Prologue: I wrote this article at the beginning of this year and feel that, in light of the events of 2016, that it warrants a re-post.
Someone on this website asked “What’s the worst period for movies and pop culture?” and I have to say that would be NOW. There’s a number of factors that you have to consider as to why things are as bad as they are (economy, corporations, lower I.Q.’s due to worldwide over breeding between cretins) but I think it’s because the last 15 years lacks any sort of defined characteristics or identity which is why everything since 2000 feels like one long blur.
Let’s take a look at the period from 1915-2015:
The second industrial revolution gained steam in the late 1800’s and by 1915 civilization was steadily moving away from a rural lifestyle to new “urban” city centers while finance transitioned from a feudal bartering system to the monetary one used to purchase goods and services that has prevailed until this day. Advancing technology was at the heart of this which helped to develop a new form of entertainment called Cinema that has been the dominate art-form of the last century. But each era of cinema has been strongly tied to the corresponding decade from which it was born based upon various sociological changes within our culture.
1915-1930: With our new technological advances came the ability to wage war upon ourselves in greater fashion and in 1917 the USA entered WWI which ended in late 1918. With the end of the war came a new United States of America bound together by a unified front of victory, very much needed as the scars of the Civil War were still fresh, thus creating its identity as the emerging superpower of the early 20th century. This led to the decade known as the Roaring Twenties as the aftereffects of the war made an impact on every facet of North American civilization whether it be scientific, engineering, medicinal etc… and fueled a post-War economic boom of rampaging hedonism, despite the implementation of Prohibition which lasted from 1920-1933, that was captured by many of the movies created during that time. Everything about the 20’s was BIG including the development of mass media as the printing press led to nationally syndicated newspapers while the telegraph and postal services made way for radio as humanity was drawn together by information technology that could now reach every corner of the world through mass communication.
1930-1940: The stock market crash of 1929 and the following Depression defined a decade that saw many of the aristocratic ruling class of the time lose their fortunes while it also laid waste to working class families across the country. This coupled with the remains of Prohibition fueled an anti-authoritarian streak that saw the rise of gangster flicks such as Scarface (loosely based on Al Capone, America’s most notorious criminal) and dust bowl humanist dramas like The Grapes of Wrath which is why the period is known as The Dirty Thirties.
The 30’s were also significant as it saw the creation of Hollywood’s Production Code (also known as The Hays Code after William H. Hays, a career politician weasel who was the president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) from 1922 to 1945) which took effect in 1934 and was a measure of self imposed censorship sponsored by the studios to placate political ideologues and religious demagogues who railed against the film industry and lobbied for government intervention against a business that they vilified for corrupting the nations morality. The code lasted until the mid-to-late 1960’s which is why cinema was mired in stifling melodrama under the grip of the studio system during that time, for the most part, although it did produce some all time great movies. But Pre-Code films have a sort of raw vitality to them that’s later missing once the code was put into place.
Take, for example, Mystery of the Wax Museum. Made in 1933 (Directed by Casablanca’s Michael Curtiz [one of the great unsung Directors of the studio system] and co-Starring Fay Wray, the same year she did King Kong) it was later remade as House of Wax in 1953 starring Vincent Price. Like many of you, I only knew of the remake only to discover the original when it was paired with HoW on a DVD double bill. I couldn’t believe how superior Wax Museum was compared to its successor. Sure, the acting was a bit theatrical but the references to sex and drugs and overall lurid atmosphere gives it a sense of realism which helps ground the fantasy even though both films were produced under controlled stage environments. Because of this I can’t watch House of Wax anymore while Price is the films only saving grace.
1940-1950: War is good business and the USA being drawn into WWII pulled it out of its post-Depression malaise. As with its prequel, WWII affected almost every aspect of the country’s development, not the least of which was its psychology as it now had clearly identified enemies to unify its anger in what was to be decreed The Last Great War. This is the reason why War films dominated the 40’s and projected a can-do mentality against adversity, with very little in the way of self-reflection, as people wanted to forget the previous decade and with good reason. But under the rah-rah jingoism, Film-Noir lurked beneath the surface and were simply crime films but with emphasis on moody atmospherics, influenced by German Expressionism, that subconsciously represented the fact that, although the USA projected global strength through its military might, at home there were still sociological issues simmering in the shades of grey between the black and white battles between heroes and villains.
