Old Critics Yelling at Empty Chairs

The past few months there have been a slew of critics crying over the supposed end of classical cinema traditions in American film. Actually, much of it happened in a short spat in mid-September 2012. It is true, many of the mainstream movies are non-original projects and look nothing like the films that dominated the top tens of yesteryear. Yet, many critics and casual spectators seem to still equate high grosses with high quality, and that all films must continuously use the same cinematic devices. While others still yearn for The New Hollywood and suggest such fare does not exist anymore, they tend to be wearing beer goggles (or perhaps 3D glasses) which have been reducing their peripheral vision.

David Thompson’s “American Movies are Not Dead: They are Dying” appears to be more or less directed toward the change in viewing habits of younger generations rather than an all-out attack against current films. He explores the importance of Sight & Sounds’ updated top ten poll and discusses why they are important to film history and how other films fail to fulfill the tenants of “art.” Furthermore, he discusses how television has a background noise tendency more than anything else, that the digitally inclined generations can cobble together any and all media to create their own entertainment, and likens it to the nickelodeons found in arcades at the beginning of the 20th century.

David Denby on the other hand chooses the place the current Hollywood trends against the rise of film’s inherent DNA structure in “Has Hollywood Murdered the Movies?” Denby takes issue mostly at the Studios’ distribution and production tendencies, which have admittedly become beyond predictable. Many of the tentpole franchises that Denby considers are based on a franchises’ ability to hook children at early ages and exploit their yearning for childhood nostalgia by re-booting said franchises as they enter into maturity. This is supported by the current trends of extended childhood adolescence, where twenty-something and early thirty-something men continue to enjoy activities that harness their desire for their childhood, and whose pop culture has been dominated by conglomerates. In effect, women have been asking where all the good men have gone?

Denby also tends to attack what many have called Chaos Cinema, where illogical editing disrupts any basic special uniformity. He is critical of high concept films with big budgets, most of which delegated to the CGI department, because “bad digital action movies [have] the anti-Newtonian physics of a cartoon, but drawn with real figures,” and have “constant and incoherent movement; rushed editing strategies; feeble characterization; pastiche and hapless collage—these are the elements of conglomerate aesthetics.”

While I cannot disagree with some of Denby’s definitions of Chaos Cinema, I can attest to its cultural significance[1]. I also tend to enjoy his description of Michael Bay’s missed opportunities in Pearl Harbor and other scenes where “too many ordinary scenes in many big movies are cut like car chases.” Denby particular attacks the studio’s distribution model for “unadventurous but shrewdly written and played movies, such as The Fighter, which are made entirely by someone else. Again and again these serioso films win honors, but for the most part, the studios, except as distributors, don’t want to get involved in them.”

Andrew O’Hehir, on the other hand, sees television shows that are both ratings and critical hits as a bane compared to film. He suggests that David Chase’s recent film Not Fade Away is a step in the wrong direction for the writer/director and that “making the switch to feature film seems almost as much of an exercise in nostalgia as the movie itself.” Chase, whose The Sopranos changed our perception of premium television, created an empire that paved the way for non-premium cable channels to produce original content on the same level. AMC has led the way with several award-winning hit shows such as Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Walking Dead, to name a few. Other channels have followed suit. Thus, to O’Hehir, Not Fade Away will not have the same “cultural currency or impact as The Sopranos.” (Denby also makes similar statements.)

Towards New Traditions

I do not disagree with O’Hehir entirely. Television shows have increasingly become more complex, and in the case of Mad Men, and especially of Breaking Bad, they are retaining the traditions of cinematography that once were relegated to genius filmmaking. Then again, television shows happen to have an one-up on films, and even franchises. Television shows can grow with the audience. Characters can develop over the course of several years, creating a grand emotional connection with an audience across several years, even decades. Televisions shows are naturally understood to continue next week or next year, and in effect, evolve with the zeitgeist.

The moment television became huge in America, it replaced the previously snubbed form of entertainment, film. Yet, television and film are essentially both cinema. The question comes down to: why is there such hatred towards quality television programs?

What O’Hehir, Denby, and Thomson all seem to really be rallying against is that veteran filmmakers are now making films for HBO and the like. Then again, even Martin Scorsese and many others still have a hard time getting funding for their films, whereas cable channels are willing to take the risks. So what these critics really are disappointed in is major film studios, but critics have always seen the studios as the enemy.

O’Hehir also notes that film festivals are certainly pleasant places to enjoy fresh films, but admits that the majority of the films will never hit the big screen again, and will be forever enshrined on VOD and DVD. He states: “Your average episode of “Breaking Bad” or “The Good Wife” or “Louie” will generate many times more debate and conversation – more actual excitement – than all except perhaps the half-dozen movies released this year (and most of those will involve superheroes”. This is true. Then again, Breaking Bad constantly makes me wonder and almost gave me a heart attack at the end of Season 3. Only 127 Hours evoked the same feelings. Furthermore, what about all the great films that have made it to the big screen and still have been forgotten by time?

