ESSAYS, ARTICLES, & REVIEWS
MOVIE TRENDS IN MY LIFETIME
I just watched August: Osage County, which was my 4,951st film. I’ve been keeping a list of every movie I’ve seen all the way through since I was twenty-one years old. I’m not sure what happens when I see my 5,000th movie—perhaps I’ll see the face of God and ascend directly to heaven, or, more likely, I’ll just move on to the next 5,000. However, since it has taken me fifty-six years to see the first 5,000, I have grave doubts if I’ll see 5,000 more, but you never know.
In my fifty-six years of avid movie-watching I have seen a number of distinct trends come and go—movies are absolutely not the same as they were when I was young, nor when I was in my twenties, or even my thirties. The art of motion pictures has changed, as I suppose it must, but it has not been for the better. Some folks might, and have, said that is simply a matter of taste and perspective, and perhaps it is, but, nevertheless, I still feel that it’s true.
In the year that I was born, 1958, the biggest moneymaker also happens to be one of my very favorite movies, The Bridge on the River Kwai, which won the Oscar for Best Picture the previous year, 1957, but was a Christmas release and made all of its money the following year. Kwai is severely intelligent, brilliantly-written, directed, photographed and performed film (Oscars in all categories), that also happens to be World War II, P.O.W., action film. The film stands alone and truly can’t be compared to any other WWII, P.O.W., or action film.
The decade of the 1950s, even though I was two when it ended, is unquestionably my favorite decade of movies. From the witty, cutting, beautifully-made, All About Eve, in 1950, to the spectacular remake of the silent classic, Ben Hur, in 1959, with literally hundreds of gems in between (still running with Oscar-winners): An American in Paris, From Here to Eternity (which is too good), On the Waterfront, Marty (also too good), and let’s not forget Gigi, the Best Picture of 1958, as charming and beautiful of a musical ever made, and written originally for the screen, not a Broadway adaption. The 50’s were an incredible and evolving showplace for filmmaking. And not just in America, either. In Japan, the great master, Akira Kurosawa, was making many of his finest films, such as: Ikiru, Seven Samurai and Throne of Blood; in Sweden Ingmar Berman was making: Smiles of a Summer Night, The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries and The Virgin Spring; in France, at the end of the 1950s, the Nouvelle Vague, or New Wave, came into being, with Godard and Breathless, Truffaut and The 400 Blows, Claude Chabrol and The Cousins; and let’s not forget Luis Bunuel, who left Spain for Mexico, and began making his wonderful string of utterly unique features, such as: Los Olvidados, The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, El and Nazarin; and in England David Lean was making: Breaking Through the Sound Barrier, Hobson’s Choice, Summertime and The Bridge on the River Kwai.
After WWII, with advent of television in the late 1940s, Hollywood realized that it needed to reinvent itself to hold on to its audience. The two ways that they did this were A. inventing various forms of wide-screen, like Cinerama, Cinemascope, Vista Vision, etc., and B. tell more sophisticated stories. Suddenly, biting, incisive, cynical films, like: No Way Out, about a racist (Richard Widmark) who won’t let a black intern (Sidney Poitier) touch him, then a race riot ensues; or Sunset Blvd., about a young, less-than-successful, screenwriter (William Holden) having an affair with an old, silent screen actress (Gloria Swanson, who was merely 49 years old); or A Streetcar Named Desire, with Marlon Brando burning up the screen while he rapes his wife’s sister (Vivian Leigh); or A Place in the Sun, where Montgomery Clift kills his dowdy wife (Shelley Winters) for the stunning, 17-year-old Elizabeth Taylor; or Ace in the Hole, about a deceitful reporter (Kirk Douglas) letting a man die so he can get a story; or On The Waterfront, about corrupt unions and personal responsibility, and that’s just the early ‘50s.
Hollywood was changing. The old studio heads were retiring or dying off, and studios were being consumed by giant conglomerates. Louis B. Mayer was forced to retire; Harry Cohn at Columbia died; Jesse Lasky and Adolph Zukor retired from Paramount and Gulf & Western bought it; Jack Warner finally let go of Warner Bros. and the Kinney Corp. purchased it, RKO was purchased by Desilu, on and on. By the mid-1960s the studio system was almost entirely dead. Darryl Zanuck at 20th Century Fox did make a come-back with Patton in 1970 (by firing his son, Richard), but that was the end of the road for him.
In the early 1960s the American independent movement began, which is often attributed to John Cassavetes, but there were plenty of earlier examples going all the way back to the silent era. Cassavetes’ film Shadows in 1960, shot on black and white 16mm and almost entirely post-dubbed, made a big impact (which personally escapes me). He then tried to make a go as a Hollywood director, making sort of interesting films like, Too Late Blues with Bobby Darin and A Child is Waiting with Judy Garland and Burt Lancaster, both unsatisfying, and neither one a moneymaker, so he returned to his acting career. But others followed in the independent field, like Frank Perry with David and Lisa (with two Oscar nominations), Larry Peerce, with One Potato, Two Potato and The Incident, Melvin Van Peebles with Story of a Three Day Pass, as well as many, many others.
