Film Fund-amentals: Are Movies Relevant

Movies are irrelevant. It’s official. The New York Times says so.

Well, not exactly. But a recent article plays with the idea. For more than a year, countless bloggers (myself included) have been saying the same thing. The Times is a bit late to the party and seems determined to sneak in through the back door, basing part of their thinking on the Academy’s decision to have Seth MacFarlane as the next Oscar host. Note to The Times: the choice of MacFarlane actually makes more sense than the David Letterman fiasco back in 1995. At least MacFarlane’s movie made money (unlike the Letterman production of Cabin Boy).

But it is a valid question for reasons The Times article barely mentions. Excuse me as I make an outrageously broad generalization, but most modern movies are pretty much meaningless to most people these days. Even for folks who are major film goers.  Not just mindless (though most movies are). Actually, a good solid mindless movie can sometimes have its own weird virtue. But I mean truly, profoundly, and deeply meaningless. As in, they don’t connect at any level with the audience.

The Times article focuses on the Academy Awards presentation, which helps to reinforce the half-bogus youth versus age dichotomy. In reality, the Academy Award show has its own unique problems caused by a rather large 2×4 jammed in a part of their anatomy. Since I am neither a doctor nor a carpenter, I’m not equipped to deal with this issue.

I have previously dealt with some aspects of other more relevant concerns. Specifically the radical shift current taking place in audience demographics and the massive dead-end of Hollywood’s obsession with recycling old film ideas. But the core problems go even deeper.

For example, there is the question of the division between the culture and society represented in the movies and the real culture and society of the audience. There is an old misconception that movies merely reflect their host society. Hog wash! At their best, movies can transfer, translate (so to speak), re-frame and redefine the society. But they do not simply, naïvely reflect it. Sometimes this process has a meaningful relationship to the society. Other times, it is simply baffling (for example, the old Doris Day movies).

A case in point is the Japanese cinema of the 1930s. To a surprising degree, the Japanese cinema of that period had a striking sense of humanitarian value and emotional yearning. Ironically, this was during the exact time that Japanese society was deep into its extreme militaristic and expansionist drive as the conquest of China and the Pacific was under way. None of this is reflected in these movies.

Then you had the ironic state of the Italian Fascist cinema. Mussolini desperately wanted to produce Fascist epics that would rival the movies of Nazi Germany. However most of the directors, writers, and actors in the Fascist Italian film industry were either secret members of the Italian Communist Party or, at the very least, close friends of people in the Party. There was simply no way that the Italians were going to make a Fascist masterpiece. Il Duce finally gave up and ordered the filmmakers to focus on romantic comedies and soap opera productions. The upside was that some of these filmmakers had the time to privately work on ideas that resulted in the creation of Italian Neorealism, which is why the movement took off before Mussolini was even dead.

In its own way, the same is true in American movies. At best, most American movies only have a passing relationship to society. These days, they largely don’t. A case in point: The Dark Knight Rises. I found the movie’s obvious comparison of the Occupy Wall Street movement to the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution to be a bit of a hoot. But the real laugh riot is when Bruce Wayne loses his billion dollar business and is reduced to the lowly status of becoming a mere millionaire. Oh horrors!

Director Christopher Nolan thought he was doing social commentary. I saw it as a Monty Python gag that needed livelier direction. I also have the strange impression that Nolan thought he was connecting with the audience. But he wasn’t. I think this failure to connect was part of the reason why The Dark Knight Rises had a relatively low rate of repeat viewers. The movie simply wasn’t grabbing folks at the kind of emotional level achieved by the previous film in the series (the Joker really connects big time with the audience which is, admittedly, a scary thought).

But this problem is even deeper than any one movie. It is very hard to look at most mainstream Hollywood films and not feel as if we are watching a cinema of zombies. Strange, hungry, soulless creatures lumbering about in tired predictable ways, mechanically going through the motion of some kind of half forgotten activity that is completely devoid of any connection to either reality or the audience. At best, many movies play like garbled messages from some sort of alternative universe. But mostly, they are simple bits of gibberish.

The reasons for this are really quite straightforward. Most of modern Hollywood is part of a corporate culture that has become increasingly removed from society and the larger culture in which they operate. The executives increasingly live and work within extremely narrow circles and often have very limited direct contact with the rest of the human race (except for their kids’ nannies). Further, they truly believe they can create their own reality through media manipulation and advertising. Then, they go a step further and start believing their own ink.

To be honest, not everyone in Hollywood is like this. But these folks are viewed as oddballs. Often, they don’t even live any near Los Angeles.

As for the rest, some type of intervention will be needed. Maybe even a 12 step program. I’m still working on the details. The pledge alone is going to be a real bear to write.