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The Very Last Picture Show

Once again the movie industry is throwing itself a lavish party, one in a series of them, even though there is surprisingly little to celebrate. Movie attendance in 2011 hit a fifteen year low and while the industry isn't doing as badly as its counterparts in the music industry, beneath the greasepaint and glamor, it is panicking every bit as badly.

There's still plenty of money to be made, but the industry has the clear sense that it has lost its audience. And it has.

The movie industry began, as so much else, with the mass production of theatrical entertainment from classical drama to low vaudeville spectacle. Public entertainment no longer had to be an in-person show repeated anew each time and in each place, now everyone across the nation and across the world could hear the same soliloquy, see the same pratfall and thrill to adventures that could not be performed on stage.

For all the technology, the movie took American culture and used film to reproduce it in palatable form to large audiences. Like mass produced suits, the cinema took a unique experience and turned it into a universal one. But selling films was much trickier than selling suits and involved far more risks and while the analogy seems distant, fashion and entertainment have a great deal in common.

When you sell wares that depend on the public taste, you have to try and manipulate that taste while at the same trying to get out in front of it. Both fashion and entertainment frantically chase trends and leap on anything that smacks of youth, while trying to fuse it with their own dated tastes, constantly reviving and retrofitting the old to make it new again. At its worst both end up selling a product with no content, a product that is all hype, but is not remotely wearable or viewable.

While Hollywood has often been rightly blamed for corrupting national morals, it's more accurate to say that it was actually rushing to get out in front of whatever trend it had spotted among the youth market and to desperately claim ownership of it. Underneath the calculatedly transgressive image is a basically conservative industry, which but for its drugs and its eagerness to gamble on trends would be far more staid than it is.

The old moguls whose names are still attached to a number of the studios were not creative men, they were businessmen in a business they did not properly know how to control. Instead they bet on talent, often hoping that bringing together celebrated foreign directors, actors and actresses from their stable, and lowly writers would give them a hit. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't. At its best, stories ended up being told that helped define an era. American stories that spoke to people.

That era is mostly gone. While Hollywood was always fairly liberal, as the theater tends to be, liberals had not yet cut their ties with the country. They did not live so fundamentally differently that they were unable to make compelling stories that spoke to them and to their audiences. But it is hard to make movies for a people from another culture. The movies that speak to liberals translate badly to ordinary Americans.

It isn't only a matter of politics, it comes down to culture. With the recession, the industry has tossed out a number of movies which has people dealing with economic troubles. Almost all of them have failed badly. The latest entry, Wanderlust, has already bombed on its opening. To understand why you need only consider the premise, which is that an upscale Manhattan couple loses their jobs and moves to a commune. No one outside Hollywood or Manhattan really needed to be told why this premise would play badly in a country that has fallen on hard times.

The easiest way to bypass the culture clash is to turn out action movies that are all sound and fury. The blockbuster has evolved or devolved into a special effects spectacle with completely disposable characters and increasingly even actors. It is a form of entertainment that can be enjoyed even without the ability to understand a single word. Which makes it a portable commodity that can play anywhere from Beijing to to Bahrain to Boston.

Hollywood can no longer communicate with audiences, but when it spends enough money or comes up with a clever enough gimmick, it can still briefly dazzle them. But the entertainment being created is completely disposable and forgettable. Cinematic amusement park rides can bring big paydays or big losses, but they don't build loyalty or any meaningful associations. The experiences that earlier generations had in movie theaters cannot be reproduced, because the culture on both sides of the screen has changed.

If the industry wonders why going to movies no longer seems to be very important to people, that would be because movies have become completely disposable. There was a time when movies held a status similar to the theater. The more quickly they raced to the bottom, the less reason audiences had to hold them in esteem.

There are no movies being made that you would dress up for. The very idea is ridiculous. Nor is the theater designed to be anything other than a place to be bombarded by massive amounts of sound and light. It's an experience in the same way that riding a roller coaster is an experience, it just isn't one that stays with you any longer than it takes for the coaster to stop.

The industry treats Americans like foreigners, shoveling out massive 300 million dollar spectacles while reserving its lower budgeted serious films for the subjects dearer to its heart. The spectacles help cover the cost of the smaller films and maintain a moviegoing culture, which mostly consists of a small crowd that shares the lifestyles and politics of the filmmakers.

