Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Problem of the American Moviegoer

Many people have lamented that movies are not what they used to be.  Nothing is exactly what it used to be.  Hollywood has become increasingly morally and, perhaps even more so, aesthetically bankrupt.  The quality of American movies, I believe, has been going downhill since the 80's.  You can blame Hollywood and rightly so, but Hollywood is a business.  They are selling "us" what we want.  They are not selling me what I want, but if they really weren't selling audiences what they wanted, then they would not be making so much money.  Mainstream movies are mainstream precisely because a substantial number of people have bad taste.

What is the nature of the likes and dislikes of the American moviegoer?  Do people have "bad" taste or merely "particular" tastes that tend to favor things that aren't good?  Being as I don't believe that all popular movies are bad and all unpopular movies are good, I can't simplify things to bad taste.  Bad taste would still need further clarification.  People don't just purposely hate the good.  Everyone has their own perception of good.  People may have never analyzed their own tastes.  Most people don't feel any need to, thus treating movies like kids in a commercial treated Apple Jacks.  Daniel Sullivan, in his great book, An Introduction to Philosophy: The Perennial Principles of the Classical Realist Tradition, states:
"The choice before us, then, is not between accepting or rejecting philosophy since each of us-- whether he knows it or not-- already has one, but between holding it consciously or unconsciously. Unless we free our minds by becoming critically conscious of what we hold unconsciously and uncritically, we are liable to become victims of our own unconsciously held philosophy or of the philosophy of others , which may rule us all the more tyrannically because it is hidden and operates in the dark. What we hold implicitly, vaguely, confusedly, must be rendered explicit, definite and clear in the light of reason and the evidence of things."
Taste in movies are very analogous.  People who even think they watch movies aimlessly still have an aesthetic as a viewer.  Many people don't even understand their own aesthetics.

Why do people like what they like?  Not individuals, but why do large numbers of people like what they like.  How can Hollywood know time after time what people want?  What are the characteristics that most commercial movies have in common?  I believe most people's movie habits are based on just that, habits.  People like watching things that are similar to what they already watch.  It gives people a comfort zone.  In India, nearly all the popular movies are musicals.  In America, this will never be so.  Certainly music plays a larger role in India's culture and history, but Indian audiences like musicals because it is what they are accustomed to.  They've been watching musicals since they were children.  In America, no one watches black and white movies.  Many people claim this is because they are "unrealistic."  Are robot cars realistic?  Despite everyone's distaste for black and white, once a year around Christmas, everyone still watches It's a Wonderful Life.  Why?  Out of habit.

What are qualities that make up mainstream movies?
  • Scripts that are tight and action oriented. Characters have to be constantly doing something and there is no room for long asides.  New movies are an endless series of attention grabbing moments.
  • Problems that are not subtle or complex and are solved in a straightforward way (watching a sports team play in a tournament rather than watching someone struggle with an existential crisis, or if the latter, it has to be solved with a few platitudes).  We need objective and easily solvable problems because we need closure and complex problems can't be fully solved in two hours.  
  •  A length of about two hours.  People used to watch long movies, but we slowly moved away from that and there is no turning back.  The same people who can watch ESPN for eight hours straight can't sit through Lawrence of Arabia.
  • Of course, the basic screenplay structure, which I will not go into now.  You don't realize it's there until it's not there, and then there's something inexplicably wrong.
  • Plus there are many style and aesthetic choices and details that people don't even realize they've become accustomed to.  Movies can't be black and white.  
  • Foreign languages may as well be someone saying the F-word through the entire movie.  It makes you wonder how these people would cope with being in another country, but then, movies are not life and have a different set of expectations place upon them.  
  • All choices of cinematography, editing and other things are geared towards a comfortable conventionalism that in no way remotely challenges the audience or goes against even the smallest expectations.
All these expectations have led to an extremely narrow aesthetic in American movies and have led movies to engage us on the same level every single time.  There are good movies both inside and outside this formula.  The medium of film, rather than growing is becoming increasingly narrow. Creativity is dead because the movie studios know what people want before they even make it.  Creativity is risk and therefore unnecessary.  There is only the possibility that audiences will connect to something original, but a guarantee that Transformers 3 will make money no matter how terrible it will inevitably be.

