March 13, 2011

What's behind the movie quality doldrums?

Via a Tyler Cowen post, here's another article about the recent decline in movie quality.

I agree with Cowen that movies will eventually recover their storytelling power, but it will have nothing to do with economics because material prosperity, whether of the median person or level of inequality, and technological change do not affect the power that verbal people wield when telling a story, nor the degree of novel and associative thinking they undergo before the idea is executed. They also do not affect audience tastes for compelling vs. boring stories.

Rather, as I've been detailing for almost a year now, those effects are more or less invisible when you zoom out and look at the history of cultural production. Instead what dominates is the effect of whether the level of violence in society is rising or falling over a generation or so.* So, when we experience another wave of rising violence, we can expect another round of spellbinding narratives. The only uncertain thing is what medium they'll appear in -- during the last violence wave from the '60s through the '80s, the best storytellers felt that there wasn't much left to do in the media of poetry, plays, or novels, so they made movies instead. Maybe there will be some new medium the next time around.

I've written enough on that topic by now that there's little left to add, so let's focus instead on clearing up a few misconceptions in the otherwise decent GQ article, and highlight some of his better points that don't get spoken widely enough.

The first is that the current vogue for endless sequels and prequels, and remakes and reboots, is a sign of how moribund the movie industry has become. Instead, whether a movie is a continuation or a re-telling of an existing story has no relation to its quality, but whether the second effort is made during falling-crime times, when it will stink, or rising-crime times, when it will be good or great.

The entire original trilogies for Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Back to the Future, are all engrossing narratives. The Star Wars trilogy made during falling-crime times has uniformly stunk, the new Indiana Jones movie was greeted with shrugs, and thank god no one has taken a stab at a new movie with Marty and the Doc. John Carpenter's The Thing is a fascinating re-telling of a boring movie from the falling-crime era of the 1950s. The sequel to Alien was even better than the gripping original, but the successive ones made during falling-crime times were all horrible. This is most apparent in the horror genre, where the same basic variety of monsters keeps appearing, such as vampires, werewolves, ghosts, and serial killers. However, despite these all being covers of the same underlying song, only those made during rising-crime times (1900 to 1933 and 1959 to 1992) have survived. There are a few exceptions, such as The Wolf Man (1941) and Wes Craven's New Nightmare (1994), maybe even Scream (1996), but the fit is strikingly close.

Next, the author picks Top Gun as the movie that started the steady decline in narrative quality. This is a standard but incorrect move when people try to reconstruct history -- they see a bright line between two periods, in this case the early 1990s, and look for an example of the later period in the former period, often presented as "sowing the seeds" for what was to come. Top Gun is a nice movie, by the way, where the good guys who die are real people, not just faceless cannon fodder like in the WWII movies of the past 15 to 20 years, and where the tough guys have a vulnerable side to them (which you also see in Rambo, Rocky, Kyle Reese from The Terminator, and even Dirty Harry somewhat), unlike the cartoony ape-men of recent action movies. No one is totally safe from being undone physically or psychologically in those older movies.

Even if he did pick a good example of a lousy movie made in 1986, such as Howard the Duck or Raw Deal, there's still the fact that storytelling quality didn't fall into decline over the next few years. 1987 was a blip year that had not so many great movies, but it did give us The Princess Bride, Lethal Weapon, Planes, Trains and Automobiles, and RoboCop. 1988 was a back-to-business year, with the top 10 box office movies including Coming to America, Big, Die Hard, and Beetlejuice; not to mention Child's Play. And 1989 was bursting even more with great stories: Batman, the third Indiana Jones movie, Back to the Future II, Ghostbusters II, and When Harry Met Sally were all top 10 box office movies, and that's not counting Heathers.

Next is the idea that today's target audience, males under 25, are "the same ADD-addled, short-term-memory-lacking, easily excitable testosterone junkie." In reality, young males today are a bunch of dorks. If they had ADD, they would not veg out for 5 to 10 hours a day leveling up their silly Pokemon or Final Fantasy characters, or roaming around SoCom or Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto worlds in search of something -- anything -- to shoot. They are never out and about, don't hop from one physical location to another, and don't go cruising.

If you've ever talked to one about anything exciting -- rock music, girls, classic cars, or movies from a better time -- you will have noticed how sluggishly excitable they are. Even the ones who have non-dorky tastes can't get very energized when talking about it with you, and you can hardly blame them since there's no broader culture of fun for them to plug into. When you're basically alone in wanting to live life, your mindset is more in the "under siege" than the "how exciting!" direction.

And they are anything but testosterone junkies. Testosterone levels have never been lower in young males, and it is completely bogus to suggest that they are merely channeling their high T into activities that the older fuddy-duddies just don't recognize, such as first-person shooter video games. Sorry, but if you're not actually exposing yourself to physical danger, taking part in a daring raid, and maybe having to throw a punch or two in the process, you're just a wimpy and deflated couch potato. Calling some 13 year-old boy a "noob faggot" over an internet connection isn't macho at all -- try doing that to someone your age or older, in person, and to their face. Then you'll get credit for youthful recklessness. Until then, even a 12 year-old girl who mutters "slut" under her breath to another sixth-grader passing in the hallway has bigger balls than you.