Television has an advantage because many channels to serve many people. Theaters do not enjoy this same advantage. Sure, distributors do release films with different genres and sensibilities to provide at least something for other demographics, but the variety is not the same. Then again, the egregious amount of variety does not constitute quality. Yet, variety can account for one thing: a healthy and vigorous industry.

Long-Tails and Niches

Between 1934 and 1968, all American films were approved for general audiences. The MPAA created the Classification and Ratings Administration (CARA) in 1968 in order to account for the societal changes and gave filmmakers the license to cater to a specific audience. This flexibility created niches and new styles and movements.

The term “teenager” was coined in the 1950s as this demographic began to work after school and had an incredible amount of disposable income. Hollywood then catered a portion of their films specifically towards the teenager, even if these films were mostly wholesome beach flicks and Andy Rooney vehicles. Today, teenagers are still a demographic with larger disposable incomes and studios cater their horror films, gross-out comedies, and superhero pictures targeted directly towards teenagers. Blaxploitation films catered to an audience that was typically ignored in in the 1960s and 70s. Even with Sydney Poitier’s Academy Award, black audiences were still getting the shaft for films that truly related to their experiences. Finally, a set of films were released that allowed American black audiences to rage against the man, including Shaft.

Today, the niches are even broader. Hollywood and even the large independents know their audiences well. Films are catered specifically to specific audiences, and males in their extended adolescence are increasingly easy targets. Essentially, niches exist, and older critics are failing to see that American film distribution does not rely on general audience attendance any more, at least, not from top to bottom. So, it is easy to see that “classic” films seem to be non-existent, but smart and arty films do indeed exist.

Wes Anderson, like many filmmakers today, also has specific niche, even if niche targeting is not the key. There are filmmakers who do not speak to general audiences, and general audiences have become increasingly distanced from each other, with share experiences more disparate that ever before. Perhaps what the critics in question are also disappointed by is the reduction of intellect, which of course is a primary aspect of the political climate in America. Even Rick Santorum understands that general intellect is in opposition to conservative romanticism.

So we know this: Americans have become more and more divided in terms of their choices for entertainment and education. Box Office Mojo shows that 428 films were distributed to American theaters in 1982, and since 2003 between 500 and 600 films are released. Not only are the choices becoming more varied, the amount of choices are growing.

Essentially, American film, like America itself, is becoming more and more diverse. Occupy Wall Street attacked the 1%’s control over the vast majority of the wealth and control of politics and economics in America. The same can be said for mainstream films. As of the end of the third quarter, 484 films have been released domestically, accounting for $8 billion in box office gross. The top five gross films account for 25% of the $8 billion, or .826%. The top 20 accounts for ½ of the BO gross, or 4.13%. In 2011, the top six films (the 1%) accounted for 16.8% of all box office gross. Yet, these figures are far more diverse than 1982. E.T. enjoyed a healthy $359 million box office gross, or 10.4% of domestic box office gross that year. Essentially, an incredibly small minority of films enjoy the largest wealth in year box office grosses, and the rest of the diverse set of films scramble for the rest.

Changing Traditions

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If American filmmaking is in such a tail-spin (as violet from Damsels in Distress would say), then why are film festivals so prevalent and growing so much? They are the first place for the most interesting films to enjoy a premiere, get press attention, and act as a venue for film lovers from a variety of backgrounds to explore contemporary cinema together. They are new centers of cinematic discourse, of which, are not started by general audience. Some films will come out of nowhere to excite audiences left and right. Others will fade into oblivion. Festivals are both a marketplace and a speculative exhibition for press and cinephiles to find the next films topic of discussion.

Genres rise and fall. Westerns do not command the same attention that they used to, probably because the inherent myths and codes have been passed over in culture. Many Americans did not grow up on the frontier, and Native Americans have been—unfortunately—conquered and practically imprisoned in reservations. So, it is becomes increasingly difficult for spectators to relate to gun slinging and cowboys and “Indians”. Easy Rider reversed the Western because it started in the West and was a journey to retire in Florida, just like your grandparents, and probably like Denby, O’Hehrir, and Thomson. Easy Rider was the American Dream. The film is an incredible contrast to The Grapes of Wrath because of how two the films portray the experiences of two different Fondas. Henry Fonda took his family to California in The Grapes of Wrath as a reaction to the economic crisis during the Great Depression. Peter Fonda joined his friend to retire in Florida in Easy Rider. Manifest Destiny has arrived! Imagine what Henry said to his son when he saw Easy Rider.

If you asked Denby, O’Hehrir, and Thomson, they would say that Easy Rider is a classic among New Hollywood, and it is. However, films like this do indeed exist today. They just do not command the same attention like the used to. Just because these critics choose not to dig deeper to find the diamonds in the rough does not mean these films do not exist. There are great films in the classic sense in contemporary spheres. Cold Weather, a film by a Mumblecore director (a contemporary style) looks like something right out of the early 1970s.

