Saturday, February 12, 2005

Did Star Wars and Jaws ruin film?

Has Hollywood lost its way? If so, when exactly did the movie industry lose its soul? If you're anything like me, I love the movies and their ability to encapsulate both the hope and despair of humans in potent ways. However, I also lament the inane garbage that passes off as theater. Now don't get me wrong; I am not a film snob by any stretch of the imagination. I've probably seen Old School one too many times and will likely watch it anytime it shows up on HBO. I even have a good friend who proudly claims the moniker, "Frank the Tank." Nevertheless, there are a lot of pointless movies released so that the studios can make a quick buck in the first two weeks of release and then on the release of the DVD.

A recent article on the history and future of cinema in the New Yorker reviews several recent efforts to dissect and analyze the history of American film. Most mark a crucial point at which the movies started deteriorating, a veritable rise and fall account of Hollywood. For each account, a different development in the industry plays the role of the barbarian horde. One even had the audacity to blame Star Wars and Jaws for the 'blockbuster' attitude now pervading movie executives's minds!

Yet, why have we embraced the 'blockbuster' mentality and come out in droves for the opening days of the weekly must-see movies? Menand postulates,
The all-consuming desire is to get as many ticket buyers as possible into the theatre on the first weekend, and, amazingly, people oblige. The crowds at the opening of a blockbuster are a fascinating window on mass psychology. If people just wait a couple of weeks, they can have their pick of seats. But when they get back to school or to the office no one will want to hear what they thought of the picture. That was last week's conversation.
Menand continues as he explains how critically-panned movies still do well at the box office:
Before the word of mouth has made it around the block, the movie has already taken in, from the opening weekend, typically somewhere between twenty-five and forty per cent of its total gross.... The reason that those movies had such enormous grosses, despite terrible reviews and negative word of mouth, is that each opened on eighteen thousand screens simultaneously worldwide. As Shone says, about the typical blockbuster, "By the time we've all seen that it sucked, it's a hit."
But is the diagnosis a bit too dire. Have the movies deteriorated so precipitously from their heyday? We saw Million Dollar Baby the other night and learned once again that drama, powerful story-telling, and character development are not solely components of films from yesteryear. What do you all think? Have the movies seen a precipitous drop in quality and substance over the decades?