told you this summer had been the worst season for films in
Hollywood history, and provided evidence that American moviemakers
are driving American moviegoers away from the theaters for good.
The question is: Why have things gotten so bad?
A century dominated by movies has left the movies starved for inspiration.
motion pictures came into existence at the turn of the 20th century,
they represented an entirely new form of storytelling maybe
the first entirely new way of telling stories in millennia. And
it wasn't just that audiences could see people living and behaving
and interacting with the everyday world in ways startlingly similar
to real life.
almost three decades, movies contained no spoken dialogue, the storytelling
was almost entirely visual. What Hollywood pioneered was the use
of a 24-frames-per-second canvas, which remains the really magical
thing about the medium. There's more meaning in a raised eyebrow
than in a 200-word speech, and more romantic emotion is conveyed
in a smoldering look than by the recitation of a love poem.
Since the movies
are a visual medium, most of the energy and enthusiasm of moviemakers
derives from a command of the camera and an ability to manipulate
images. What they don't know very well - what they've never known
very well is why one given story is better than another given
So they tend
to steal their stories from elsewhere. And in the first half-century
or more of the movies, that meant they turned to other media for
material to books and theater, primarily, and to the kind
of stories they told. Novels and plays derive their power entirely
from character and plot. Add a strong visual storytelling sense
to a strong narrative line, and you have something wonderful and
happened around 1950. Movies increasingly began to draw their inspiration
from other movies. The young French directors of the famous late
'50s "new wave" were inspired by hack Hollywood filmmakers,
not by Shakespeare or Balzac or Dickens. In the 1960s, their American
stepchildren burst forth: Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Brian
De Palma, Peter Bogdanovich, Martin Scorcese, Steven Spielberg,
These men could
do things with a camera nobody had ever been able to do. They had
seen every movie ever made and had broken those movies down frame
by frame, turning themselves into the Noam Chomskys of film
the world's foremost experts on the grammar of visual storytelling.
a new snap and dazzle to film. When that was combined with both
a new freedom in subject matter and new technological developments,
the medium became exciting again, in the late '60s and early '70s
in a way it hadn't since the advent of television. And the
movies they turned out earned more money than anyone had ever dreamt
was that all these brilliant moviemakers knew was the movies. They
weren't well-read most of them didn't attend college, or
if they did, they studied only film and they didn't seem
to feel at all humbled by their own ignorance. As a result, they
understood classical storytelling only through the bastardized versions
offered by Hollywood. It was like fourth-generation xeroxing. Stories
and characters grew weaker as their original sources grew increasingly
distant and hazy.
were genuinely gifted filmmakers with something fresh to offer.
But the Hollywood they created has proved sadly hospitable to ignoramuses
and illiterates who have far less talent, and whose influences are
the fourth-generation xeroxes and maybe not even that. Directors
like Michael Bay, who made Pearl Harbor, were raised watching
television commercials and sitcoms, and seem to have derived all
their knowledge of the world from these two stepchildren of popular
are awful because Hollywood no longer knows what a good plot is,
what an interesting character is, or what genuine conviction is
when it comes to telling a story.
With the cooler
months will come more serious films, which might surprise and please.
Certainly things can't get worse. But the true horror of today is
that when Hollywood wants to congratulate itself for its literary
seriousness, it gives Oscar recognition to movies like Chocolat
and The Cider House Rules both drippy melodramas based
on horrible novels and directed by the Titan of Treacle, Lasse Hallström.
has a movie out this fall, called The Shipping News. It's
based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by E. Annie Proulx (which
I hated). It stars two-time Oscar winner Kevin Spacey. It's going
to make your skin crawl. It's going to be nominated for seven Academy
Awards. And so the nightmare will continue.