Hollywood both gives us what we like and tells us what to like.  Hollywood may have ups and downs and individual movies may be hit or miss, but the system will never fail.  They may have to move more and more to new formats like television or the internet, which has of course already started, but the system will never collapse.  I believe if television was the only form of electronic entertainment we had in our homes and our TVs only had one channel, millions upon millions of people would still watch TV.  It could be the all According to Jim network.  Audiovisual media has a magnetism that transcends the quality of the content.  Hollywood, if it really were one large entity could go in any direction and within a few years, the general public would like such things.  With a few years of across the board, conspiracy-like effort, Hollywood could become Bollywood if they wanted.  There would be growing pains at first, but eventually audiences would become accustomed to it and their tastes would change.

It's a lazy attitude of viewers that has led to this problem.  People see television as leisure and leisure should not take effort.  Anything beyond mindless, indulgent entertainment takes "effort."  When people are not at work, they don't want to do anything that remotely resembles work, even rewarding hobbies.  This is not true of all people, but this is how many people relate to movies, if not also other areas of their lives.  Often, society and friends have had the good sense to train us out of this bad attitude in areas not involving entertainment media.  Some people don't realize that constant "leisure" will not make them happy.  It is not a cure for boredom, but the secret cause of boredom.  As people become increasingly interested in consuming media and pop culture and become increasingly removed from an interest in their own personal lives, movies will become increasingly self-reflexive, cliched, and about nothing.

No one sees the need to leave this attitude.  When the average American spends hours a day consuming movies and television, should we find it acceptable to flush all that time down the toilet?  Obviously the media we consume is important to us in some way.  Don't try taking it away.  No matter how bad someone's taste is, they still militantly hold to it and take their pop culture tastes way too seriously and think they are an expert.  Many people refuse to admit their regular tastes.  If someone wanted to become a literary connoisseur, they would get an English or some literary degree.  At the very least, they would read many famous old books.  With movies, people presume this pedestal for themselves. Most people think of good as what they like and rather than expand their tastes, redefine good as where they are.  We make up notions of "guilty pleasure" as an excuse for enjoying garbage and attempt to pretend that we just want to be mindlessly entertained at the movies "for a change", as if this is the exception and not the rule. 

This is the problem of the American moviegoer, a close-minded adherence to narrow expectations of what a movie is and Hollywood's willingness to consistently indulge these expectations at the expense of artistic integrity.


    1. This is good stuff.

      1) I totally agree with you about the decline in substantial content movies (or society in general) have now a' days. But, speaking from my own personal experience, even though I know the movie is going to be like eating a Big Mac, I'll still go watch it. It's what's available and it's easy. I want and should consume something better, but I either don't know where to look for decent quality work and/or don't have the energy to go looking for it. Maybe for some people their participation in terrible art isn't because they agree with or necessarily want to support it, but simply due to lack of access to anything else. But, I guess this could just reflect back on your point about people being generally lazy or unable to concentrate on anything for more then 3 seconds before it becomes a burden and too much work.

      2) I LOVE "According to Jim" so back off.

      1. I recently finished a post regarding your concerns here, Steve. It is titled "Cultivated Interest: Its Demands and Necessity."

    2. I think most college students should take one basic film class. Our schools put years of emphasis on having a literary background, but people can't even take one film class. Do people read more or watch movies more? I think 101 classes that open a new discipline to someone are so important, not just in film, but in many other disciplines. An intro class opens so many more doors than another class in a discipline you already know.

      For those not in school, other good starting points are looking up top movie lists on the web or just watching old movies you have heard of or anything with a reputation. I'm not saying everyone has to agree with the "experts" on everything, or even with me, but I do believe it is a good starting point. Any legitimate list of top movies includes both old and new, American and foreign movies. Also, reading this blog and watching the movies cited in the blog. Lastly, check out my post, The Criterion Challenge.

      As to the "lack of anything else," I think this makes my point that the desire to consume the medium transcends the quality of the content.