Then a curious thing occurred—between 1967 and 1975; euphemistically known as the “Auteur Period,” and well-documented in Peter Biskind’s book, “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls,” the filmmakers took control—not entirely, by any means, but enough to make an important, if not lasting, impact. John Cassavetes made his second indie, Faces, that was a big critical and financial success, and much better than Shadows. It’s an intense, four-person drama, shot in his own house, and co-starring his wife, Gena Rowlands (who is always great) and John Marley (studio head, Woltz, from The Godfather, which he hadn’t made yet). Then, the brothers Burt and Harold Schneider, who had created and produced the hit TV series, The Monkees, took their money and financed the extremely low-budget, Easy Rider, with Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda starring, producing and directing, respectively, and it was an enormous success. They followed up with two more low-budget films: Peter Bogdanovich’s terrific, lyrical, The Last Picture Show, then Bob Raphelson’s wonderful, Five Easy Pieces, both of which made money and were nominated for Oscars; The Last Picture Show won both Best Supporting Actor and Actress for Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman. The indies were now legit—they made money and won Oscars.
As new, young, executives streamed into the studios, who had no experience in the film industry, and in many cases, no love for film at all, the search for paradigms in film marketing began. With the enormous success of Airport in 1970 (a favorite of mine), Universal took off for the beginning of the disaster film period. Airport inspired three tired, miserable sequels, then the other studios jumped in with The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake (in Sense-Around, where enormous bass speakers were aimed directing down into the floor to shake the entire theater at the appropriate moments. There were only three films made in Sense-Around: Earthquake, Midway, and Rollercoaster, all dismal pieces of junk, although I happened to see all three in Sense-Around, which I feel ought to be on my tombstone), The Towering Inferno, Meteor, and other, even lesser disasters. Since this paradigm fizzled, what would come next?
In the summer of 1975 the question was not quite solved, but a fine example was released—Jaws, the first summer blockbuster. It had been the ridiculous wisdom of Hollywood that films released during the summer wouldn’t make money because no one was interested in going to a movie theater and sitting in the dark when the sun was out, the weather was warm, and they could be frolicking at the beach or a swimming pool. But now Jaws proved otherwise and reached $100 million in domestic grosses faster than any film previously, then went on to be the highest-grossing film of all time. The problem was, it wasn’t really part of a genre, other than the vague genre of “action,” and it was such a unique, well-made film that there was no real way to follow up on it, other than to make more unique, well-made films, and that’s difficult.
Two years later, in the summer of 1977, came the release of Star Wars, which quickly surpassed Jaws by reaching $100 million faster, then out-grossing it worldwide. Star Wars was soon followed by Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which didn’t break any records, but made a lot of money. Suddenly, a new paradigm was discovered—the expensive, special effects-laden, sci-fi film, released during the summer and aimed at kids, who, if they liked the film, would go back and see it a half-dozen times. Then Steven Spielberg and George Lucas teamed up and made Raiders of the Lost Ark, a 1930s-style B-action film loaded with special effects.
“OK,” thought the young Hollywood executives, “it doesn’t even have to be sci-fi; just expensive and have a lot of effects. We can do that.”
And that was nearly forty years ago and the paradigm has, for the most part, remained in place. Whereas previously in the mind of Hollywood, making better films and winning Oscars were inextricably tied together with making money—the biggest moneymaker previous to Jaws was The Sound of Music—now everything turned around backward and the B-pictures became the A-pictures, meaning, why spend a lot of money on films aimed at intelligent adults, which is a daunting task because it’s based on good taste, when, if you invest enough money in special effects, kids have no clue what’s good or bad and will buy what’s the biggest, newest, snazziest and loudest. As time has proven over and over again, these films rarely have legs—meaning, like The Sound of Music, they continued to make money for a long time—but instead make all of their money in a month before the word gets out that they really stink. When Hollywood stumbled into the superhero genre with the first Superman film in 1978—which was really parody of superhero movies—it has never returned. After a half-dozen Superman films and a half-dozen Batman films, now, in giant burst of inspiration, they’ve come up with Superman vs. Batman. Wow!
Now, the A-pictures are almost always $30 million or less, produced by the studio’s subsidiaries, like Fine Line, Fox Searchlight or the Weinstein Brothers, and frequently not made by Hollywood at all, but are instead frequently produced by those intelligent, well-spoken British filmmakers, dominated by the BBC. And that’s where most of our Oscar nominees now come from, such as: The Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game, Birdman, Slumdog Millionaire, etc., etc.
As far as I’m concerned, nobody makes great movies anymore—it’s seemingly a lost art. Good films, like the afore mentioned Birdman or The Imitation Game, are made, but you can generally count them annually on one hand. There are any number of younger folks out there who have never seen a great movie, and have no idea such a thing exists. Great films actually do exist, but sadly, they’re not of recent vintage.