The 40’s also gave rise to the Anti-hero, as we know the archetype today. People idolized gangsters in the 30’s because they represented the ID of their audience, people beaten down and raging against a system that had failed them, but once WWII started no one wanted to identify with being the bad guy. So the Anti-heroes of the 40’s were world weary cynics, of dubious morality, who ultimately did the right thing such as Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. But it’s interesting to note that in the 40’s, the Anti-heroes were usually joined by the Femme Fatale, his mirror image who were strong willed and determined women that used their sexuality to get what they wanted and not always to the benefit of the protagonist who was often led to his doom.
This was symbolic of the rise of women’s liberation as the war put women in a position of power as they were employed in many of the roles left open by the men who had gone off to fight. Taking over the role of the hunter/gatherer/breadwinner, women found new purpose as many of them no longer needed to look towards men as providers. But once they had returned, men found that many of the women they had left behind had become self-sufficient and confident in their own ability to guide their lives as they saw fit, as opposed to simply being a homemaker who cooked, cleaned and looked after the children and this often caused conflict within the household. It created an underlying mistrust between the sexes which is why the 40’s saw the rise of the Femme Fatale who, more often than not, used men to their advantage and discarded them when no longer serving their purpose whether it be for sex or money. This reflected the anxiety and insecurity of men who are the more dominate of the species due to basic physiology, having just proven that in battle, and now found themselves being supplemented by civilizations evolving sociology as our collective intellect developed.
1950-1960: If you were born between 1915-1920 that means you grew up during the Roaring Twenties, made it through the Depression and most likely saw combat during WWII. If you survived all of that you were hard as steel and why people of that era are known as The Greatest Generation. But with the birth of the atomic bomb, traditional warfare between nations across a global scale was now rendered obsolete due to MAD (mutually assured destruction) while the USA took its place as a benevolent peacekeeping nation. Returning soldiers took advantage of the G.I. Bill which gave them the opportunity to attend high school, college, university or vocational school and obtain low-cost mortgages or low-interest loans to start a business which fueled the greatest economic expansion of the 20th century. Cinema attendance hit an all time peak in 1946 and the favorable post-war economic conditions led to the Baby Boomers while these people moved away from cities and migrated to new housing developments known as Suburbia to raise families.
After the tumultuous insanity of the preceding decades it’s understandable why the suburbs were seen as an oasis as the boomers settled into nice little houses with white picket fences and neatly manicured lawns. But humans are restless animals and if they don’t have some form of adversity to overcome, where they can band together, they’ll fight amongst themselves. This is why the children of this generation saw the suburbs as a prison of conformity, because they hadn’t lived through the last three decades and couldn’t identify with their parents desire for some peace and quiet. As such, teen rebellion films took hold, hitting their peak with Rebel Without a Cause (1955) which made a star of James Dean before his early death at age 24 in a car crash and exemplified the burn out rather than fade away mentality of alienated teens plagued by existential despair over the perceived banality of their parents lifestyle.
But not everything was tranquil in paradise as many of the boomers grew tired of the lives they had fashioned for themselves, leading to more dramas about social issues such as On The Waterfront starring Marlon Brando. After the war, people now had to fight for fair wages and better working conditions against lingering attitudes of indentured servitude from employers who were not above hiring criminals and/or criminal organizations to keep their workers in line. It’s interesting that Brando, who had auditioned for Rebel Without a Cause, appeared in The Wild One (1953) as a social malcontent who rebels, not simply against suburbia, but civilization itself as gang movies replaced Westerns about outlaws who now rode motorcycles instead of horses. You can’t talk about acting in the 50’s without mentioning Brando, who introduced what’s known as The Method. Marlon started on the stage, as many thespians do, but while they carried over their broad theatricality from that format, Brando’s form of acting was to incorporate raw realism as he realized that cinema could pick up on subtleties that were lost on the stage.
