ESSAYS, ARTICLES, & REVIEWS
A LESSER FORM
April 25, 2001
Film as an artistic expression has devolved into a lesser form. Films made today are simply not as good as films made 30 years ago or 50 years ago. The technology for making movies has increased, although not all that much, but the movies themselves are significantly worse. I purport that in our information-rich society, the complexity of the thoughts being transmitted have taken a serious down-turn.
Movies have taken down-turns before in their hundred-plus year history. When sound first arrived in 1927 it caused movies to take a big step backward in terms of sophistication. Everybody had gotten very good at making silent pictures, and there was subsequently the first Golden Age of movies which lasted from, say, 1923 to 1928. There were many top-notch films made during those years, like "The Big Parade," "The General" and "The Docks of New York."
Between 1927 and 1934 no one really knew how to make a good sound picture. But they all figured it out pretty quickly and within just a few years movies went into their next Golden Age, the
big one so far, which I'd say was 1935 through 1955. Most of the great films ever made were produced during this 20-year period. The best year for movies ever is considered 1939, which I'm not sure I go along with, but there certainly were a lot of terrific pictures made around then.
I was recently reading the last published essays of Issac Asimov and he put forth that everybody always has a Golden Age (for whatever the heck they do) that came just before them. Perhaps that's always true, I don't know.
The Golden Age that came during my lifetime, right before I got into the film business, was from 1967 to 1977, which were my formative years. A very good to great movie came out every month for ten years. If we didn't get another terrific film every 30 days we all wondered what was up?
I'm saying there hasn't been ten legitimately great, or even very good, films released in the past 25 years. We're presently in the worst and longest slump in film history.
I sit here eagerly awaiting the next Golden Age, which must arrive sooner or later, I'm just hoping that I will still be alive to see it.
Sadly, it will probably follow some cataclysmic political situation, like World War Three, so that we are once again reminded of the definitions of actual drama. The first Golden Age followed close on the heels of World War One, the second came in the middle of the depression, with World War Two soon to follow, and the third came during the worst years of the Vietnam War, and ended very soon after the war ended.
I'm certainly not looking forward to any more wars, but I sure wouldn't mind some better movies.
Our society's art and stories represent our society's mindset. Right now our art and stories are rehashed, illogical, unsatisfying tripe. Our most recent "Best Picture," "Gladiator," is nothing but a half-assed rehash of "Spartacus," which is a far, far better film, but wasn't even good enough to win "Best Picture" in 1960, which went to "The Apartment," indeed a far better film. Well, "Spartacus" is so much better of a film than "Gladiator" that they're not even worth comparing. When someone like my downstairs neighbor is extolling the virtues of "Gladiator" and I bring up "Spartacus," I get this response, "Oh, come on!" Meaning that it's somehow unfair to compare a film from 1960 to a film from today, that they knew something back then that we no longer know. It's like certain kinds of pottery-making that have never been equaled since ancient Greece 2500 years ago.
So then I suppose the next logical question is, are people just more stupid these days? Or perhaps the smart people are simply not going into the entertainment field anymore.
Whatever the case may be, I assert that movies have become a lesser form than they were previously. Your average film of 2001 is not nearly as bright, well-conceived, well-structured or well-told as an older film. I'm purporting that any film from 1971 is better than any film from 2001.
What's ironic is that people seem to believe that the new films they're seeing are actually deeper or more intelligent than films used to be, that the world we're living in is intellectually more complex than it used to be.
I'm sorry, but it's not. It's technologically more complex, but intellectually less complex. As Mr. Atwan stated at the front, as technology increases, complexity decreases.
"Spartacus" is a much better movie than "Gladiator" in many ways, including being more intelligent, deeper and far more subtle and complex. And it wasn't the "Best Picture" of 1960, "The Apartment" was. At this late date no one can even dream of making a film that good.
Keep in mind that 1960 wasn't even during one of the three Golden Ages, either.
However, since "Star Wars," which was the dead end of the last Golden Age, movies have basically become commercials for ancillary products aimed at 12-year olds. Once 12-year olds were targeted as the main audience, the underestimation of the mass psyche has never stopped lowering. Movies simply can't be stupid enough anymore. There's no way to make films as stupid as they'd like to make them without actually letting 12-year olds write, produce and direct the films themselves.
Thankfully, since the insurance companies would never tolerate under-aged people in charge of multi-million dollar enterprises, we will continue to be stuck with adults pretending to understand what it is that 12-year olds are yearning for.
When I was ten I went to summer camp and didn't bring a book with me (which I've never failed to do anywhere I've ever gone since). To my dismay I was then stuck reading other people's comic books all summer. You know what? I hated comic books then and I still do. Comic books are crap! And I've got news for you, all the movies based on them have all been crap, and will continue to be so. They are simply not good source material for movies because they do not contain complete, logical stories. This can be hidden behind good drawings in comic books, but film, which is a very literal medium, shows all the glaring faults of the source material, just like big hairy warts.
Short stories used to be much better source material for movies, but they're almost not used at all anymore. That's too bad because as soon as the movies stopped buying short stories, the good markets for them began drying up, too, like The Saturday Evening Post or The American Mercury.
