The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences got the public to pay attention to its annual awards show again, but not in the way they attended. Like most Americans we didn’t bother to watch any of it, but like most Americans we couldn’t help hearing about the big moment at the end of the interminable broadcast when they announced the wrong winner of the “best picture” contest.
All of the conservative media couldn’t helping laughing at the ineptitude of all those glitzy show biz types with their high-minded political pronouncements, and one can hardly blame them. The smug is even worse than the smog in Hollywood, and one can’t resist a certain schadenfreude at seeing its overpaid denizens figuratively rather than the usual literally with their pants down. In the liberal media they were noticing that a mostly white movie was wrongly announced rather than the mostly black movie that actually won, and recalling all the concerns in recent years that the statuettes weren’t being handed out according to some sort of racial quota system, and worrying that might undermine the moral authority of all those high-minded political pronouncements that everybody makes. Most folks, we suspect, merely chuckled when they heard about it.
Our reaction was to stop and wonder whatever the hell became of the movies. We’re old enough to remember when movies were a big deal, and so were the Academy Awards, so this slapstick reminder of their continued existence made us realize how relatively irrelevant they have now become. The youngsters might be surprised to learn that back in the days before video games and internet porn going to the local bijou was a frequent ritual for most Americans, and along with books on paper and records spun by a local disc jockey and playing games with sticks and balls and no electricity it was one of America’s most favorite pastimes. It always sounds horrible to the young ears we tell about it, but it actually quite great.
To this day we retain vivid memories of our movie-going experiences dating back to youngest childhood. We can still recall the elegant art deco theater where our mother took us to see “A Boy Teen Feet Tall,” a terrific flick about a kid slightly older than we were at the time whose mother and father are killed during the Suez Canal conflict and winds up walking from Egypt to South Africa, and it still thrills even our middle-aged hearts. Our first experience of “Mary Poppins” and “My Fair Lady” and “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” is permanently in our memory, as is that night we stayed up way too late at our grandparents’ house and caught the night owl airing of the sultry and fishnet-stockinged Marlene Dietrich destroying a sensitive intellectual’s life in “The Blue Angel” when we were way too young for such fare, and some shrink might suggest that has also left some psychic mark, for better for worse.
Some of the movies we saw in those swank old theaters were so overwhelming to our youthful imagination that we fell in love with flicks, and instinctively realized at the earliest age that was an art form. Back then television sets only had three channels on a clear day, and the big national networks only provided so many hours of programming, so all the local stations would fill the rest of the time with kiddie shows and hints for housewives and some gospel and mostly old movies. They’d all had their runs in the theater and were just sitting on shelves, so the movie studios would sell the broadcast rights on the cheap for the afternoon slot and the post-Johnny Carson hours, and all through our summer vacations and on every Friday and Saturday night we were as absorbed by the golden era of Hollywood as our nostalgic parents and grandparents had been. Not all of it was good, and some of it was hilariously bad even to our youthful tastes, but the best of it had Fred Astaire dancing with a series of beautiful and talented women, Cary Grant being as handsome and well-dressed and charming as we aspired to be, Myrna Loy and Rosalind Russell and Barbara Stanwyck being every bit as gorgeous and smart and tough as the women we aspired to have fall in love with, and they had guys such as W.C. Fields and Groucho Marx and Jack Benny who not only made us laugh until our stomachs ached but also had a wised up smartness we also aspired to. Even an old-fashioned oater such as “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” had a very literary smartness about that we still aspire to.
There were some darned good movies playing their first runs in the theaters back then, too, and such sophisticated fare as “The Graduate” and the still-haunting “Sterile Cuckoo” gave us a head start on understanding the increasingly crazy adult world that was going on. At some point in the ’70s all those grand old downtown theaters had been replaced by cinderblock multiplexes on the far east and west sides of town, but they featured such memorable fare as Francis Ford Coppola’s “Godfather” series and “The Conversation,” Martin Scorcese’s “Taxi Driver” and “Ranging Bull,” Peter Bogdanovich’s “Last Picture Show” and “Paper Moon,” and although a lot of it was hilariously bad a lot of it was also pretty good. By that point we were checking out old silent films from the public library and going to the local university and the occasional art houses that never lasted very long to see Akira Kurosawa’s awesome Japanese flicks and anything we could find with Buster Keaton and all the Stanley Kubrick releases and anything else we’d read the more high-brow critics raving about. The movies were so great, we thought they’d never run out of greatness.
At some point, though, the art form somehow petered out. Thinking back, we figured it started around the time of the first “Star Wars.” It’s by no means the worst movie ever made, and we remember leaving some unmemorable theater or another feeling as well entertained as our Pop had once been after a Saturday morning “Buck Rogers” serial, but its effect has been insidious. The movie and its parts two and three proved so popular, and produced so much revenue from toys and bedsheets and jigsaw puzzles and every other form of merchandising that Hollywood decided to that kind of thing instead of something smart. Special effects and explosions and implausibly invincible superheroes took precedence over real people and their real lives, a technological revolution proceeded faster than a slowing pace of artistic evolution, foreign distribution to countries that it’s hard to translate American dialogue and cultural context is suddenly the biggest share of the box office, and the next thing you know all the big blockbusters are based on kids’ comic books. There’s nothing wrong with comic books movies and the latest “Star Wars,” but there’s something very wrong if that’s all that’s playing at the local bijou.
There’s still some more adult fare out there, of course, which sooner or later or turns up on Netflix or some other newfangled way for us to watch it, but it rarely meets the high standards we acquired in our lucky youth. It used to be that the quality pictures were the big hits, with people lining up around the block for a screening of such diverse classics as “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Cabaret,” but these none of the top-ten grossers were deemed worthy of the Academy’s award nominations, and most of the young movie-goers we know have no familiarity and no interest in how good movies used to be. At least one newspaper columnist sees this as proof of Hollywood’s elitism, but we’re movie snobs enough that we agree it just wouldn’t do to hand out the industry’s highest award to some comic book movie.
What they do nominate, though, is so quickly forgotten that we dare you to name any recent winners. Unmoored from the responsibility of creating something that satisfies the desires of a vast yet discerning audience, the artier directors of the day too often leap into masturbatory self-indulgence, and some of the movies that the highbrow critics rave about these days strike us as hilariously bad. Maybe some day Netflix will provide us with an edifying two hours or so with one of this year’s award winners, and we hate to think about how there’s a really good new movie out there that haven’t seen, but at this point Hollywood needs a slapstick screw-up to make the news.
— Bud Norman