1960-1970: The children of the boomers came of age in the 60’s, which was rife with conflict and political upheaval, as a culture war raged between the generations and everything from the escalating Vietnam War to battles over civil/women’s rights fueled the fire while every facet of art and entertainment exploded with fresh ideas. The collapse of the Hollywood studio system, due to its founders nearing retirement or dying, and the infusion of new talent at both the creative and executive levels, along with the end of the censoring Production Code, meant that movies were no longer bound by moral puritanism. Easy Rider was the definitive movie of the decade and reflected the bohemian attitude of its audience who rejected the easy comfort of suburbia and wanted to explore both the world and themselves as the nations youth contemplated the USA and their place within it.
But the truth was that most hippies were outcast contrarians more interested in self-indulgence while wallowing in an overdeveloped sense of self-entitlement paid for by the previous generation who had struggled to build modern society as their flower children benefitted from the social safety net. Midnight Cowboy was a smack in the face of cold hard reality for dreamers who thought they could skate through life without working because they thought they deserved it. Yet there was even a thread of discontentment from middle class straights, as in evidence with the success of The Graduate, whose alienated protagonist is pulled into the vortex of a married socialite bored with her own affluent bourgeois suburban stagnation.
However, with the threat of nuclear annihilation, which reached its peak during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 62, and the prospect of being fed into a military meat grinder in Vietnam not to mention the murder of President John F. Kennedy, who represented the USA’s youthful hope for the future, it’s little wonder that people became disillusioned and partied like there was no tomorrow while looking at the stars for a way out.
1970-1980: With the fallout of the 1960’s the infrastructure of the USA began to crumble as it’s youth abdicated its responsibilities while The Greatest Generation(TM) entered retirement, or were getting ready to do so, and began to sell the country out to the highest bidder either economically or politically. This is why 70’s cinema was all about grime and grit as Rome started to burn. It’s no coincidence that most of the best filmmakers of the time came out of New York which (as the USA’s premiere city and where cinema as we know it was born from industrious immigrants who eventually moved west to California) was turning into a crime ridden cesspool that began to look like post nuke Hiroshima. The heart of this blight was 42nd Street (between 7th and 8th avenue) which was once lined with theaters for stage productions and vaudeville, eventually converted into Cinema’s, and were now host to the Grindhouses filled with back-to-back movies that specialized in exploitation with various live sex/porn theaters in between. It was not a place for polite society.
I believe that each decade of cinema is defined by the movies about adolescences as they capture the zeitgeist of the time which is what we look back at once we get old and nostalgic for our lost youth. Anger was driving the 70’s and Carrie/Taxi Driver, Directed by New Yorkers Brian DePalma and Martin Scorsese respectively, both featured protagonists who bottled up their emotions only for them to be unleashed in a wave of violence against what they saw as a corrupt and unjust system. The hippies of the 60’s hit the road and got high in search for exploration, both internally and externally, while advocating peace and personal expression. But children of the early 70’s turned inwards as they felt ineffectual against a system that had re-elected Richard Nixon as President while Vietnam was still being fought and students were being shot down by soldiers at Kent State University.
By the mid-70’s, Nixon was out of office and the Vietnam War was over but young people were still facing an uncertain future while the rest of the country started to revel at the end of one of the nations darkest chapters. Directors who had worked their way into the system and did their best films in early part of the 70’s began to flame out as the years wore on and complacency set in due to their new found wealth which robbed them of their drive and ambition. Without a set of oppositional value to rail against they turned to self indulgence and by the late 70’s, and beginning of the 80’s, it would come back to haunt them in one form or another. People wanted escapism from the national pessimism that plagued the USA, even with Nixon/Vietnam over, and took it in any form they could find whether it be cinema, sex or drugs and while drug use in the 60’s was used under the guise of mind expansion and self-exploration, in the 70’s people dropped the pretense and used them to feel good to numb the pain inflicted by the real world.
This is why Steven Spielberg and George Lucas dominated cinema from 75 and onward. Relatively apolitical and drug resistant, they represented a counter-attack by the studio system who were still trying to get a foothold as to what the 70’s meant to them and how they would survive. Spielberg and Lucas had no interest in gritty realism and made simple entertainment that gentrified genre films (Horror and Sci-fi) using then state-of-the-art Make-up/Visual/Mechanical FX that built upon the work done by William Friedkin in The Exorcist and Stanley Kubrick in 2001: A Space Odyssey but without the controversy of the former or the thoughtful conceptualism of the latter.