Now there is really no way to make any money as a short story writer, which is also sad because this is what screenwriters ought to be doing in their spare time.
If you took most contemporary movies and transcribed them into stories, you'd get laughed out of the literary world. The one I still can't believe is how Joaquin Phoenix hugs Richard Harris to death in "Gladiator." Let's try it, shall we?
"The Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, told his son that he would not have him as the next emperor due to his lack of character. This deeply saddened his son, Commodus, who stepped forward and hugged his father, tight, very tight, in fact so tight that his father began to gasp for air. But Commodus, though no bigger than his father, flexed his unimpressive muscles and all of the bones in father's body began to snap like dry kindling. Commodus continued squeezing the emperor until he had completely squeezed the life out of him. Marcus Aurelius dropped to the floor stone dead."
How about this scene from "Traffic"?
"Having given up all her dreams to heroin, the 16-year old white girl, daughter of the head of the DEA, now gave up the most precious thing a young girl possesses, her virginity. But, horror of horrors, having dropped to the lowest point a human being can descend to -- lower than the geek in the freak show that bites the heads off chickens; lower than the wino in the gutter eating rotten scraps out of a dumpster -- the white girl gives up her virginity to a vile black man, a drug dealer, who pays for her dearest possession with the filthy lucre, drugs!"
I honestly don't think that I can get snotty enough about this. I don't feel that I'm dealing in hyperbole when I state that the stories for most contemporary movies completely suck! They do not function as stories. It does not matter how much money you spend thereafter -- lovely photography, big sets, expensive actors, complicated effects -- if the story sucks, the entire film sucks. Period. And I will never be convinced otherwise.
One of the biggest problems with having standards -- particularly somewhat high standards -- is that when your standards are not being met, though everyone else seems satisfied, you start to look crazy, like a killjoy, seemingly bitter and envious.
When I pick on filmmakers like Spielberg, Tarantino or Soderbergh, frequently I'll run into, "Oh! Come on! You just wish you were as successful as them." Well, folks, I'm talking about stories and you're talking about money.
What I'm fighting is the age-old concept that if it's popular it must be good. Look, something is always going to popular. As the population increases they are just going to buy more and more stuff, and as the old saying goes, fashion is worse than any tyrant, people will always prefer to buy what's big and shiny and new. But that sure as shit doesn't make it good.
"Gladiator," "Traffic" and "Almost Famous" are like Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Ricky Martin. They are popular. Neither good nor bad goes along with that automatically. "The Godfather" was by far the most popular film of its year and it's great. However, generally whatever is most popular is bad. Plain and simple.
As George Bernard Shaw so wonderfully overstated it, "If more than 10% of the population likes a painting it should be burned, for it must be bad."
You like Britney? God Bless you.
You like "Traffic"? "Gladiator"? Fine. Buy the DVDs. Watch 'em everyday.
All we're talking about is preference, right? I like jazz; you like reggae. I like green; you like blue.
But oddly, people have been applying standards to things since the very beginning. This is good wine; this is bad wine. This is good olive oil; this olive oil stinks. It's something we humans enjoy doing. I enjoyed when Yog told the story by the fire last night, but I didn't enjoy when Zort told the story the night before.
I am not a critic of today's standards. I am not trying to see how "Gladiator" fits in among the films released in the year 2000.
I don't care.
One hundred years of film history isn't all that much to keep in mind, unlike say, the history of Rome or 500 years of classical music or 500 years of physics. Movies settled into the feature form around 1915, and that's where we still are. We don't go to the theater to see ten music videos or a selection of film shorts, we go to see one full-length film, meaning generally one-hour to three-hours. It also just so happens that technologically we still shoot the darn things on 35mm motion picture film, just like they did in 1915. Not much has changed!
I may well be able to get 150 channels on my satellite TV, but all it's really doing is presenting me with a selection of an entertainment form that came into popularity in 1915, when horses still drew milk wagons through city streets.
But it's actually a lot older than that. Feature-length films are simply an extension of theater, which has dealt in one-hour to three-hour plays since ancient Greece (when they made that great pottery we can't make anymore).
There are about 20,000 movies over the past 100 years in general release, which is the basic canon of motion pictures -- basically, a Maltin's Film Guide worth of films -- any number of which can be seen on TV any night or day or evening or morning of the week. I haven't seen nearly that
many movies, no more than a sixth, probably. I'll never see them all, nor will anyone else. But of the 3500 or so I've seen, stacking them one against the other, this is how I see it.
Movies are in a twenty-five year slump, the longest slump ever. In fact, the slump has gone on so long that movies aren't the same thing they were 30 or more years ago. Movies used to occasionally rise the level of an art form, but now, I daresay, they no longer do. Now the best movies can do is surprise you when you find you don't hate them. Hey! That wasn't terrible!
So, you go ahead and like Britney Spears if that's your choice. Like her better than Christina Aguilera. But don't think for a second that I have to like either one or choose between them. If you're really giving me a choice, I'll take Dave Brubeck.