Those corrections aside, I give him credit for not whining about the death of New Hollywood during the mid-late '70s like the film nerds tend to. That was when shaman-like storytelling and mythogenesis began to hit its stride, with all the movies I've already mentioned, including the Star Wars trilogy that thankfully gave us something meaningful to gorge our minds and our souls on, not some low-cal, fat-free cuisine of imitations of French New Wave silliness. Nothing against foreigners: Italian Neorealism would have been pretty cool if we'd imitated it, since they were also heavily focused on the sublime and the eternal, though I'm still glad we chose to imitate the best myth-makers -- the Proto-Indo-Europeans.

He's also right to emphasize how childish mainstream movies have become both in content and tone, in contrast to all that whining you used to hear during the family values revolution of the mid-'90s and somewhat afterwards about how violent, overly mature, and family-unfriendly the movies were. He mentions that even adults today eat this junk up, but he should also have pointed out the converse -- that when movies were geared toward coming of age, experience, and doing something with your life, even children wanted to grow up fast (as in the movie Big). Although I lived through the golden age of children's entertainment in the 1980s, even kid's programming was much more mature in content and tone. Plus every boy in those days was obsessed with Rambo, Aliens, the Terminator, Freddy Krueger, cops and robbers, and other grown-up themes, even cowboys and Indians (I think that was the last time that boys wore Davy Crockett hats at some point while growing up).

Finally, he's on-the-mark in excusing the movie industry figures themselves from a lot of what's gone wrong. They can only work with what they're given, and as they say, so much of the difference between a good and a bad movie lies in the execution. During falling-crime times like the present day, even the conceptualization stage looks like a dust bowl. But you can always fall back on time-tested ideas for the raw material. Still, the execution is almost always destined to fail because people who live in overly safe times cannot put themselves into the vulnerable state-of-mind that you need to get into in order to give the audience a reason to care about them. Just look at how easily Mark Hamill can show real confusion, anxiety, and anger in the original Star Wars movies compared to Hayden Christensen in the later movies. He can only plumb the emotional depths of a sheltered momma's boy, whose anger never rises above the kind of whining and shouting at his parents to "get outta of my room!"

At the other end of the spectrum, the grotesquely exaggerated anger of heroes is not surprising. The ambiguity of using violence and warfare, and need to keep your cool while your heart's racing a thousand miles an hour, can only be portrayed by people who know what it's like from their everyday lives here and now. Still, this may be somewhat easier today for Baby Boomer and Generation X actors, who can at least draw on their experiences back when the violence level was still soaring. With someone born around 1985 or after, even that indirect route of channeling of the past will be impossible.

As I said earlier, all of these huge changes over the past 15 to 20 years are a consequence, whether in a direct or a roundabout way, of falling violence levels, just as the surge in creativity during the '60s, '70s, and '80s reflected the greater danger that people met in their daily doings. So we should stop complaining about how hard it is to make new compelling stories, as though All We Have To Do is pull some lever in the Hollywood system or dial some knob in the audience's mind, and presto, we'll get the next Ghostbusters.

Rather, recognizing that attempts at new gems will almost entirely fail, set aside a lot less money for them, and instead re-release all of the classics -- not remakes or reboots, but the originals as the gods intended them, maybe with cleaned up picture and sound quality. Just think of how many people in the key movie-going demographic groups today have never seen them -- let alone on the big screen and in a public space. Plus that would be an easy way to get some of the 25+ demographic back into the theaters. I won't pay $10 to see any movie for the foreseeable future because it is almost guaranteed to go to waste. But I would gladly set aside $10 in my weekly leisure budget to see the greats, especially ones whose focus on the grand and sublime demand that they be seen on a gigantic screen, and that the viewer be part of a crowd where individual self-consciousness has been washed out and a pervasive tension binds you all together.

That's more or less the recipe for orchestral music -- nuts to recent junk, and keep re-performing the classics -- and at least until we see another burst of innovation in storytelling, we might as well adopt it for movies too.

* I'll post something more detailed on why changes in prosperity don't affect us whereas changes in security do, but very briefly it's because we evolved in a world where there were no large-amplitude, long-term trends up or down in our prosperity level, as we lived in a Malthusian world. There were irregular subsistence crises, such as random famines or plagues, as well as one-time large and steady movements up or down when we changed modes of subsistence, such as abandoning hunting and gathering in order to farm.

In contrast, there have been recurring cycles of violence as far back as we can tell. Even among the Yanamamo, a group of warlike hunter-horticulturalists in the Amazon, there are waves of greater and lesser warfare and raiding -- after a major wave, they leave about two generations of cooling off, during which the successful warriors can convert their battle success into reproductive success. Constant, or non-cyclical, high levels of violence are very rare, and those groups that do show them, such as the Waorani (a nearby group in the Amazon) appear to be killing themselves off, whereas the Yanamamo are an expanding population.

1 comment:

  1. Seems like the demand for sequels is just us romanticizing about the characters and stories of the violent times.

    Though movie quality might be declining, ho-hums like Inception and Avatar are breaking records. I guess when life isn't exiting and dangerous you want to escape it to a fantasy where it is.


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