Raiders of the Lost Art
At Oscar time this past spring, I wrote a doom-laden essay arguing that we were living through the End of the Movies — not the end of moviemaking, but the end of the era when theatrical cinema could be considered the central form of American popular art. Covid had driven box office totals to new lows, yielding a slate of best picture nominees that few Americans had seen in theaters. But the pandemic was just delivering a coup de grâce, a final shove to an art form that had already stumbled off its pedestal.
When you make that kind of sweeping statement, your hopes thereafter are divided: As a pundit, you look for evidence of vindication, but as a movie lover, you hope to be proved wrong.
For part of 2022, the spring and summer, it seemed like Hollywood was out to satisfy my movie fandom and undermine my prophecy. Yes, the top of the box office rankings was still dominated by the superhero franchises that have done so much to run the classic Hollywood genres out of business or kick them over to TV. But some of those traditional genres were back as well, doing decent business — or gangbusters business, in the case of “Top Gun: Maverick,” the highest-grossing film of the year.
The list of respectable box office performers included “Elvis” (a Baz Luhrmann musical biopic), “The Lost City” (an adventure-comedy in the style of “Romancing the Stone”), “Where the Crawdads Sing” (a literary tear-jerker adaptation) and “Everything Everywhere All at Once” (an unclassifiable immigrant family drama set inside the multiverse). “The Northman,” my pick for the most original movie of the year, wasn’t a big hit, but some people saw it; it existed. Jordan Peele’s “Nope” earned justifiably mixed reactions but still raked in over $100 million domestically. And late summer’s “Bullet Train” did decent business as an attempted throwback to both Guy Ritchie’s laddish action vehicles and the vehicular spectacles of the “Speed” era.
I’m not saying this was a great run of movies, but there was some creativity here, some entertainment value, some decent box office — all enough to evoke, in flashes, a normal cinematic summer in the 1990s.
But that was summer. Now, in fall and winter, we’ve returned to the movie apocalypse.
My colleague Brooks Barnes wrote last week on the “carnage” at the art house, the terrible box office showings for so many of the autumn’s spate of Oscar hopefuls: From the Cate Blanchett showcase “Tár” to Steven Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical “The Fabelmans,” from David O. Russell’s “Amsterdam” to James Gray’s “Armageddon Time” to “She Said,” about my colleagues’ Harvey Weinstein investigation. James Cameron’s “Avatar” sequel is sweeping in to fill theaters over Christmas — and, judging by early reviews, to help justify their continued existence. But barring an unexpectedly strong performance from the few remaining prestige releases — like Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon,” which received something of a rough reception at its initial screening — we could be looking at a fall without an honest-to-God Oscar-bait hit.
A theme in Barnes’s piece is that the quality of the films is not the issue, because “reviews have been exceptional.” And I’m confident that there are some structural explanations for the disastrous autumn: the expectations of home viewing set during Covid, the closure of some art-house theaters, plus the fact that the audience for grown-up dramas is also an audience (older, liberal) more likely to avoid hanging out in crowded theaters in the winter illness season.
But at the same time, I agree with the film scholar Barnes quotes who notes the conspicuous dearth of simple entertainment value in the fall’s offerings. I really liked “The Fabelmans,” but do filmgoers want not one but three movies — Spielberg’s, Gray’s and the Sam Mendes flop “Empire of Light” — in which prominent directors indulge in semi-autobiographical longueurs? “Tár” has brilliance, but it’s the definition of a challenging movie to absorb. “She Said” is a newspaper procedural that keeps its famous villain offstage almost throughout; here’s how my colleague Alexis Soloski described its style:
This was a positive review. Does it make you want to rush out to the theater?
The best pieces written on the autumn of apocalypse elaborate on this theme. Richard Rushfield, the longtime Hollywood watcher, points out that there was never some halcyon day when high-minded movies “speaking in low tones” were guaranteed an audience. Instead, the small-budget movies that broke out big were usually ruthlessly entertaining: “Art house always worked when the genre was infused with a fresh, brash D.I.Y. energy,” he writes. “‘Little Miss Sunshine’ is a road trip comedy — a genre that thrived for years at Sundance. ‘Sex, Lies and Videotape’ is a great noir thriller. ‘Reservoir Dogs’ is a tribute to genre films.”
Then Noah Millman, a writer and producer who’s getting ready to direct his first feature film, has a realistic comparison between the well-reviewed movies of 2022 and the movies-for-grown-ups of the not-so-distant cinematic past:
“Tootsie”is a good example to linger on, because it’s a case of a movie committed absolutely to being crowd-pleasing — you will laugh, you will, if Dustin Hoffman, Bill Murray and Teri Garr have to come through the screen to make it happen —that sacrifices nothing of its comedic greatness in the act of pandering to the audience. This fall, I’ve had that kind of experience only once in a movie theater: during the first hour of “The Menu,” a blackhearted horror-comedy about a celebrity chef, played by Ralph Fiennes, and his restaurant’s final dinner service. The quality drops off a bit in the second half, but for a while it reminds you what it’s like to be unapologetically entertained.
As Millman notes, it wasn’t so long ago — just a few years — that Hollywood still delivered enough of that entertainment to fill theaters and fill up its lists of best picture nominees with (at least modest) hits. And the danger at present is probably not that Covid and streaming have made this commercially impossible to do again. Rather, it’s a problem of skill and imagination where, as an art form goes into eclipse, what used to come easily becomes ever more difficult, not because the potential audience isn’t there, but because the system is slowly forgetting how to do it.
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This Week in Decadence and Anti-Decadence
“When you write about cultural stagnation, you are highly critical of your own generation, the baby boomers and particularly the hippie subculture. How did you feel about these movements at the time?
My freshman roommate was the biggest stoner on campus, and we got along fine! In broader life, the hippies were a target of opportunity as they obviously overdid the ‘tune in, drop out’ rejection of doing anything useful. But … it isn’t really a subculture, hippies or anyone else, that I’m critical of, though. It’s the mainstream, which took a bad turn based on virtue signaling, and which worked hard at it. More than half of my classmates went on to become lawyers. Instead of inventing new things to build, they invented new ways to keep people from building things. A bohemian subculture by contrast is relatively benign.
But you need to do a psychological study of the postures of the greatest, silent and boomer generations to come up with a workable theory [of stagnation], I think. To some extent the sixties and seventies were a perfect storm of all the typical causes of social degeneration at once.
Our current technological level is quite capable of providing a comfortable life for everyone on Earth, and it’s well on its way to doing it. The science we will have in another several decades to a century, which I call the second atomic age, will compare to ours as ours does to preindustrial times. With it, we will be capable of doing truly great things, such as becoming an interplanetary species and not hovering on the brink of extinction with each passing asteroid.”
— J. Storrs Hall, interviewed by Tamara Winter, from Works in Progress (Oct. 12)