For nearly two months now, I have been living once again in the Boston area, where I spent nearly the entire period 1965-80. Much is changed, much is the same. Public transportation is better than ever and the area has become very bike-friendly. A large hispanic influx has changed the face of many areas, such as Somerville, which has become a happening place, nearly as unrecognizable as Bethesda, Maryland is to one who first knew it in the 1950s. Meanwhile, it is still a fine area for movies. There are three art house multiplexes within a 20 minute drive of my house in Newton, Brookline and Cambridge. The Brattle, the legendary home of twice-yearly Bogart festivals back in the 1960s, survives, playing a mixture of cheap independent films and repertory. (I took in a showing of Jaws there on July 4). But there is something rather striking about the audiences in the art houses. They appear to be the same people I went to the movies with 35-45 years ago--not the same age group, but literally the same people. Often one has to search the audience quite carefully to find any people under 40. All three theaters offer senior discounts, but I have joked that their marketing strategy is backwards: the seniors come out of interest. They should be discounting the younger folk to get them into the habit of going to the movies at all.
And this is, sadly, a reflection of what has happened to movies and to the way young people spend their time. Like everything else in our society, movies as they have come under the control of the Boom generation have become driven purely and simply by market forces. The studios have been focusing almost entirely on young adults for decades now, and young adults, according to their research, seem to want nothing but action films and romantic comedies. And indeed, in a tragic reversal of the pattern I and my contemporaries lived through, young people seem to LOSE interest in movies when they go to college. The Harvard Square, which has been a multiplex for about thirty years, was shut down by the chain that owns it about a year ago and there are no plans to re-open it. It could not draw enough students on a regular basis to stay alive. Young parents still take their kids to cartoons and such, of course, but they do not seem to go very often themselves.
When talking movies began 85 years or so ago, they drew on existing art forms: theater and literature. Writers wrote scripts, and Hollywood employed many of the best writers in the nation. Successful books and plays automatically became movies. All this happens much more rarely now, and virtually every major serious project is heavily compromised by the studios. Boz Luhrmann's Gatsby is an example: every driving scene has been turned into a car chase, undoubtedly to try to appeal to the young male audience, and the sound track is a mix of great 1920s jazz and hip-hop. It's ironic that Wall Street, which Oliver Stone made when the GI generation still ruled in Hollywood, is a classic, while Wall Street II, made in the Boomer-dominated era, was a disaster. Hollywood has spent millions finding the least common denominator of taste. It seems to have abandoned any serious artistic ambitions. And ironically, the results are turning out to be disastrous: the industry is reported to be in deep trouble, and Steven Spielberg has predicted that within a few years the only movies left will be special effects spectaculars for which we will have to spend $50 a ticket.
Nineteenth and twentieth century culture was built largely around words--but we are now so awash in words that it is harder and harder for anyone to make a living putting them into print. The same market-driven culture has transformed publishing, which also pursues the lowest common denominator. Newspapers are of course in a very serious condition. The idea that a firm might simply want to publish and market a book because of its quality is still alive, but only barely. We do not know yet what the impact of e-books is going to be.
A cousin of mine has remarked, quite rightly, that we are living in a great age of television. He was referring of course to the new genre of cable series, from The Sopranos through Six Feet Under to The Wire and my personal favorite, Breaking Bad. (I exclude Mad Men, which this season confirmed all my growing doubts about it--perhaps on another day I will explain why.) All those shows succeeded because they reflected the creative version of a single person. The newer HBO shows, however, are once again skewed towards younger demographics and have been, to me at least, much less impressive. I have tried to get into Girls three times but it is simply hopeless. I didn't see anything as funny as Lena Dunham's Obama commercial.
Western civilization, as I have said many times, is in retreat on the political as well as the artistic front. That is the way of the world. A civilization that takes itself and its art seriously and that devotes time and resources to bringing out the best its people have to offer inevitably commands respect, both inside and outside its own frontiers. A self-confident western civilization spread its influence over nearly the entire globe from the sixteenth through the twentieth centuries, but I think it's pretty clear that that process has now been reversed.
The book The Closing of the Western Mind still sits unfinished on my "to read" self. I have been occupied with finishing my own book and haven't had the energy to tackle such a daunting task. By the end of July I hope to do so. I am sure the comparison of the aftermath of the Roman Empire with our own era will be a very interesting one.