But it wasn’t all killer sharks and space battles. Saturday Night Fever and Rocky were movies that hit a nerve for people who had reality shoved into their faces on a daily basis. Both were about young working class kids in their early 20’s who sought success but, tellingly, neither were about someone building a business or striving for an education to better their life. The protagonists of SNF and Rocky were a dancer and fighter who pursued a dream that they believed would lead to fame and fortune and pull them out of the urban mire they felt trapped in as many in real life did with the economic strife of the late 70’s.
Unfortunately everyone else was partying too much to notice the clouds on the horizon including many Directors who started to fly off the track as they didn’t know how to handle success and no longer had anything to say as filmmakers. This is why they destroyed themselves and closed the door on the greatest era of American cinema with overindulgence just as the sexual hedonism and drug usage mutated and became deadly.
1980-1990: The 70’s ended with the election of Ronald Reagan. Once an actor himself, Reagan sold the fantasy of a “shining city on a hill” to a USA who were still reeling from their 60’s/70’s hangover. The country voted him into power in a landslide victory over Jimmy Carter because they simply didn’t want to face reality. This is why genre films, particularly Sci-fi/Fantasy/Horror, from the likes of Spielberg/Lucas took precedent over movies that dealt with real world issues. It didn’t help that most of the Directors of the previous two decades had flamed out as audiences had grown tired of being reminded just how awful things were. The new generation of Directors, employed by the revitalized Studio System who took back control, would come out of the commercial industry and the new medium of music videos which had taken hold with MTV (it launched on August 1st 1981, the same day that Network screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky died) and over the next ten years movies would begin to adopt the flashy style/zero substance ethos of that format. There was also a new form of moral puritanism that swept the nation as the sexual/drug revolution had transformed into the AIDS and Crack epidemic which was decimating the last remnants of the flower children and turned New York’s Times Square into a demilitarized zone.
Audiences hunger for large scale Action/FX extravaganzas meant that many of the smaller companies, that contributed to the vitality of American cinema, just couldn’t compete as the multiplexes took over. Mom and pop single venue theaters, where independent companies made most of their money and could build word-of-mouth, were killed by technological Darwinism as VCR’s were now affordable and made available tens of thousands of titles on video and provided convenience from the comfort of ones home. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), a consortium sponsored by the major studios much like the Hays Code of the 30’s, was now acting as the self-appointed moral guardians when in reality they conspired with the majors and multiplexes to kill off low budget independent studios and distributers who would have to censor their films for fear of receiving the dreaded X-rating which meant that the movies wouldn’t be accepted by the multiplexes who were now their only possible source of revenue. Meanwhile the majors were able to get family seal of approval R-ratings for movies loaded with gore and nudity.
This was a sign of the predatory nature of that time and why Wall Street was it’s signature film with Gordon Gekko being the symbol of everything that the Reagan 80’s meant. The movies of John Hughes, such as The Breakfast Club, dealt mostly with kids from middle-class backgrounds and although the character of John Bender was the token “kid from the wrong side of the tracks” (similar to the lead in Hughes’ Pretty In Pink) the entire story is set right in suburbia where the biggest issues most of the characters faced related to their social status amongst their peers. But in Wall Street, Bud Fox is supposed to be the conscience of the audience and, in the end, does the right thing, by saving a business, only to be punished for it while Gekko was with whom the public identified and aspire to be. He was a vulture capitalist who worked to dismantle the USA’s manufacturing base, which created and supported the middle class, and revealed that the country was no longer interested in building a better future and was now all about grasping greed while projecting power and dominance. This was symbolic of the USA’s escalating arms race with Russia which hung over the decade and why soo many movies/TV movies (Testament, The Day After, Threads, Miracle Mile etc…) about that subject were made.
