Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Do movies matter?

By JOHN PODHORETZ The Weekly Standard

Movies make plenty of noise, but don’t speak to us.

When I first became interested in them, in the 1970s, they seemed to matter very much indeed. People with cultural interests talked about movies, argued about them, studied them, loved them, emulated them. Highly regarded directors of foreign films—Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, François Truffaut, Akira Kurosawa, Satyajit Ray—attained an elevated cultural standing in the United States that surpassed the poets and novelists and painters among their own countrymen. And small-scale movies that today would be consigned to art houses and tiny grosses and limited runs—M*A*S*H, American Graffiti, Midnight Cowboy, Shampoo, Network, Coming Home, Kramer vs. Kramer, even The Graduate—not only provoked general conversation among the chattering classes but became major popular successes.

That doesn’t happen any longer. For the most part, moviegoers are uninterested in provocative depictions of the way we live now. Consider The Hurt Locker, which won the 2009 Oscar for best picture. Without question, this piece of highly kinetic and suspenseful filmmaking on the literally incendiary topic of an American bomb-defusing squad in Iraq would have been a huge hit in the 1970s. Even in the mid-1980s, Oliver Stone’s disgustingly pernicious though admittedly exciting Vietnam melodrama Platoon made $138.5 million. But The Hurt Locker earned an astonishingly paltry total of $17 million.

The year that The Hurt Locker won its Oscar saw the release of Avatar, which has grossed more money worldwide than any other movie ever made by a large margin—nearly $3 billion. When the blockbuster age began in the mid-1970s, the movies that exploded into the marketplace the way Avatar did—Jaws and Star Wars, especially—were basically seen by everybody. People stopped going to the beach out of fear the summer that Jaws premiered, and that summer’s cultural echo can be heard 36 years later in every hot-weather story about big fish scoring a human snack, or whenever the Discovery Channel announces it’s time for SHARK WEEK.


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