There was a time, just three or four decades ago, when I could assume that at least a few students in every class I taught were cinephiles with an encyclopedic command of classic films. Those erstwhile movie lovers were savants with an uncanny ability to recite lines or recount incidents that spoke to whatever topic came up in class.
Today, not so much.
Apart from Criterion and Turner Classic Movies, the streaming services and cable channels offer an awful selection of cinematic classics, domestic and foreign. That not only reflects expensive streaming rights, but audience preference. A recent survey reported that “less than a quarter of millennials have watched a film from start to finish that was made back in the 1940s or ’50s and only a third have seen one from the 1960s.”
In an opinion essay entitled “We Aren’t Just Watching the Decline of the Oscars. We’re Watching the End of the Movies,” Ross Douthat argues that the self-contained, two-hour big-screen film is no longer “the central American popular art form” or “the main aspirational space of American actors and storytellers.”
Nor are movie theaters the sole venue for “high-level acting, writing and directing” or the place where Americans lose their innocence and naïveté. Movies have become “just another form of content,” one of many forms of competing entertainment.
In certain respects, Douthat is absolutely right. Global distribution has resulted in Hollywood movies with “less complexity and idiosyncrasy and fewer cultural specifics.” The focus on the child and adolescent market has resulted in a torrent of uplifting, message-drive animated features and cinematic roller-coaster rides, even as the number of midbudget historical epics, biographies, traditional love stories, problem films and, especially, serious, middle-brow, adult-focused melodramas has declined.
Home viewing simply isn’t the same as going to a movie theater. It lacks the immersive, collective, opera-like experience that was once synonymous with moviegoing (when the theater floors weren’t so sticky!). With a diversity of entertainment options, the movies, with few exceptions, no longer provide a shared popular experience or a set of common cultural references.
In another sense, Douthat is clearly wrong. The death knell of the movies has been sounded many times: with the introduction of television, with digital recording substituting for celluloid, with proliferating sequels and product placements and happy endings, with videotapes, DVDs and the rise of cable TV.
Complaints about clichéd characters, contrived endings, unrealistic storylines and emotional manipulation are nothing new. We were told in the 1970s that the rise of the blockbuster, with its crayon-drawn concepts, escapist themes, nonstop action and commercial tie-ins marked the end of the age of Hollywood. Didn’t happen. Many of my students regard the movies of today just as I did: as windows into life’s diversity, as poignant and powerful sources of intense emotions and aesthetic and sensual pleasure.
But Douthat’s concluding remarks strikes me as directly relevant to today’s hard-pressed humanities departments: make “the encounter with great cinema a part of a liberal arts education” as “a connection point to the older art forms that shaped The Movies as they were.”
Many humanists would quite rightly respond: Aren’t departments already doing this? Many foreign language departments have sustained their upper-level enrollments with classes on French, German, Russian and Spanish cinema, and English departments, too, in growing numbers, teach film-related courses. I’ve taught American History Through Film since the early 1990s, and Douthat himself took a cinema-infused course on heroism in ancient Greece at Harvard two decades ago.
Film, in short, hasn’t been restricted to communication programs for a very long time.
Since Douthat certainly knows that, I think his prescription needs to be interpreted in a different light: as a call to treat films as vehicles for addressing larger questions involving aesthetics, ethics, history and philosophy.
In my own courses, I approach movies as sociological and cultural documents that not only record and reflect cultural values but also shape them. During the 20th century, the movies were one of the country’s most powerful forces for social and cultural change. Hollywood cinema was a tutor and teacher to an evolving American culture.
Before 1930, film played a pivotal role in modernizing American values. Movies were at the forefront of the transition from Victorian to distinctively modern values. Between 1930 and the mid-1960s, Hollywood played a very different role. It helped forge a national cultural consensus. As America’s dream factory, Hollywood was instrumental in shaping a shared conception of American history, of America’s role in the world, of masculinity and femininity. Especially during the Great Depression, Hollywood played a crucial role in keeping certain collective values alive.
In the late 1960s, Hollywood increasingly adopted a far different role. Instead of making movies designed to appeal to a homogeneous mass audience, Hollywood produced films targeted at narrower segments of the population. Instead of producing films that gave expression to a common set of values, Hollywood began to offer pictures far more critical of conventional values.
A number of the most influential films of the late ’60s and early ’70s sought to revise older film genres, like the war film, the crime film and the Western, and rewrite Hollywood’s earlier versions of American history from a more critical perspective.
Then, during the mid- and late 1970s, the mood of American films shifted sharply. Unlike the highly politicized films of the early part of the decade, the most popular films of the late 1970s and early 1980s were escapist blockbusters featuring spectacular special effects, nonstop action and simplistic conflicts between good and evil, or inspirational tales of the indomitable human spirit, or nostalgia for a more innocent past. Glamorous outlaws were replaced by law-and-order avengers, while sports movies, long regarded as a sure box officer loser, became a major Hollywood obsession, celebrating competitiveness and victory. Movies that offered tragic or subversive perspectives on American society were replaced by more upbeat, undemanding films, including gross-out comedies.
Critics partly blamed the trend toward what Mark Crispin Miller called “deliberate anti-realism” upon economic changes within the film industry—above all, the conglomerization of the studios and the trend toward interlocking media and entertainment companies, encompassing movies, magazines, newspapers, books and television and cable networks.
Nevertheless, it was still the case in the 1980s and 1990s that important issues involving gender, family and sexuality continued to be addressed in feature film. You’ll recall the many movies that addressed the conflict between the family responsibilities and personal needs and women’s quest to develop and assert their independence.
At a time when politicians and news journalists were neglecting racial and urban issues, movies like Boyz in the Hood, Do the Right Thing and Jungle Fever focused on such problems as the racial gulf separating Blacks and whites, the conditions in the nation’s inner cities, the increasing number of impoverished single-parent families, police brutality and urban violence.
Such movies, of course, still appear, even if they don’t reach the mass audience they once did.
Perhaps you recall Martin Scorsese’s fairly recent insistence that “Cinema is gone,” replaced by virtual theme park rides. That’s a gross exaggeration, but it is the case that Hollywood movies are no longer king.
A student once explained how he watched movies: the images, he said, go in one eye and come out the other—without, apparently, any cognitive or interpretive or affective intervention. That student viewed that as a good thing. To transform moviegoing into analysis was to strip film watching of its joy.
I wholeheartedly disagree.
Whatever Hollywood’s future, we in the academy will sustain and study its past and its complex legacy of distortion, exclusion, romanticization, exoticism, racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia—as well as its artistry, its aesthetic and emotional power, and its philosophical and historical insights.
For a century, Hollywood movies were this country’s most influential educators. Now, as Hollywood’s grip on the culture loosens, it’s up to us in the humanities to share its complex and mixed lessons with a new generation. After all, isn’t it colleges and universities’ responsibility to preserve and study the cultural corpses that the rest of society discards?
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.