Like the majority of audiences, seasoned critics are becoming more and more lethargic and are waiting for the next big thing to land in their lap. I cannot be sure if it is the unhealthy food or the constant media simulacrum, or a combination of both, but general audiences still tend to flock towards singular events in order to not miss out of the national discourse. This includes films like Avatar and The Avengers. How many people saw Wall-E, yet still eat too much unhealthy food and still refrain from exercising, and even reducing, reusing, and recycling? Audiences love the message but cannot help but ignore it once the film is over. Same goes for The Lorax. Great message (poor execution) and children can get their plastic happy meal toys right after the film is over, forgetful of the message in the first place. This lethargy also keeps audiences from digging deeper, finding that diamond in the rough, or that hidden gem on Netflix.

If film critics continuously cry that film criticism is dead, then why are so many critics debating the supposed end of a form of traditional film making? American film is growing all directions. Pauline Kael may have had the best way to deal with the artless depression; she learned to enjoy the trash because the good films were so far in between. Then again, I simply cannot drive myself to do the same.

These critics are upset with distribution models that ignore the large base of films that do not reach critics of Denby, O’Hehrir, and Thomson’s age and sensibilities.

Conclusion

Great movies are all around you. They are the films that do not have viral marketing campaigns, trailers playing on every TV channel and before current releases. Great new bands are rarely on the radio. There are wonderful books that are hidden in book stores that have yet to be placed on celebrity booklists. Great art is everywhere, but as Jim Collins says, the good is the enemy of the great, and there is so much more content that is far worse than good.

It is time that we seek out films rather than wait for them to arrive. That is essentially what these veteran film critics fail to understand and must begin to adapt. Hollywood is no stranger to adaptation. Anyone who has seen generations come and go in the film industry should be aware of this. How do you think the industry felt when the Film Brats began to direct personal films and introduce the blockbuster? What about all those German filmmakers arriving stateside after enjoying tremendous success with German Expressionism? How the hell did Hollywood survive after the Paramount Decision? Hollywood is always in crisis, no matter which sector of the entire industry chooses to express their outrage.  

Years ago I wrote how veteran film critics were crying out over the demise of film criticism. Years later we now have film critics crying out of the demise of classical form of filmmaking. The conclusion is the same, adapt or die.

Traditions are changing year by year. The growing size of inexpensive large screen televisions is giving consumers a better reason to stay home, and even better reason to enjoy VOD offerings. The big movies are getting bigger. Just like after the Paramount Decision, studios began to make fewer but larger pictures, and the same is happening today. Movies are getting bigger because Americans are asking for them, just like how they ask for bigger theater seats. Star Wars and Jaws changed the whole system, and now Americans want it more than ever.

Before I forget, here is another quote from O’Hehir:

“Here are the last four best-picture winners at the Oscars: “The Artist,” “The King’s Speech,” “The Hurt Locker” and “Slumdog Millionaire.” How much time have you spent, cumulatively, talking about those movies with your friends?”

This is further proof that O’Hehir is out of touch. Rarely is the Best Picture winner a film that can stand the test of time. That is why we remember Citizen Kane and not the actual 1941 Best Picture winner (whatever that was[2]). Most of my discussions with friends regarding Slumdog, The Artist, and The King’s Speech have been typically about how they won because that category is voted on and dominated by out of touch white men. What about the passionate discussions that occurred in 2011 about The Tree of Life?

Yet, not all is lost. Richard Brody of The New Yorker maintains his sensibilities specifically when reacting towards Denby, O’Hehrir, and Thomson:

The different, and constantly evolving, viewing experiences offered by those possibilities is one of the ongoing joys of movie-watching; discovering and conveying the manifold beauties of the best of them—including, just for starters, such recent releases as “Moonrise Kingdom,” “Margaret,” “The Master,” “To Rome With Love,” “We Have a Pope,” “Damsels in Distress,” “Magic Mike,” “The Deep Blue Sea,” and “Red Hook Summer”—is one of the great privileges of working as a critic. Without such joys, I couldn’t imagine bothering.

At least one old-guard critic is able to see the importance of adapting to and discovering new forms of experience.

I hope that I can remember this essay that I have written when I am older, and to remind myself of the necessities in continuously adapting as time goes on. Adaptation does not mean tossing out the old for the new; it means using new information and synthesizing it with the old to better prepare yourself for the present and the future. Although I have been critical of 3D, I believe I have stated my case in a variety of ways, using specific examples and academic sources. Even then, I am willing to point out impressive attempts such as Hugo. Similar to how Denby chooses to rage against Chaos Cinema, he does not consider how it can augment a reality that is appears as if it is under constant paranoia, but it depends on how a filmmaker or artist picks up this tool. The same goes for the critics at hand, they fail to see how new traditions do have something offer, studios will adapt, filmmakers will adapt, even if Hollywood tends to be the last know. It is important that film critics understand that nothing ever stays the same and those who do not adapt tend to flail hopelessly when they drift out to sea.


[1] Chaos Cinema, with its fast cutting and special disunity, can be attributed to the increased fear and paranoia of the Post-9/11 America. The Bourne Series is a prime example.

[2] It was How Green Was My Valley.

 

About the Author

Aaron Weiss founded CinemaFunk in September 2009. He recieved his Master's in Cinema Studies from the Savannah College of Art and Design. He currently works as a web developer in the Tampa Bay Area. 
 

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