use flatulence jokes as standard fare can possibly aim at anything even resembling cinematic literature for the ages?
       This is not in any sense to say that there is not some good product. But it is to say that the mean product is really imitations of movies at this point rather than movies.

Ben Stein
3:04 p.m.  Monday  9/30/96 

       The reason so few independent movies are made today has to do with the extraordinary cost of most movies, but it also has to do with the difficulty of getting distribution for independent movies. Getting a film into general release is almost impossible unless one is hooked up to a major studio. Getting the money together to advertise it is even harder.
       On the other hand ... it is not particularly expensive to make a novel or a painting or a symphonic score. But we are in drastically short supply of excellent species of those arts as well. We currently have no great novelists, composers, or artists in America that are generally acknowledged as great. Maybe we are going through a civilizational downswing on all fronts as some kind of entropic process sets in based on birthrates in selected classes, lack of education, or general malaise born of indulgence.
       Looked at in that way, maybe movies are doing better than other forms of artistic expression.

Ben Stein
3:16 p.m.  Monday  9/30/96 

       Joe Queenan writes:
       "The small movie screen is really nothing more than a large TV screen, and all of these actors are TV performers, with television-sized personalities and television-sized talent."
       This is a stunningly insightful comment. But it does not explain why both big and small screen are so poor today. It does explain the smallness of much of American culture though. In the early days of TV, it was a small movie screen. In the current day, the movie screen is a big TV screen. Well put.
       But the beauty of a movie like Gone With The Wind (made five years before I was born) is really about exploring the human personality as well as a national personality. It's hard for me to think of any movie except Blade Runner (circa 1982) that even attempts to work on such a broad canvas. And, to go to the issue of age/greatness correlations, are there young people who think any of today's movies are great? My son (age 9) barely remembers movies after 10 minutes.
       By the way, my birthdate is 11-25-44.