I did not realize when I began these weekly contributions that they would focus so much on the decline of American and world politics. That, unfortunately, is what I see before me, and I am more and more convinced that things will probably get much worse before they get better. But today, after vainly scanning the movie pages of my state’s daily newspaper in search of worthwhile entertainment, I am moved to address another equally depressing topic, the decline of American movies and movie going. And to do so, once again, I am going to use a historical approach.
With the magic of Proquest, I have begun by securing the list of movies I might have watched in Washington, D. C. (not my home), on June 10, 1966, exactly forty years ago. This was a transitional moment for movies—a new audience of Boomers like myself was just coming on to the scene and the studios didn’t know how to appeal to us. The first thing that caught my eye was a double bill which I actually remember attending, Darling and Cat Ballou, which featured Oscar winners Julie Christie and Lee Marvin. I resisted the temptation to see Charlton Heston in The Agony and the Ecstasy, or Dean Martin as Matt Helm in one of his James Bond rip-offs, The Silencers, but I had already seen Richard Burton in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. And I could also have seen Dr. Zhivago (Julie Christie certainly was hot that year) and Henry Fonda in Battle of the Bulge. The best movie playing, another holdover from the previous year, was The Pawnbroker, with Rod Steiger, which I had seen twice during my freshman year in college, just ended.
Things certainly had changed ten years later. The 1970s were almost surely the greatest decade in the history of American film, and a great many memorable offerings were available on June 10, 1976. Leading the pack were two classics, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and All the President’s Men, both showing at multiple theaters. (Cuckoo’s Nest had won the Oscar a few months earlier.) But I might also have gone to the Uptown on Connecticut Avenue and seen Jaws, still in theaters almost a year after its release. Taxi Driver was also in several theaters, and Francois Truffaut’s The Story of Adele H. was playing, too. Rounding out the field were The Exorcist, apparently in re-release (an almost forgotten concept), and the Italian classic Seven Beauties—all told enough to keep me busy for at least a month. And that was not at all unusual in those wonderful, long-forgotten days.
Let’s jump ahead another ten years. Alas, considerable deterioration was already apparent, and the idea that no one would go to the theater for a good movie after Memorial Day was beginning to take hold. In 1986 my choices would have included Hannah and Her Sisters, Oliver Stones Salvador, and a thriller I don’t remember called F/X to which Roger Ebert had given 4.5 stars. I could also have seen The Gods Must Be Crazy, A Room With A View, and Down, 9 1/2 Weeks, and Out in Beverly Hills, all of which I did watch without feeling I had wasted my time. But Cobra, with Sylvester Stallone, was apparently the most-screened movie, and Absolute Beginners and Invaders from Mars were also announced in the largest available type. I don’t remember either of those.
Live by technology, die by technology. Proquest runs out before 1996, except for the New York Times, and I cannot make the day’s movie schedules come up for June 10, 1996. The best I can do is to provide the ten top-grossing movies of that year (most of them, probably, released for the summer.) They are, in order, Independence Day, Twister, Mission: Impossible, Jerry Maguire, Ransom, 101 Dalmatians, The Rock, The Nutty Professor, The Birdcage (the remake of La Cage aux Folles of 1979), and A Time to Kill. I was still attending the movies regularly with my family in those days, and I’m ashamed to admit that I saw all but one of those movies. There is not one, however, that I have seen more than once, or which I can imagine wanting to see again.
I have seen The DaVinci Code, which was not very memorable and which is already dying at the box office. I’m looking forward to A Prairie Home Companion, and indeed, if we hadn’t been so late with dinner we might be on our way. Beyond those, however, my local multiplexes are offering a choice of Cars, The Omen, The Break-Up, X-Men, the Last Stand, Poseidon, and Over the Hedge. (I know a lot of smart people like the X-Men series, but I’ve never been much of a sci-fi fan.) The one genuinely great movie of the year to date, United 93, has already disappeared from view.
Hollywood still occasionally makes good movies, nearly all of which are released and shown in the same extremely short period of the year around Christmas time. Video, cable and multiplexes have annihilated an older tradition, in which The Godfather might play on the same screen for the better part of a year. Re-releases occur at a rate of considerably less than one a year, and there are far fewer revival houses even in Boston or New York than there used to be. Of course we can see anything we want at home—but the market for week in, week out movies is mostly for teenagers, and the lowest common denominator seems relentlessly to be eliminating anything with any real quality from Hollywood.
This was also the week of our local film festival, and we saw one extraordinarily good documentary, Buddy, about Buddy Cianci, the long-time Mayor of Providence now incarcerated for racketeering in Fort Dix, New Jersey. It is quite extraordinary and would make a great companion piece to the new All The King’s Men, for which I have great hopes. But we also saw five absolutely wretched shorts dealing in one way or another with the subject of romance. Young people who have spent their summers watching action movies and romantic comedies can’t, alas, be expected to do better. Perhaps it is the sameness and the consumerism of our everyday life that is to blame. Perhaps it will take some real tragedy that touches us all—as United 93 has shown to those who were brave enough to see it—to interest the public at large in serious art. “All things fall and are built again,” Yeats wrote almost 70 years ago, “and those who build them again are gay.” Our artistic heritage, like our political one, must regularly be rebuilt and rediscovered—a sad realization to the older generation, but a most rewarding challenge for our youth. And that was, after all, what my contemporaries managed to do at the movies in the late 1960s and early 1970s.