I’ve made a lot of controversial statements in articles and comments published here at Associated Content. The comments left on several of my own articles can attest to that. But I think that what I am about to write will probably go down in history as the least controversial and most agreed-upon thing I may ever write.
It is much easier to make a medicore movie than to make a great movie.
If all writing-even article writing and journalism-is built upon conflict of one sort or another, what do I hope to gain by making such a vanilla-cream statement? Because of my next opinion, which no doubt will be considered at least slightly more controversial.
I believe there is an unspoken, probably even subconscious, agreement in Hollywood to lower the quality of movies made easily available to the majority of Americans so that moviemakers no longer have to make truly great films in order for them to be considered great films. I’m talking about lowering the standard here, people, and I for one think it’s a serious problem. Serious, at least, for those of us who truly love the movies.
Quality in art, as in everything else, is relative. It is much easier to impress a child than an adult because an adult has more experience. And experience is nothing more than a collection of events to be used in relative judgment against each other. For instance, if all you were given to eat was grass and you were suddenly given broccoli, you’d probably think broccoli was the tastiest food ever made. But most of us don’t think that, do we? Because we’re comparing broccoli to a whole host of other foods. Similarly, most of us wouldn’t think Plan Nine from Outer Space is a great science fiction movie because we’ve seen so many other movies to which it unfavorably compares. On the other hand, if you could go back in time and show Plan Nine from Outer Space to an audience in the early part of the last century, we’d probably be talking about it now in the same way we talk about Birth of a Nation, minus all the racial overtones.
Remember when I said it isn’t easy to make a great movie? Well, it’s getting easier. And in about fifty years time, I imagine it will be much, much easier. I also believe that the greatest movie made in fifty years time wouldn’t rank in any of those AFI 100 Best Lists that come out every year or so now. Why is it getting easier to make a great movie?
Because audiences today are more accepting of mediocrity as great. Now don’t get all bent out of shape, I’m not blaming audiences. I’m not suggesting audiences have gotten dumber or have less taste. Remember, my argument is that all taste is relative. You can’t blame somebody for thinking Plan Nine from Outer Space is a great science fiction movie if they’ve never seen 2001 or Alien or Star Wars or any other sci-fi flick. But that is exactly what is happening now.
The relative comparison of today’s movies are being made against today’s movies more and more. Because older movies aren’t easily available on TV most of them go unseen. They aren’t carried in video stores and only the most popular older movies are even carried by Netflix. If you’ve never seen a screwball comedy from the 1930s, you can’t possibly know that romantic comedies can be exponentially funnier than Nora Ephron movies or Sandra Bullock movies. Today’s audiences honestly think that romantic comedies are funny because they haven’t been exposed to what really funny romantic comedies can be. (Next time you see the names William Powell and Myrna Loy in a movie showing on TCM, watch it and you’ll understand what I’m talking about.)
Slowly, with each passing year, the line is raised over how far back the major cable networks are willing to go in order to show movies. When I was growing in the 70s, I could see movies from the 30s practically every night and we only had a few channels. Today there are over 100 networks and I swear to God above during any given month you can’t find more than one movie made before 1980, and what’s worse it seems like they have a list of about twenty movies that they just show continuously. I would love for someone to do a little research and find out how just how many times Silence of the Lambs has aired on A&E and Bravo just this year alone. I’m willing to bet it’s at least 50 times. And as I write this, it’s not even July.
The point, of course, is that with each passing year, fewer movie lovers are having fewer movies to make relative judgments against. And since movie quality has been sliding downhill for the past decade or two, what movies do get shown for relative judgments are of no practical use. Hence: Tomorrow’s audiences will judge the quality of future movies against films starring Keanu Reeves and Bruce Willis. Well guess what? Those movies of the future can’t help but look great when compared in that way.
Why have so many networks taken up this idea of showing the same movie back to back, or on consecutive nights? Just last night, TNT showed O Brother, Where Art Thou twice in a row. This was less than a week after TBS-owned by the same company as TNT not to mention Turner Classic Movies-showed it twice in a row on a Saturday afternoon. I’ve got nothing against that movie; I love the Coen brothers and O Brother was the first time I was ever impressed by George Clooney. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be shown. But hey, here’s an idea: Why not show it and then follow it right up with Sullivan’s Travels, the movie that inspired the Coen’s to make O Brother? It also takes place in the 30s, so it’s not like it would be that jarring.
You want to know why? Because if more people saw a movie like Sullivan’s Travels, they woul be less tempted to look at something like Lord of the Rings as being a great movie. Sullivan’s Travels has more humor and ideas in its ninety minutes than Lord of the Rings managed in nine hours. The networks are mostly all owned by conglomerates that also make movies nowadays. That’s why you see the same movies showing up over and over again. It’s an incestuous cesspool. And they don’t want to have to make truly brilliant movies like Dr. Strangelove or The Sweet Smell of Success or Raging Bull because those kinds of movies don’t come along too often. They require equal parts hard work and luck.
But those movies are only brilliant when compared to Fail Safe or Absence of Malice or Rocky. If you take away the ones that did it as well as it can be done, viewers will lower their expectations because they don’t know any better. Why show an incredible satire on the beauty pageant world like Smile, when you can just air a lame Sandra Bullock movie like Miss Congeniality a few times a week? Smile sticks with you afterwards, it makes you want to see something like that again, only there aren’t that many movies like it. On the other hand, even if you do think about Miss Congenality a day after it airs, don’t despair because there are about a dozen or so movies just like it and half of them star Bullock herself!
It’s a beautiful idea, really. The suits get to make movies of ever-lowering quality that are being accepted as examples of ever-increasing quality. Not only do they enjoy the luxury of not having to try as hard to make good movies, they reap the benefits of their mediocre movies being thought masterpieces. I’m going to give you two lists of movies:
A Beautiful Mind
Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
Million Dollar Baby
Those are the movies that won the Best Picture Academy Award between 2000 and 2005. Now here’s another list:
The Wizard of Oz
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Destry Rides Again
The Roaring Twenties
You want to know the difference between the two lists? None of the movies in the second list won a Best Picture Oscar. But that’s the main difference. The main difference is that every single one of those movies in the second list were MADE IN THE VERY SAME YEAR: 1939. In case you’re wondering, they all lost Best Picture to a little Civil War flick known as Gone with the Wind.
If you’ve never seen those movies, that list means nothing to you. If you’ve seen them all, you probably get my point. Take any of those movies in the second list and plug them into any year of the first list and they are clearly superior to what are generally considered to be some of the best movies of this decade.
Movie quality is suffering. There can be no question about that. But it is suffering in part because people have lowered expectations. What would have never even have been considered for an Oscar nomination in the past can walk away with double digit wins today. Worse than that-since the Academy Awards have rarely gotten it right anyway-what would have been ignored by movie audiences in the past becomes a monster hit today.
The problem isn’t really at the movies, it’s on TV and at the video store. As long as only one network shows great movies made before 1990 on a daily basis-Turner Classic Movies-the vast majority of moviegoers will not be able to accurately make a relatively judgment of merit on contemporary films. I know it sounds elitist, but it’s not. It’s a simple fact of life. There is no such thing as a great movie of itself; every great movie achieves its quality based only on a relative comparison. And as long as today’s audience are only making comparisons to 25% of the films available for comparison, mediocrity will continue to rise to the surface and be acclaimed.