The Decline of American Film, 1970-Present?

I strongly recommend reading Tom Shone’s provocative argument about the odd absences and hesitancies that define America’s position in the movie world today. Almost everybody feels that U.S. movies have been in decline since the heady days of the early ’70s — including me — but not too many of the people who make the complaint have a sufficient understanding of what the films, then and now, are and what they might signify. That’s one of the reasons I’m doing this blog, in fact: I wanted to learn more about the American popular movies of my lifetime.

Shone, unlike most, knows his stuff, having written Blockbuster, a book on popular U.S. film that very nearly parallels the Boffo project. Unlike most grousers — he isn’t really that, anyway — Shone is informed, isn’t a snob, has a critical intelligence, and genuinely adores all kinds of popular movies from then and now. In other words, he’s not on the sidelines affecting a pose; he’s in the mix and engaged.

I made some comments to the post, and Shone replied with grace. Go have a look to see our exchange at the bottom.

I wanted to talk about this “decline” of American movies, because it’s an unavoidable component of the Boffo project, but I haven’t really addressed it yet. I’ve got a lot of thoughts on the subject, and I’ll be commenting on the situation as I move forward through the years.

If you read the entire list of #1 movies from 1970 to today, as I have, well, it makes for depressing reading. The simplest way to put it is that the 1970s are better than the 1980s, which are better than the 1990s, which are better than the 2000s. It’s really as simple as that. It’s mostly a slow, slow decline; there isn’t any one obvious dividing line. If I had to pick a key moment after which things changed, it might be Independence Day (1996). That movie is the true beginning of what we might call our blockbuster-obsessed mindset, after which senseless spectacle, relentless marketing, corporate partnerships, multiple-part franchises, and superheroes dominate the box office charts.

But let’s define “decline” here. The 1970s are basically divided into two parts — divided, in fact, by Jaws (1975). The early ’70s routinely feature outstanding works of art in the #1 slot: Chinatown (1974), The Godfather (1972), Five Easy Pieces (1970), Deliverance (1972), Mean Streets (1974), and so on. I chose these five movies as examples, but I could just as easily pick ten other movies to make the same point; it was common for ambitious, complex, stirring movies to make it to #1. Of course, it must be said that there are routine or trashy entertainments right alongside these masterpieces: Airport (1970), The Poseidon Adventure (1972), Chisum (1970), The Longest Yard (1974). The #1 slot has always accommodated the merely entertaining and the genuinely good, both then and now. But today it’s a lot rarer for really good movies to make it to #1.

As everyone agrees, Jaws changed everything, together with Star Wars (1977). The 1975-1985 period is fascinating, probably the most heterogeneous stretch in the 1970-2012 period. You have very good movies on the list — perhaps not as good as Chinatown, but quality movies nonetheless; examples include Saturday Night Fever (1977), The Deer Hunter (1979), Silkwood (1984), and An Officer and a Gentleman (1982). But you also have the rise of a certain kind of schlock, specifically slasher movies, lurid sci-fi, and teen sex comedies, and the mood is of a free-for-all in which pretty much anything goes. There’s not a lot of rhyme and reason to the successes; you see a lot of people trying different things and succeeding. In a way, even though some of the output is depressing, this is close to the ideal of how movies should work, big studios putting out reliable product while forces from below push up with their more instinctive and heartfelt and opportunistic features.

This situation continues more or less into the late 1980s and early 1990s, but … things aren’t as uneven. The really schlocky movies have been weeded out a bit, and the hits are a little more streamlined and bland. It’s not a great period, but it’s still interesting. Cocktail (1988) was a hit during this time; Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990), Home Alone (1990), The Addams Family (1991). You can feel the effect of agents packaging actors together in projects, an insistence on reliable hacks to direct… there isn’t quite as much personality. And yet you’re still getting the occasional Dead Ringers (1988), The Silence of the Lambs (1992), The Accused (1988). Most years still have at least a couple movies of this type.

It will be objected that some of those movies I’m naming as counterpoints to the “good” movies, Home Alone for instance, aren’t bad movies at all. That’s certainly true, and this isn’t entirely about quality anyway. It’s about who’s getting the attention of the moviegoing public and how. Home Alone is great, but it’s a cartoon. It wasn’t possible for a guy like John Hughes to succeed with Sixteen Candles (1984) anymore, so he moved towards stuff like Curly Sue (1991).

