Are Movies Now a Lost Art?

From a New York Times column by Ross Douthat headlined “Raiders of the Lost Art”:

At Oscar time this past spring, I wrote a doom-laden essay arguing that we were living through the End of the Movies — not the end of moviemaking, but the end of the era when theatrical cinema could be considered the central form of American popular art. Covid had driven box office totals to new lows, yielding a slate of best picture nominees that few Americans had seen in theaters. But the pandemic was just delivering a coup de grâce, a final shove to an art form that had already stumbled off its pedestal.

When you make that kind of sweeping statement, your hopes thereafter are divided: As a pundit, you look for evidence of vindication, but as a movie lover, you hope to be proved wrong.

For part of 2022, the spring and summer, it seemed like Hollywood was out to satisfy my movie fandom and undermine my prophecy. Yes, the top of the box office rankings was still dominated by the superhero franchises that have done so much to run the classic Hollywood genres out of business or kick them over to TV. But some of those traditional genres were back as well, doing decent business — or gangbusters business, in the case of “Top Gun: Maverick,” the highest-grossing film of the year.

The list of respectable box office performers included “Elvis” (a Baz Luhrmann musical biopic), “The Lost City” (an adventure-comedy in the style of “Romancing the Stone”), “Where the Crawdads Sing” (a literary tear-jerker adaptation) and “Everything Everywhere All at Once” (an unclassifiable immigrant family drama set inside the multiverse). “The Northman,” my pick for the most original movie of the year, wasn’t a big hit, but some people saw it; it existed. Jordan Peele’s “Nope” earned justifiably mixed reactions but still raked in over $100 million domestically. And late summer’s “Bullet Train” did decent business as an attempted throwback to both Guy Ritchie’s laddish action vehicles and the vehicular spectacles of the “Speed” era.

I’m not saying this was a great run of movies, but there was some creativity here, some entertainment value, some decent box office — all enough to evoke, in flashes, a normal cinematic summer in the 1990s.

But that was summer. Now, in fall and winter, we’ve returned to the movie apocalypse.

My colleague Brooks Barnes wrote last week on the “carnage” at the art house, the terrible box office showings for so many of the autumn’s spate of Oscar hopefuls: From the Cate Blanchett showcase “Tár” to Steven Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical “The Fabelmans,” from David O. Russell’s “Amsterdam” to James Gray’s “Armageddon Time” to “She Said,” about my colleagues’ Harvey Weinstein investigation. James Cameron’s “Avatar” sequel is sweeping in to fill theaters over Christmas — and, judging by early reviews, to help justify their continued existence. But barring an unexpectedly strong performance from the few remaining prestige releases — like Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon,” which received something of a rough reception at its initial screening — we could be looking at a fall without an honest-to-God Oscar-bait hit.

A theme in Barnes’s piece is that the quality of the films is not the issue, because “reviews have been exceptional.” And I’m confident that there are some structural explanations for the disastrous autumn: the expectations of home viewing set during Covid, the closure of some art-house theaters, plus the fact that the audience for grown-up dramas is also an audience (older, liberal) more likely to avoid hanging out in crowded theaters in the winter illness season.

But at the same time, I agree with the film scholar Barnes quotes who notes the conspicuous dearth of simple entertainment value in the fall’s offerings. I really liked “The Fabelmans,” but do filmgoers want not one but three movies — Spielberg’s, Gray’s and the Sam Mendes flop “Empire of Light” — in which prominent directors indulge in semi-autobiographical longueurs? “Tár” has brilliance, but it’s the definition of a challenging movie to absorb. “She Said” is a newspaper procedural that keeps its famous villain offstage almost throughout; here’s how my colleague Alexis Soloski described its style:

Measured and deliberate, the film avoids grandstanding, speaking in low tones where another movie might shout. Little is glamorized or embellished here. (New York City has rarely looked so blah.) The points the film makes about predation, complicity and silencing are often made in passing. “She Said” concentrates instead on process, prioritizing the patient accretion of testimony and corroboration. It’s a thriller, yes, but rendered discreetly, in sensible workplace separates. Its force accumulates slowly, stealthily even — lead by lead, fact by verified fact — until the tension surrounding a cursor’s click is an agony.

This was a positive review. Does it make you want to rush out to the theater?

The best pieces written on the autumn of apocalypse elaborate on this theme. Richard Rushfield, the longtime Hollywood watcher, points out that there was never some halcyon day when high-minded movies “speaking in low tones” were guaranteed an audience. Instead, the small-budget movies that broke out big were usually ruthlessly entertaining: “Art house always worked when the genre was infused with a fresh, brash D.I.Y. energy,” he writes. “‘Little Miss Sunshine’ is a road trip comedy — a genre that thrived for years at Sundance. ‘Sex, Lies and Videotape’ is a great noir thriller. ‘Reservoir Dogs’ is a tribute to genre films.”

Then Noah Millman, a writer and producer who’s getting ready to direct his first feature film, has a realistic comparison between the well-reviewed movies of 2022 and the movies-for-grown-ups of the not-so-distant cinematic past:

So has “quality” declined? Well, take a look at Variety’s list of the 30 films most likely to win the Oscar for Best Picture. Now compare that list to the nominees for Best Picture in the 1980s — a decade I chose because it is widely regarded as a relative low point for Hollywood artistically between the revolutionary 1970s and the indie-fueled 1990s, a time when the rise of the blockbuster had eclipsed films of serious artistry. Some of those nominees are blockbusters: “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “E.T.” most prominently. Others are small canvas dramas: “Ordinary People,” “On Golden Pond,” “My Left Foot.” There are films that are revered by cinephiles: “Raging Bull,” “Tender Mercies,” “The Last Emperor,” and there are more crowd-pleasing films that continue to please: “Tootsie,” “Broadcast News,” “Working Girl.” There are also films on the list that are largely forgotten, or that many people wish to forget. But ask yourself honestly: which films this year feel obviously — obviously — like they would have deserved to be nominated for Best Picture if they had been made 35 or 40 years ago ahead of the films actually nominated then? I’m not asking to put them up against “The Godfather” or “Taxi Driver.” I’m asking to put them up against “Chariots of Fire,” “The Mission” and “A Room With a View.”

“Tootsie” is a good example to linger on, because it’s a case of a movie committed absolutely to being crowd-pleasing — you will laugh, you will, if Dustin Hoffman, Bill Murray and Teri Garr have to come through the screen to make it happen — that sacrifices nothing of its comedic greatness in the act of pandering to the audience. This fall, I’ve had that kind of experience only once in a movie theater: during the first hour of “The Menu,” a blackhearted horror-comedy about a celebrity chef, played by Ralph Fiennes, and his restaurant’s final dinner service. The quality drops off a bit in the second half, but for a while it reminds you what it’s like to be unapologetically entertained.

As Millman notes, it wasn’t so long ago — just a few years — that Hollywood still delivered enough of that entertainment to fill theaters and fill up its lists of best picture nominees with (at least modest) hits. And the danger at present is probably not that Covid and streaming have made this commercially impossible to do again. Rather, it’s a problem of skill and imagination where, as an art form goes into eclipse, what used to come easily becomes ever more difficult, not because the potential audience isn’t there, but because the system is slowly forgetting how to do it.

Ross Douthat has been an Opinion columnist for The Times since 2009. He is the author of several books, most recently, “The Deep Places: A Memoir of Illness and Discovery.”

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