Every few weeks, an article entitled “Death of the Cinema” or “Death of Film Criticism” materializes on some film blog. “The cinema is dying! Young people don’t go to the movies! They’re not made like they used to be,” they say. The cinema has been dying for around fifty years now, if you must know. But when we throw out the last couple of dud weeks at the box office, 2012 has been a significantly more successful year in film – both commercially and culturally – than 2011. Some of the people attending them surely must be young. And I don’t quite know what the disillusioned critics mean when they say movies are not made like they used to be.
Sure, annoying cinematic trends like lens flares, cut-happy editors, and the advent of shakicam have become the norm in the modern action movie. But how are the movies so different? Film reflects the time period it was made in, as do all art forms. Thematically, the films may be different. The 60s were bold and somewhat cynical (see The Graduate). The 70s blended realism with operatic stortelling in films like The Godfather, Network, and Apocalypse Now. The 80s increasingly focused on younger audiences, flying off the success of the Lucas/Spielberg blockbuster formula and youth-oriented directors like James Cameron and John Hughes. The 90s were, well, who the hell knows what the 90s were?
The past decade (okay, the past decade decade plus two years) has, in my opinion, expanded the market. More so than ever before, we live in a niche cinema. “Look over there, it’s an action movie! To your right’s a rom-com! Ooh, Oscar bait up ahead, right after we stop at the family flick! And lastly, before we depart, the indie movie buffet…” Escapism, realism, intellectualism, turn-off-your-brain-ism, it’s all there. The modern movie fan has so many choices and so much to experience. What binds together the styles and stories told by David Fincher? Wes Anderson? Christopher Nolan? The Coen brothers? Woody Allen? Martin Scorsese? Not much. And that’s a great thing.
All of these decades have a number of things in common, as do ye olde days of Tinseltown I didn’t list. There were, are, have always been, and will always be two primary goals in making a movie: that everyone will buy a ticket and that someone will like it. That’s it. Critics are rightfully not very concerned with everyone buying a ticket, and it is in all of our natures to care if someone else likes it only if they disagree with us. But there is so much more that is similar. The theatre has always been a place of dreams. Is it not still? Are people not still living and dying, loving and hating? Has the meaning of a smile or a punch or a kiss changed since the invention of film? Does good not still reign supreme over evil in our minds? No matter the story or the medium in which it is told, these things will never change. We can look for them in every film, from Citizen Kane to Twilight, no matter your opinion of either. Even if you think a film has communicated these and other (deeper) themes poorly or without clarity, no film has been made that does not contain a universal theme. I dare you to try to find one.
In many ways cinemania is more common than it ever was. Movie buffs, especially young ones, have more ways to experience cinema new and old than ever before. Blu-Ray, DVD, Netflix, Hulu, iTunes – a few of them are even going to those old theatres too. A brand new generation of moviegoers are exploring Welles and Fellini, discussing film in person and online, and starting up blogs and web sites like this one. The movies are not dying. Far from it. The guard is simply passing from the old to the new.
I can see why critics look at the headlines and the Twitter feeds and disagree with me. Box office scores are predicted, reported, analyzed, and forgotten religiously. Death threats are issued when a Rotten Tomato score, as meaningless as it is, falls below 100%. The Dark Knight Rises infiltrates the Internet Movie Database’s Top 250 in mere days. That doesn’t mean the movies have changed. But how we think about them may have.
In my school hallways, you don’t hear words like “great” or “fantastic” or “moving”. A movie is either “funny” or “awesome”, sometimes with words like “so” and “really” attached to them. The epitome of the modern film standard is The Avengers. I reviewed it when it was first released (in May… what a dinosaur!) here. I greatly enjoyed it. I found it both “funny” and “fun” (a word used when critics don’t want to write “awesome”). I loved Marvel’s characters and praised Joss Whedon’s carefree tone. It is a benign action movie, and a good one. It has absolutely no substance. “The plot is irrelevant,” I wrote. The characters, with the possible exception of Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner and, unfortunately, Clark Gregg’s Phil Coulson, leave the movie in much the same manner as they entered it. The writing is witty but never deep, absurd but never cheesy. The whole package is cleverly designed to induce as many fanboy shrieks as possible, right down to the easter eggs, cameos, and cliffhanger ending teasing the next bajillion Marvel movies. Films like this are not new, nor a product of 21st Century capitalism. The Avengers has appeared in many different forms over the last one hundred years, from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom to Die Hard to every James Bond movie ever made. Formulas and fanbase pandering are not new techniques.
What has changed is how we look at them. Before, we appreciated how fun these films were in a capsule. Sometimes, a really good action movie entered the upper echelon of the cinematic canon, perhaps because they had a unique mystical aura (Raiders of the Lost Ark), a purely mythological world (Star Wars), or were simply directed by Alfred Hitchcock (North by Northwest). These three are great movies. A few of the Bonds are, too, and the rest are good ones. So are Temple of Doom and Die Hard. But they were recognized on a scale of greatness, of not just how thrilling and entertaining they were, but how they were thrilling and entertaining. Read Roger Ebert’s review of The Empire Strikes Back. There’s a genuine sense of wonder befitting the movie, trying to understand why it’s so successful.
The movies are alive and flourishing. They are a gift, both a diversion and a mirror for our society. Each week we are given more treasures to add to an infinite list of films to see and to cherish. To quote one of the more well-known quotes of the 21st Century, “with great power comes great responsibility.” The cinema isn’t dead. I repeat: the cinema isn’t dead. But we need to resurrect how we look at it, to fully appreciate and intensely analyze why a movie is and isn’t successful. More importantly, how a movie effects and changes us as human beings and as a society.
I’ll be darned if you tried to analyze The Avengers after you got out of your showing. It might be worthy of this treatment, it might not. But you, like me, probably didn’t think about it. You, like me, probably turned to your friends, and said “that was awesome.”
“Yeah! Iron Man’s so funny,” someone said.
“I loved that part with the Hulk and the aliens,” someone added.
“Yeah. It was so awesome,” you said.