This version of high and low culture speaks to the ghettoization of the industry which sighing deeply shovels out 88 minutes of explosions for the peasantry, while speaking earnestly to the people who share its values. The Oscars are a time to reward the latter, which is why directors and producers of popular movies generally need not apply. This is a time for elites to pat each other on the back for being artistic, and yet this artistry is equally forgettable.

Few people can name the best picture winners from more than a year or two ago. And that even includes people in the industry. Naming the nominees is a laborious task. Watching them a year or two later is rarely done, because for all their "merit", they are not very good movies. Having seen them once, there is no real reason to watch them again.

Twenty years from now, how many people will be watching Slumdog Millionaire, Frost/Nixon, Milk, The Reader or The Curious Case of Benjamin Button? For that matter how many people would watch them now? If you are wondering what that list is, it's the Best Picture nominees from 2008. The nominees from this year will be equally obscure a few years from now.

The cultural division has devalued both high brow and low brow offerings, removing their substance and worth, and turning out a sub-par product that does not connect to audiences at either end.

The Oscars are another reminder that we don't live the same way. Nor are we expected to. In a process that began early on and is quickly approaching its apex, the industry itself has become a free source of entertainment. Readers and viewers consume material about Jennifer Aniston, they just don't spend the money to see her movie. The movie industry is just a subset of popular culture which is about personalities, where ordinary people and stars both play their roles in an unreal reality.

Hollywood mass produced theatrical entertainment, using technology to distribute prints of the same edited together performance in theaters across the country. But the videotape made it possible to distribute copies of that same performance in the home. Now even a physical medium isn't needed when a movie can be streamed directly to the viewer on a computer or a tablet.

All that's missing is the theatrical experience and so theater owners have spent a fortune on everything from menu options to digital picture, audio and various form of 3D. But the theatrical venue was an outgrowth of family entertainment. The decline of the family and of leisure time has meant a decline in a form of entertainment that has at any rate become disposable.

Families still go to the movies and without them the industry would be in far worse shape, but the meaning of the theatrical experience has fragmented on both ends of the culture. A changing nation that no longer lives the same way has less room in their schedules and wallets for the movie theater. The moviegoing experience once meant something, now it means nothing and it is too late to even begin to reclaim that experience for a generation for whom the only appeal of the movie theater is it its scale.

The movie theater isn't dead, but it is increasingly irrelevant as a storytelling medium. After generations of chasing trends, the industry has been permanently left behind.


  1. The last movie I saw was Tin-Tin. While it was fun and well-executed, the 3D effects coupled with the IMAX theater left me with a crippling sudden migraine that incapacitated me so badly, I was almost unable to drive home for the waves of nausea and intestinal agony. The whole movie experience is such a wretched endeavor, that spending the 16 bucks to see it was a waste of money and time. Never again.
    You used to be able to go to a theater, it would be a hushed, almost reverential place, dark and filled with anticipation. There were manners you had to demonstrate in the theater and you didn't get the idiot noise you are now bombarded with when you go to today's boilerplate multi-plex.
    After this experience, I have sworn off going out to movies. The migraine I received as a result of the 3D and sound lasted from 4 pm til after midnight. Nothing I took helped. Never again.

  2. @Sultan,

    "The artist" is a very pleasant movie to watch.
    Friendly yours,


  3. there are multiple permutations of perception, quality, beauty, and intellect.

  4. Surprisingly, I've seen several good movies from the Far East. One is called "Castaway to the Moon", and the other is "Travelers and Magicians". As far as Hollywood, I am sure that they will make a descent movie every once in a while, but I've grown too old to want to sit in uncomfortable surroundings just to watch it early. There are enough movies to watch on cable or through Netflix, and I can simply wait until it comes to these venues.

  5. It is not that Hollywood can't communicate with America. It is that Hollywood hates America, and would not communicate with it if you stuck a gun to its head.

    The central impulse behind modern "progressiveism" is oikophobia. And Hollywood is dying from it.

  6. Infidel Castro28/2/12

    Try the Iranian movie that won the oscar for best foreign language film, A Separation. It's mind-blowing.

  7. Mr Greenfield, I am, again, amazed and appreciative of your wide-ranging interests and your ability to communicate "just what I would have said, if I could".

  8. The family oriented movie with a good plot and a happy ending, sells.. Hollywood elites refuse
    to make such uninteresting movies where darn is the worse word, there are two parents in the family and everyone keeps their clothes on.