After 1996, there aren’t as many surprises, as you might call them. Even the good movies are mostly things like the Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001, 2002, 2003), which are brilliant movies but also the result of huge studio investment with a calculated appeal to ahistorical and mythical themes, a focus on international audience, with the possibility of franchises and sequels.

More to the point, by this time the studios had hacked the system of evaluating box office grosses such that it became quite uncommon for a movie to be #1 for more than a week. What with Netflix, DVDs, and cable TV (not to mention illegal downloads), the studios have little interest in a movie that may or may not succeed in the theaters over a period of weeks. It’s irrelevant to them. There’s a lot of product out there, and the strategy of the current moment seems to be to secure the #1 slot for a single week and then make your money on DVD or international sales or some other way. One of the best ways to do that is to launch a franchise, whether it be Spider-Man, X-Men, Twilight, or The Hunger Games. If your movie can’t be turned into multi-part saga or otherwise turned into an event that will attract teenagers, you’re out of luck. This isn’t a complaint, it’s just a fact.

So OK. Personal, thoughtful, complex, understated movies about recognizable human beings in familiar situations are an endangered species on the #1 lists. What does that mean?

The temptation to exaggerate the malaise is profound. We think of the 1970s as normality, when “really good movies were really popular,” but the truth is that that was the anomaly, a period when, for whatever reason, the powers that be lost confidence in their ability to deliver popular movies to the masses, and turned to a bunch of headstrong, scruffy, nonconformist artists to lead them to salvation. The ethos was hostile to pretty prettiness for prettiness’s sake, and so you had similarly scruffy movie stars too, whose similarity to the audience the audience found reassuring, a token of authenticity.

As I say, that was the anomaly. It’s normal, after all, for studios to understand the business of making hugely popular movies, and that’s what we have now. So yes, it’s tough to get an interesting, serious movie made today and have it become a cause célèbre or a bête noire or some other French term. It’s a challenge to outdo Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol (2011) when all you’ve got is, I don’t know, a movie about an unpleasant argument involving four upscale Brooklynites, which is a description of the movie Carnage (2011), directed by Roman Polanski. Carnage, alas, did not make it to #1.

The art of making #1 movies is the art of securing some constituency that will come out for your movie, just a little bit more than all the other movies available that week. For reasons that are difficult to re-engineer, in the early 1970s the audience of intelligent adults who appreciated complexity in movies was big enough and affluent enough and enthusiastic enough to catapult directors like Scorsese and Coppola into stardom. That is not true today, but that doesn’t mean we’re less intelligent than we were before, or that we have fewer good movies available to us.

Since Independence Day came out in 1996, the following movies, every single one of them by an American or Canadian director (no director is repeated), have been released:

American Beauty
Before Sunset
Being John Malkovich
Buffalo ’66
Chasing Amy
Donnie Darko
Eastern Promises
Far from Heaven
Ghost Dog
Go
Happiness
Hugo
Into the Wild
Jackie Brown
Knocked Up
L.A. Confidential
Little Miss Sunshine
Lost in Translation
Michael Clayton
Mulholland Drive
Napoleon Dynamite
Office Space
Out of Sight
Requiem for a Dream
Rushmore
Sideways
Syriana
The 25th Hour
The Big Lebowski
The Hurt Locker
The Insider
The Savages
The Squid and the Whale
The Station Agent
The Sweet Hereafter
The Thin Red Line
There Will Be Blood
Three Kings
Tiny Furniture
World’s Greatest Dad
Young Adult
Zodiac

You can probably guess what these movies have in common, right? None of them ever made it to #1 at the box office. It took me maybe 15 minutes to come up with that list, and I could make a similarly long list of completely different movies without too much difficulty. Also, I was obliged to omit a bunch of excellent English-language movies directed by people not from North America: Shaun of the Dead, Topsy Turvy, Gattaca, Trainspotting, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, The International, This is England, Memento, Melancholia, Drive, and so on. And foreign-language movies… that’s a whole other subject.

So I say: Yes, from the perspective of the public arena, where massively popular movies fight for mindshare, the story has not been a good one. How much this really matters is unclear, but it isn’t nothing. Life really is a little better when Chinatown is the latest movie on everyone’s lips. But it’s also not everything. There are lots of terrific American directors out there doing top-notch work, and we get to see those movies! It’s annoying to cede the #1 lists to the teenagers and the superhero addicts, but ultimately it’s a shrug for me. I get to choose what I watch, and I really like most of the movies I watch.

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