Thursday, March 01, 2007

Give us that Old Time Hollywood Religion

Neal Gabler argues that the movie magic is gone in the LA Times, and takes the time to do a thorough post-mortem. At what cultural pathologies does Gabler point the finger for the demise of Hollywood's centrality to the national zeitgeist? Why, its the rise of conservatism, naturally:

But in the two years since, another phenomenon has battered the motion picture industry, attacking one of the very fundamentals of moviegoing: the movies' communal appeal. Before demographics became the marketing mantra, the movies were the art of the middle. They provided a common experience and language — a sense of unity. In the dark we were one.

Now, however, when people prefer to identify themselves as members of ever-smaller cohorts — ethnic, political, demographic, regional, religious — the movies can no longer be the art of the middle. The industry itself has been contributing to this process for years by targeting its films more narrowly, especially to younger viewers. In effect, the conservative impulse of our politics that has promoted the individual rather than the community has helped undermine movies' communitarian appeal.

All of this has been hastened by the fact that there is now an instrument to take advantage of the social stratifications. To the extent that the Internet is a niche machine, dividing its users into tiny, self-defined categories, it is providing a challenge to the movies that not even television did, because the Internet addresses a change in consciousness while television simply addressed a change in delivery of content. Television never questioned the very nature of conventional entertainment. The Internet, on the other hand, not only creates niche communities — of young people, beer aficionados, news junkies, Britney Spears fanatics — that seem to obviate the need for the larger community, it plays to another powerful force in modern America and one that also undermines the movies: narcissism.

I can understand how you can arrive at this startling conclusion if you reduce political philosophy to the most simplistic of value equations: liberal = communal, conservative = individual. But we all know that political philosophy can't be reduced so simply, and that sniffing out political motives in social trends by using such a simplified ideology detector will result in such appalingly absurd diagnoses as Gabler's. Let's examine why it is so absurd.

For one thing, individuality with respect to political ideology has to be understood in context to the realm of socio-economic life that it references. Conservative, or classical liberal ideology, stresses the individual with regard to property ownership, economic activity, political affiliation and to a greater or lesser extent conscience, or religious affiliation. Yet conservatives realize that without a strong set of shared social traditions and values individuality will lead to the kind of social atomization that Gabler points to. There is a conservative temperament that goes along with conservative ideology, and that temperemant stresses personal morality, the importance of mediating cultural institutions and associations, most importantly the family, and also values a certain degree of self-control and civic mindedness in the expression of personal, individual desires and passions.

It was this traditionally conservative communal cohesiveness that was reflected in the universal appeal of the Hollywood films of yesteryear that Gabler describes. And the Hollywood studio heads and directors respected that communal identity. They didn't try to "push the envelope". The communal experience ended not because conservatives walked away from it, but because Hollywood directors walked away from them. Does Gabler think that Quentin Tarantino was honoring the communal American spirit with his movies "Pulp Fiction" and "Reservoir Dogs"? These two movies catapulted Tarantino to "A" list status in Hollywood and are admired for their cinematic brilliance, but their ubiquitous obscenity and graphic gratuitous violence so alienated those of a traditional conservative temperament that only a clueless person would imagine for a moment that they would provide a sense that "in the dark, we're one", to quote Gabler.

No, the stratification in society had already begun, and Hollywood, as Gabler pointed out, tailored its fare to take advantage of the new social realities, though it often ignored it's more traditional customers, to its own financial detriment. But conservatives did not cause this division or even encourage it. They tried to stop it. So get a clue, Neal Gabler!


Blogger David said...

I got this far and stopped:

Movie stars have been our brightest icons. A big movie like "The Godfather," "Titanic" or "Lord of the Rings" entered the national conversation and changed the national consciousness. Movies were the barometers of the American psyche. More than any other form, they defined us, and to this day, the rest of the world knows us as much for our films as for any other export.

Today, movies just don't seem to matter in the same way — not to the general public and not to the high culture either, where a Pauline Kael review in the New Yorker could once ignite an intellectual firestorm. There aren't any firestorms now, and there is no director who seems to have his finger on the national pulse the way that Steven Spielberg or George Lucas did in the 1970s and 1980s. People don't talk about movies the way they once did. It would seem absurd to say, as Kael once did, that she knew whether she would like someone by the films he or she liked. Once at the center, movies increasingly sit on the cultural margins.

The LotR movies came out in 2001, 2002 and 2003, twenty years into the conservative revolution and just four years ago. Passion of the Christ came out in 2004, and have grossed just short of $1 billion since then. So, what exactly is he talking about?

March 01, 2007 9:51 AM  
Blogger erp said...

My husband, the masochist, watches Neal on some talk show with other boring people. I know it's not nice to comment on people's appearance, but he's trying so hard to look like a learned academic, he has the stutter, the beard, the ... but sorry to say, every time he opens his mouth, he condemns himself to the idiot knee-jerk liberal category.

To paraphrase Ms Kael, I know I'll like a person when he or she hasn't ever heard her.

We've only seen a few movies over the past several years. We saw "The Queen" and liked it mostly for Ms Mirren's tour de force performance.

March 01, 2007 11:26 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

That movies, "more than any other form, defined us", is so many decades out of date.

I'm a child of the 80s, and while there were indeed many films that "entered the national conversation and changed the national consciousness", (Star Wars being the first of those that I cared about, although I was dimly aware of Jaws doing the same), over the past thirty years it was mainly television shows that sparked water-cooler conversation.

But perhaps Neal Gabler was too much of an intellectual to actually watch the idiot box, or he'd have known about that, and he'd also have known that, pace his contention, cable television parsed and fragmented mass audiences long before the 'net showed up - just ask the TV network exec's how long dwindling audiences have been their reality.

Further, it's ludicrous to assert that narcissism "undermines the movies" - does Gabler know no-one in Hollywood ?!?

Hollywood is ALL ABOUT narcissism, from the studio heads to the producers to the directors to the stars. Even the make-up artists aspire to be "known".

Somewhat off-topic, Pauline Kael was a fool to believe that "she would know whether she would like someone by the films he or she liked".
Take a look at the Blogger profiles of the screen names that you like (or dislike) - in my experience, shared or divergent tastes in movies, music, or books say NOTHING about whether two people will get along, or not.
The "tell us what you like" or occasionally " - don't like" threads that Orrin used to do support the same conclusion.

And really, isn't Pauline Kael's assumption that she would only like people who were like her the same sort of narcissism that Gabler is decrying ?
And yet, Gabler mentions her approvingly, even admiringly, and eagerly provides the foolish quote which damns her, and his argument.

That's the kind of wooly-headed "thinking" that I most associate with the MAL. Gabler doesn't fully understand his own stated position.

March 01, 2007 12:45 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

I don't know that any movies really changed the national consciousness. I don't even know what that means. How do you change consciousness?

It's all a part of that "I want to change the world" narcissism of the Boomers. They'd like to believe that they are making people more socially responsible or some other such silly notion by breaking down the normal social customs and taboos. But smashing something is easier than building it. Only a narcissist would confuse the two.

March 02, 2007 7:36 AM  

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