  9. I watch movies every night. But I watch them at home on DVD. I have seen more movies in the last five years than I did in the previous forty. I have seen movies that were made last year, and I have seen movies that were made before I was born. I've seen movies made for foreign audiences. There is a revolution in movie viewing going on and if the movie industry is suffering as a consequence, it is hard to understand why.

    True, you can't get me to go to the movie theatres, but not because I wouldn't like the movie experience, it is the audience that sucks. Public life has gone down the toilet. Half the people you seen on the streets shouldn't even be here and I'm sure not going to be stuck in a theatre with them for two hours.

    To be honest, a lot of the stuff on DVD is pretty bad and just makes me glad I didn't take the chance on dragging myself to the theatre to see it. But if the stuff on DVD is bad, I just pop it out and put in another one. Or leave it for later, maybe it gets better. In any case, I think it is wide of the mark to write the movie industry irrelevent as a storytelling medium. If it is has been left behind, it is itself that has left itself behind.

  10. Anonymous28/2/12

    The last film I saw was Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy which I was an enjoyable experience because of the film and the cinema itself: 'The Savoy' added to the experience, a small, renovated 1930s affair where I bought a human portion of popcorn, friendly staff and the other customers were well dressed and didn't smell.

    I am watching the David Lean centenary collection that I have had for some time; one of my all time favourite films "Brief Encounter" is part of the collection. What I like about it is that the characters choose decency above a selfish, emotional act and above all there isn't a sequel - kate b

  11. Before hi-tech, plots were driven by dialogue; i.e., they had to say something intelligible.

  12. I think there is another reason families shy away from the theater. I took my 3 sons to see a movie this past weekend and aside from the cost to see the film ($7.50 in Chicago for a matinee), I spent a bloody fortune on food and drink.

    When the cost of the movie equals the cost of a small soda (which itself costs the theater less that 25 cents to produce), there is no wonder families have turned to home entertainment.

    I have little doubt that instead of using movies to entice people to spend money on food, as opposed to the other way around (and drastically lower the cost of all the extras), we would see an increase in the number of people (and of course, families) in attendance.

  13. "You'd better have something worth saying, if you're going to preach to your fellow man for two hours in the dark." Director Frank Capra, It's a Wonderful Life

  14. Marlene28/2/12

    I love Hollywood films.

  15. Wow... You said everything I've thought about but wasn't articulate enough to express. Thank you! I feel so much better!

    The whole retro thing has me in knots:


  16. Anonymous29/2/12

    Spot on!!

    Now with the decreasing numbers perhaps they will be inspired to find a genre that will be more endearing and enduring instead of appealing to women and kids in decreasing numbers there too.

    GAWDS....I will not let my kids go to the movies at all anymore no matter what is playing. From the type of people that go to the type of movies or where they get you if you are successful in the first two, in the clips for the "coming attractions"
    They just don't get it.

  17. There's nothing like live performances. Take Phantom of the Opera as an example. In the stage show, the audience is actually part of the show. When the auction begins, "perhaps we can frighten away these ghosts of long ago with a little illumination! Gentlemen!"

    Then those first few phantom organ notes as the chandalier rises over your head. That was incredible

    The movie? Beautifully filmed, same wonderful music...but boring.


    I didn't watch the Oscars at all this year since I only saw two movies--Ides of March and Twilight Breaking Dawn.

    Ides of March was a political thriller. Since this was a sneak preview we had to be wanded before we could get in. LOL. A political thriller about government corruption and we get wanded.

    Breaking Dawn--actually better than I thought it would be. But the ending??? They prolonged Bella's eye opening at dawn way too much. Camera slowly zooms in and then pow! Her eyes open like someone flipped the switch on a mechanical doll.

    Unlike the book where she opens her eyes to wonder.

    Totally OT but IMO Stephenie Meyers should have kept some traditional vampire lore.

  18. I still go to cinemas fairly often, though the thrill is definitely gone. I live in Thailand so movies are cheap. Movie stories have become very flat, clunky, always relentlessly mindnumbingly liberal. Ten years ago I recall sitting in a cafe watching the Oscars on TV. Frankly, I can't imagine doing that now. It's amazing to observe the palpable contempt moviemakers and studios express for anyone who doesn't share their asinine Marxist worldview.

    I've taken now to buying DVD sets of popular TV series (Supernatural, Fringe, House). Regrettably much the same leftist worldview often pervades TV series. But it's like there's still a debate going on there. It's not quite the same numbing monoculture as Hollywood, nor is it delivered with such caustic scorn for conservative values.

    Movies aren't such an escape from liberal propaganda any more.


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