A Hollywood Riddle: Why do we always think current movies are worse than ever?
In the middle of Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” Owen Wilson’s character finds himself mysteriously transported to the Paris of the 1920s, which is populated with a host of cultural icons, including Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso and Gertrude Stein. The awestruck Wilson tells a lovely Parisian woman how lucky she is to be living amid so much artistic royalty. But she is only impressed when they travel even further back in time, to an 1890s-era salon where they rub elbows with Toulouse-Lautrec and Paul Gauguin.
There’s nothing special about the ’20s, she says with a jaded shrug. The 1890s — ah, that’s when culture was really artistically thrilling. In a nutshell, that’s been our attitude toward most pop culture, especially Hollywood movies. No matter what era we live in, we always see the present as a cultural junkyard, littered with flotsam and dreck that couldn’t hold a candle to the glory days of the past.
That’s why it should have been no surprise to hear DreamwWorks Animation chief Jeffrey Katzenberg say this summer that the movies from the past eight months were “the worst lineup of movies you’ve experienced in the last five years of your life.” He bluntly added: “They suck. It’s unbelievable how bad movies have been.”
While it may have felt a bit jarring to hear one of the industry’s most powerful personages offer such a bleak assessment of today’s films, it turns out that Katzenberg is just the latest in a long line of doomsayers. It was barely a year ago that Joe Queenan took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal to where he argued that “2010 very possibly is the worst year in the history of motion pictures.”
In fact, even if you return to the supposed golden eras of filmmaking, you can find all sorts of influential critics and industry notables striking an equally gloomy note. In 1980, Pauline Kael bemoaned the state of filmmaking in Hollywood in a New Yorker essay titled “Why Are Movies So Bad?” Even though in 1979, the year before Kael penned her piece, Hollywood had produced such films as “Apocalypse Now,” “Kramer vs. Kramer,” “Manhattan,” “Being There,” “All That Jazz,” “Norma Rae” and “The China Syndrome,” she wrote: “The movies have been so rank the last couple of years that when I see people lining up to buy tickets I sometimes think that the movies aren’t drawing an audience — they’re inheriting an audience.”
In the early 1950s, the fabled producer David O. Selznick was just as dispirited about Hollywood’s track record, saying “Thirty years — and one good movie in three years is the record.” In January 1945, looking back at the previous year’s releases, the noted critic James Agee said it had been “a sorry year” for filmmaking, even though 1944 had produced such classics films as “Laura,” “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek,” “Double Indemnity,” “To Have and Have Not” and “Going My Way.”
As far back as 1928, when Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Josef von Sternberg were at the height of their powers, the Film Spectator’s Conrad Nagel sounded like he’d just emerged from a 2011 multiplex, writing: “Stories have become such familiar formulas and casts so stereotyped that a picture-wise audience can tell what will happen after seeing just the first reel of the average production.”
So why is everyone always so despondent about the movies? One reason is cultural nostalgia, a longing for a time of sturdier values that is hardly limited to the realm of film. The past always looks rosier than the present, which is why generations of politicians have promised to return voters to a simpler, gentler time when it was, to use Ronald Reagan’s artful phrase, morning in America again. Although it would be hard to imagine a time when we had a lower opinion of our political system’s ability to solve the country’s problems, when H.L. Mencken returned from the 1924 Republican National Convention he was appalled by the “vulgarity, imbecility and pathological stupidity” of the politicians on view, especially when he compared them with the “urbane and civilized” politicians of the past.
In fact, the more you think about it, movies aren’t the only objects of cultural nostalgia. Broadway has never been more commercially successful, but it would be hard to find a theater critic who would claim that Broadway’s current assembly line of glitzy remakes and revivals could hold a candle to the mid-20th century glories of Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill. Ditto for pop music, which most critics would say is at a low ebb of artistic innovation today, especially compared to the burst of creativity and experimentation that the medium enjoyed first in the 1960s and then again in the late 1970s and early 1990s.
Age is a big factor. I have a young teenager in my house, and he likes modern-day movies, music and TV shows just fine. Most of the people who think movies are worse than ever are, ahem, old — at least old enough to remember exactly when movies felt special, which is usually when they were young themselves. Everyone I’ve quoted grousing about the movies was middle-aged when they were grousing. We have a special emotional bond with the cultural artifacts of our youth, which is probably why I can still remember the lyrics to every song, good or bad, that was on the Top 40 when I was in seventh grade.
“It’s hard to break out of the nostalgia we have for the movies of our youth, probably because the movies that feel the most fresh and special are the ones you saw when you first learned to love movies,” admits Peter Rainer, the film critic for the Christian Science Monitor. “Intellectually, you grow out of it, but not emotionally. I grew up seeing crummy Hollywood movies from the early 1960s, so I have to admit it — I still like ‘Cleopatra.’ ”
Ask baseball fans to name their favorite player of all time and they’ll inevitably choose someone from their youth. Albert Pujols and C.C. Sabathia may be rolling up incredible career statistics, but would anyone over 40 pick them over Willie Mays or Sandy Koufax? I doubt it. The same logic applies for movies. Film junkies love to point to 1939 or 1969 and marvel at the amazing glut of dazzling films. It’s true. Those were great years for movies. Of course, no one mentions all the dreck, conveniently forgetting that in 1969, “The Love Bug” was a bigger hit than “Easy Rider.”
In pop culture, we have a selective collective memory, savoring the gems, forgetting the junk. As we get older, we grow fonder of the artistic joys of our youth. So maybe the movies are worse than ever, but I’m betting that it won’t be too many years long before some grumpy critic, faced with another horrifying assemblage of reboots and super-hero extravaganzas, comes to the conclusion that 2011 wasn’t such a bad year at all.
— Patrick Goldstein
Photo: Daniel Craig, left, with director Jon Favreau on the set of "Cowboys & Aliens." Credit: Zade Rosenthal / Universal Pictures / Associated Press