Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Quality of Movies These Days

Since the advent of the “blockbuster” film (usually dated to 1975, with the release of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws), it has often been lamented that “movies aren’t what they used to be.” 

Are recent Hollywood movies of less quality than movies of the “golden age”, as many believe? Or is this a bias resulting from the fact that, as a rule, movie-goers are exposed only to the very good or excellent films of the black-and-white era, while the average or poor films from contemporary times are not yet forgotten, and thus, seem the rule rather than the exception? 

I think there is a great deal to be said for the latter view.

"I am mad north-north-west."

As a cinephile who loves black-and-white movies but also has seen the virtues of the ultramodern digital photoplay, my observation is that the standard Hollywood film of today is qualitatively different from what prevailed during the first three decades of the sound-film (I will admit that my exposure to silent pictures is very delimited). 

Using the term “quality” in a neutral and academic sense, just how are Hollywood movies today different from the black-and-white era? 

Back then, a great number of movies (from southern California) were musicals or Westerns

Very few of either genre are produced today, even though musicals at least, when presented onstage, remain very popular. In spite of the phenomenal success of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, or the more recent reinterpretation of the Wizard of Oz, Wicked, neither of these productions have as yet been adapted into cinematic musicals (though a direct-to-video Cats was produced in 1998, apparently).  

Westerns are even rarer these days, though they remained popular right up until the 1960s, on the big-screen and on the boob-tube as well. The Bonanza program, for example, ran from 1959 to 1973, while Gunsmoke had the record for the longest-running primetime American TV series, lasting from 1955 to ’75, until it was overtaken a few years ago by the Simpsons

Conversely, genres which are commonplace today – such as the science-fiction or “action” film – were uncommon or unknown when most films were produced in black-and-white. Why is this the case? 

During the early decades of commercial sound-film, California film-studios sought to produce movies that would appeal to the largest possible audience. This meant, in practice, that film-production was biassed toward the standard, melodramatic, pseudo-romantic style of narrative, adopted from the novel and stage-play. 

From 1930, when the first Oscar for best picture was awarded to a sound film (All Quiet on the Western Front), to 1950, all the Best Pictures were films based on novels, short-stories and stage-plays (except in 1944, when the Bing Crosby musical-comedy Going My Way took the trophy). The majority of the best-picture nominees from this period were also based on books and the theatre, and this continued well into the 1960s. 

The photoplay form itself transcended the written word and the theatre, but especially during the first decade of the soundtrack, when filmmaking had to be sequestered upon enormous sound-stages (to prevent ambient sound — as well as the noise of the camera itself — from drowning out dialogue), stage-professionals were ideally suited to bringing the new medium to life. 

Thus, Hollywood movies of the golden age are different from those of today, with respect not only to their overall schemata and aesthetic, but also their themes and subject-matter. 

With the advance of movie technology, and the challenge of television to movies as the dominant audile-video medium, movies have undergone a qualitative evolution. 

It isn’t that the content of the blockbuster is at all novel. 

To the contrary, most find their themes, characters and even their plotlines, in the “genre” and “B”-movies of the black-and-white era. This is key. 

Filmmakers have always produced the sort of “genre” pictures that are characteristic of the blockbuster. 

But whereas decades ago, these films were invariably produced with a fraction of the budgets that were devoted to the big Hollywood melodramas or musicals, now science-fiction, horror, and “action” films are budgeted for the tens and hundreds of millions of dollars, while dramatic and melodramatic films are left to the “independents” (once the domain of drive-in shlock) or “prestige” films that are produced by a major studio at the behest of an actor or director with a proven box-office track record. 

The change came not because movie companies are today more interested in money than art, than they were decades ago. Film companies have always been profit-hungry concerns. 

The difference is, of course, that it is only genre pictures – given enough effects and hoopla to become blockbusters – that attract an audience large enough to be spectacularly profitable. 

The change is reflected in the winners of the best-picture Oscars, since the 1970s. Several winners have been based on novels (none upon stage-plays, however, except for Driving Miss Daisy, 1989), but most were original screenplays. 

Even "prestige" contemporary motion pictures are biassed away from the novel and the stage, for material that is conceived originally for the screen. 

It is true, as well, that several of the novels that were the basis for best-picture winners during recent decades, were themselves of the “genre” type (such as Silence of the Lambs, the 1992 winner based on one of a detective series about a female FBI agent, and even The Godfather was viewed as a pseudo-genre “page-turner” when originally published in 1969). 

Above: the Hollywood film industry.

And while the screen-adaptations of novels and plays during the golden age were biassed toward the hoary classics, more recent Academy Award movies based on novels, more or less have become the definitive version of the story, superseding their literary sources. 

How many know, for example, that the 1967 best picture winner, In The Heat of the Night, was originally published in novel form? Certainly, the Godfather movies have superseded the original novel, and even Schindler’s Ark, the acclaimed novel that became the basis for the 1993 best picture winner (directed by Spielberg), was republished as Schindler’s List, to conform to the movie’s title. 

In a real way, thus, cinema has become the “literature” of the electronic age.

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