With a dearth of scripted television, the only respite from the onslaught of reality programming are the obituaries of actors who passed away years ago. In its obituary of Gregory Peck, who passed away in 2003, The New York Times recounted a 1989 speech in which Peck warned of the perils of centralized media ownership. Accepting a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute 19 years ago, Peck observed:
If these Mount Everests of the financial world are going to labor and bring forth still more pictures with people being blown to bits with bazookas and automatic assault rifles with no gory detail left unexploited, if they are going to encourage anxious, ambitious actors, directors, writers and producers to continue their assault on the English language by reducing the vocabularies of their characters to half a dozen words, with one colorful but overused Anglo-Saxon verb and one unbeautiful Anglo-Saxon noun covering just about every situation, then I would like to suggest that they stop and think about this: making millions is not the whole ball game, fellows. Pride of workmanship is worth more. Artistry is worth more.
Apparently, Peck was no fan of the Die Hard trilogy. Now, separate and apart from his fears of media concentration, does Peck make a more general point? Are the mind-numbingly formulaic action flicks with their half-baked quips transforming the movie-going public into vile vulgarians? Is Hollywood devilishly lowering our standards year by year so that we come to expect less and less from their products? [An aside: Have you noticed how vulgar teen comedies have become in the last decade? Compare 1980s flicks like The Breakfast Club to more recent releases, like the Scary Movie flicks and Not Another Teen Movie, both of which feature almost astonishing levels of profanity and innuendo. This is evolution?]
Now compare Peck's rhetoric to the acerbic statements of filmmaker Tim McCann, whose scathing diagnosis of Hollywood (originally published in Film Threat) made the rounds on these, our Internets, several years ago and near the time of Peck's death:
There will never be absolute integrity in the [film] business. But never before has there been such a rash of s--t films, and a void of meaningful American work, that has seen the theatre screen, as there has been over the last ten years. At least when your kid is sent to school and fed McDonald's or whatever sugar water and fried lard they serve him at lunch, you know the government has issued limits on the amount of feces that is allowable in his food. Using that as a parallel, there are no equivalent limits for the cultural s--t we are being poisoned with these days. Considering how many brilliant and talented people there are in this country, it's a scandal.
There have, of course, always been bad movies, but they have become the rule, rather than the exception to the rule. For every stellar film, like 2006's Once, 2004's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, 2000's Requiem for a Dream, and High Fidelity, we must suffer through a dozen or so variations of The Runaway Bride or You've Got Mail, both of which were recooked versions of Pretty Woman and Sleepless in Seattle, respectively. Who is to blame? Are the actors and directors simply unable to tell that a project is awful at the script stage, or do they not care in the least so long as the paycheck arrives? The Hollywood purveyors of such nonsense, or the movie-going public which shells out the cash for movie tickets and DVDs?
No doubt since the 1970's there has been an increase in the amount of violence, explicit detail of violence, coarsening of language in movies. But is it true that there is a greater proportion of "bad" movies being made now than in yesteryear? Not having been alive to see the change of picture at the local cinema in the 30's and 40's, it's impossible to know what the quality of movies actually was when only certain movies have withstood the test of time.
Just as Americans tend to believe foreign film is inherently superior, it ignores the fact that a lot of what is produced overseas doesn't reach our shores but the better movies DO receive distribution in the states, so could it be regarding the narrative quality of films past and present.
The ratings system has certainly removed the concept that every movie was intended for anyone who could afford the cost of a ticket. Whether culture shifted due to the movies, or whether movies grew to reflect that culture is a chicken and the egg argument. Can we not turn to books, magazines, etc... that defied the moral arbiters of their times to see what Americans were actually saying and thinking?
That's not an argument for the value of the current trend in torture-porn in horror film, or for anything produced by the Wayans. However, it doesn't always seem fit to blame studios. Entertainment is consumed, and what is successful gets imitated or earns a sequel. Audiences do, in fact, love movies like "The Runaway Bride" and believe that's a good way to spend their money on a Saturday night. Which breeds the next "Notting Hill", etc...
Nor should you point to just movies alone. How many millions watched "Everybody Loves Raymond" each week to see the haggard husband get henpecked by wife and mother? Which Danielle Steel or Nora Roberts book is currently dominating the sales charts?
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