1990-2000: “Indie” was the buzzword of the 90’s in both movies and music as people rejected the bigger is better mentality of the 80’s as that decade died out with the end of Reagan and the collapse of the soviet union. The Adventures of Ford Fairlane is a favorite movie of mine and it happens to be a prime example of a film that was left washed ashore in the ensuing cultural tide. A big, stupid, action-comedy, the film was a perfect representation of 80’s cinema and the music industry. Unfortunately its sense of humor, tailored towards its star, hugely controversial comedian Andrew Dice Clay, was no longer acceptable to the Liberal Left. Conservatives/Republicans don’t hide the fact that they have fascist tendencies, because their voters are too stupid to notice, but people forget that it was the Democrats/Liberals, particularly Hillary Clinton, Tipper Gore (Wife of President Bill Clinton’s Vice President Al Gore) and Senator Joe Lieberman who spearheaded what was to become known as “Political Correctness”.
Andrew Dice Clay’s comedy routine was racist, homophobic and sexist but it was no different than that of Eddie Murphy’s whose performance tapes (Delirious/Raw) were just as inflammatory. But the Liberal Left, wrapped up in Civil/Gay rights, went after Clay and used him as a symbol of white male oppression and everything wrong with the world. When it comes to equality, I’m 100% for it and believe that everyone should be treated fairly. But I’m also a misanthrope and believe that everyone should be offended equally, SO FUCK YOU AND YOUR FEELINGS!!! And that’s what “political correctness” is all about, nothing to do with true equality but a way of people to exert control and influence over others which is being taken to its illogical extreme today with the shrill shrieking of the left and their “diversity quotas” which dictates that every movie must have African-Americans cast as leads or in significant supporting roles due to their self-loathing white guilt over slavery which some African-Americans capitalize on in the form of Affirmative-Action. The proof is that you never see or hear these same people advocating more Asians, Indians or Latinos for those roles. Or how feminists demand more movies written and directed by women. All of it is domination in the guise of “diversity” while censoring speech that they don’t agree with and that shouldn’t be what Liberalism is about.
Ford Fairlane wasn’t just the death knell of excessive 80’s cinema, it also acts as a time capsule of the music industry which, as cinema would soon follow, was overflowing with extravagant hair metal bands who were either killed dead or rendered obsolete in 1991 with the release of Nirvana’s second album Nevermind. Martin Scorsese (and other Directors of the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s etc…) understood that the zeitgeist of each era was tied to it, not just by its movies, but also to its music and why his films are replete with songs from whatever period they were set in which gives them a sense of authenticity.
Nevermind’s success, with its stripped down aesthetics termed as “grunge”, foreshadowed the 90’s focus on “independent cinema” which had been around since the dawn of the medium but was now in dire need as budgets were out of control and studios were looking for a way to maximize profits and lower costs. This was reminiscent of what happened in the late 60’s as movies like Cleopatra threatened to bankrupt studios and why executives turned to the film brat generation who had proven that they could make movies that appealed to new audiences while keeping costs down, that is, until the late 70’s, of course.
The two studios at the forefront of the 90’s indie movement were Miramax (created by Harvey & Bob Weinstein) and New Line Cinema (owned by Robert Shaye). In the 80’s, the majors worked to kill off independents and how Miramax and NLC survived were by finding a niche. Until the early 90’s, Art-house cinema was considered a career deadend zone filled with worthy films that wallowed in boring esoterica. Miramax’s genius was that they distributed and marketed art-house movies (preferably those filled with sex/violence and/or heart rending stories of struggle over adversity) as if they were mainstream and provided stories that were considered more intellectually nutritious compared to the major studio snack food. They also tapped into Directors such as Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith and Robert Rodriguez who made low budget movies that were “indie” but, and this is what the art-house circuit forgot to do, they were also entertaining which is what cinemas first obligation should be, not for some Director to work out his emotional/psychological problems onscreen! Meanwhile, New Line Cinema would never be considered “art-house” as they produced commercial genre films, but they did so using Roger Corman’s model of hiring people cheap, keeping costs down and turning a profit.Many of the best Directors of the 60’s and 70’s (Scorsese, Coppola etc…) came out of Corman’s studio which was like a Directors bootcamp that forced people to learn the realities of filmmaking away from the theory of the films schools.
