Are we plummeting into cinematic decay?

I think Roger Ebert's lament of the dumbing-down of American youthful tastes in film, and Peter Suderman in his criticism of Ebert, are both missing part of the story.

I tend to suspect Suderman is right that dumb has generally done well historically, and that teenagers probably have no more less or more sophisticated taste than they ever did. Ebert says, "They also resist a choice that is not in step with their peer group." Um, well, yes. They are teenagers. They're kinda famous for resisting choices that are not in step with their peer group. The ones who are going to see revivals of L'Atalante either have a peer group where such experimentation is encouraged, or just have a particularly strong interest (and those are probably as rare as kids in the sixties who sought out French New Wave films when their peer groups remained uninterested). But I have no data on this.

But what both sides are ignoring is the concomitant smartening up of television. The smartest, best shows of the past -- Ernie Kovacs, All in the Family, Dick van Dyke, St. Elsewhere, Cheers, Twin Peaks, etc. etc., are all quite good, but most are arguably less complex and rich than The Wire, The Sopranos, Mad Men. While there have always been smart, funny comedies, there usually was only one or two on at any given time. The density of smart comedies (30 Rock, Simpsons, Daily Show, Colbert, and many more) is greater than ever. There's much more TV for people with sophisticated tastes to watch than ever before. And TV is frankly a better medium for those with sophisticated tastes, allowing for a much more richly imagined world to evolve.

I'm a pretty big film nerd. My BA was in film studies, and I got an MA in it too before switching to philosophy. But I watch far more TV than film nowadays.

So it may just be that those with sophisticated tastes are going elsewhere other than to the movies. And the relative box offices of Hurt Locker and Transformers 2 don't actually tell us all that much about American taste. It's funny - my students (ages 18-23, usually) and I see none of the same movies. And yet, most of them have seen and enjoyed my favorite TV shows.

A related aside: one of my bugaboos is the kill-your-television folks, who believe that TV is soul-sucking and disallows imaginative interaction. Not true, and it's not at all clear that TV is far worse for people than movies or even books. This article in the Post today is an interesting suggestion that video games might also be maligned unfairly. I'd love to see more research on this, especially since I have a recently developed fondness for Xbox 360 Tiger Woods PGA Tour 10.


  1. Very interesting, thanks for bringing this to my attention! One thing that seems a little vague in Ebert's writing and perhaps also your comments is the precise age demographics being referred to. The t.v. shows that have reached unparalleled heights of sophistication (along with the new distribution systems for them, e.g. Netflix) are not at all designed for folks in the 15-22 range, imho. Mad Men, I think, is way beyond that range. So, it isn't these shows that are drawing away from film.

    I also think that folks in that 15-22 demographic (this is all university-teacher-type speculation, by the way, grains of salt dispersed widely) shy away from "war movies," so The Hurt Locker isn't a good or fair place to begin the concern over sophistication-in-general.

    Which leaves me, of course, not really disagreeing with anyone. So, I'll just point out that last night I saw District 9, and for a movie that is not-terribly-sophisticated (some hopes are dashed about halfway through, as Gerry Canavan, familiar to Infinite Summerers, has argued), it is entertaining, even with what struck me as some Transformers-type CGI and a group of commandos that probably just travel from film set to film set without changing hairstyle, mercenrary clothing, or guns.

    The audience, for this film that really is just sci-fi candy but high energy, was clearly in the 30-50 crowd. This, in August, in a Mall-based multiplex, at the 8:45 showing. Make of it what you will, but this movie is really better for "unsophisticated youth" than for the crowd we like to think ourselves a part of - but which actually showed up.

  2. Hey! I'm a kill-your-TV kinda guy. It isn't that TV is soul-sucking, but rather the second word is apt. TV sucks. TV kills real comedy. The Daily Show? C'mon, it is the same show week after week (at least, every time I watch a web episode, it is all the same thing it was last time. There is nothing creative about it after 5 episodes).

    The problem with TV, IMVVHO, is that the frequency doesn't encourage superior writing or production values. Movies take lots of time to create and produce, and in the best it really shows through. Great books aren't churned out 10 to the year by the same author. But TV? A dozen episodes, equivalent to around 6 movies, come out each season. That's just too much to maintain a really high level of creative excellence. IMHO. YMMV. KYTV.

  3. Paris, I think Ebert's comments were made on little evidence, and it wasn't clear if he was saying that youths are less interested in cinematic experimentation than they were, or adults are no longer going to movies. EIther way, I was trying to say that maybe tastes have not drastically changed, they are finding another outlet.

    And Gadfly, yes, lots and lots of TV sucks. But some of it doesn't. There's nothing inherent to the medium that really makes it worse than books or TV on the whole. It's the content of the particular TV show. The best TV is better than mediocre books or films. The churning out needed to produce TV also necessitates collaboration and more complexity, which are artistic goods. And before you go out and kill your TV, I'll take it off your hands, if it's bigger than mine!

  4. I think the necessity of producing lots of hours of programming inherent in the current broadcast model makes producing quality programming much harder than film or books. I'd compare TV to serial romance novels; churn out a product to fill the shelves or set-top boxes.

    I would not disagree that the best TV is better than mediocre film and books. I would say the best books and film are far better than the best TV. I've also never heard of collaboration as an artistic good. Complexity? I'm a bit leery of calling that an unalloyed artistic good; good art should be as simple as possible, but no simpler. Complexity for complexity's sake leads to things like the Third Concerto for Brass Quintet, Pretuned Radio, Chinese Noseflute, and Machinegun. It is rarely good art unless in the hands of a genius.