In terms of what movie best defines the 1990’s, most people would say it was Pulp Fiction. But in line with my thesis, Kevin Smith’s Clerks would have to be the one that best sums up what it meant to be young back then. On the surface its a comedy about two guys who work in a convenience and video store, however, underneath the comedy veneer you have two men in their early twenties listlessly working minimum wage “McJobs”. With the advent of “Free Trade” and NAFTA in the sell-out 80’s, the USA’s manufacturing base was chopped up and shipped to third world slave labor countries where workers could be paid pennies per hour and companies could avoid health&safety/environmental regulations. Neither of Clerk’s protagonists, Dante and Randal, have the intellectual fortitude to pursue higher academia, nor do they make much money, so their apathy is palatable as they mindlessly drone on in the service industry with no prospects for the future.
So the rejection of corporate values seems to be the underlying theme of the 90’s. But the truth is that both Miramax and New Line Cinema were known as “mini-majors” and once they were sold to Parent Companies (The Weinsteins went with Disney while Shaye aligned himself with Warner Brothers) they were now expected to make they types of movies/profits that the majors did but at indie prices. This didn’t last long as stars who did turns in various indie films got wise and started asking for their usual seven or eight figure salaries along with a cut of the grosses. The studios also compounded this problem by demanding stars for everything made thus escalating budgets and effectively killing the indie movement save for a handful of flicks, produced through smaller companies, that fell through the cracks and weren’t able to find an audience due to the lack of marketing muscle needed to push them into the public’s awareness.
As it was with the beginning of the 20th century, the dawn of the 21st would be driven by technology, war and economics as cinema evolved from film and analog into digital.
2000-2015: If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result, the last 15 years has proven that our species is lost in the labyrinth of our own madness. Each decade of the 20th century saw incredible developments while cinema has been there to capture most of it in all its glory and horror filtered through the kaleidoscopic prism of the human mind. But even with everything that’s happened since 2000; 9/11; Iraq War part II; the economic crash; the Internet; it really doesn’t feel like we’ve made much progress as our culture has become a stagnant wasteland and people have given up trying to build a better tomorrow, preferring to obsess over so-called “reality” show personalities who’re rich and famous for doing nothing. Barring some new technology that allows for interstellar travel, we’re doomed to wallow in our own shit like pigs waiting to be slaughtered either by nature, the slow passage of time or our own stupidity.
This era has no identity which is why most of its cinema/entertainment is forgettable, with a few exceptions, compared to the avalanche of new ideas that played across screens during the the last century as we used cinema/entertainment as a way to express ourselves and search for the meaning of it all. Even with all the advantages of digital technology, that can put virtually anything on screen that the mind can conceive, imagination is dying while corporations are killing innovation and creativity. It doesn’t help that the public has little appetite for challenging material, preferring to lap up whatever brainless garbage the Hollywood trash factory shovels out while they spend the gross national product of some countries in pursuit of bland four quadrant billion dollar grossing flicks that do nothing for the development of cinema as a viable medium.
The only bright light left is television which is moving away from the network TV sausage factory model, towards Video-On-Demand which is providing an outlet for high quality work with emphasis on better writing, experimentation and higher production values as CGI/digital cameras have leveled the playing field to the point where it can compete with cinema and without the censorship. The only problem is that it requires people to stay at home thus fueling further alienation and robbing us of the communal ritual of going out to see a show together to share an experience as our ancestors used to sit around a fire and tell stories to entertain, educate and inspire.
It’s suitably ironic that the movie that best defines the last 15 years is a sequel; Clerks 2. Still clerking, Dante and Randal are now a decade older and flipping burgers for a living as they’ve made no progress since the last film, only taking a new job after their old one burnt to the ground. It’s an apt metaphor for both the mindset of young people today as well as cinema/entertainment which does nothing but repeat itself in evidence of the wave of remakes, reboots, sequels, prequels, spin-offs and retro films that have flooded theaters since 2000. Only at the end of Clerks 2 do the dynamic duo shake off their apathy and take control of their lives by going into business for themselves. But that’s the happy ending as C2 was released in 2006 and with the economic recession of 2008 I’d like to see where those people are now? Probably working at Wal-mart.
Cinema/entertainment has little or nothing left to say as it reflects our civilization which has reached an impasse and why they rarely engage in social commentary, only acting as an amusing distraction to take our minds off the cold grey fog that surrounds our world!!!FACT!!!