Tuesday, April 08, 2014

The Death of Adult Movies

I rarely frequent movie theaters these days. Box office ticket prices are not the chief deterrent, nor the concession stand price of a barrel of popcorn or a box of Raisinets. Talkative members of audiences, and eardrum-splitting volumes of trailers are also deterrents, but they're not why I avoid ticket windows.  Rather it's what's showing in the theaters that stops me from sitting in the dark. I will make an exception, and pay for a ticket, if I think I ought to see a film. If I make the effort, it's because I suspect there's something odd about a film that I wouldn't be able to identify unless I saw it instead of being misled or repelled by its trailers.  

I happen to love movies. Good movies. Ones that uplift me, or instruct me in the art of storytelling, or enlighten me in some respect. But bad movies, or mediocre ones, have the same effect on me as does Andy Warhol's poster of Campbell Soup cans. And there are far more of those films than there are of that anti-artist's thirty-two soup cans.

I recently saw The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. I suspected that, like its predecessor,  it was more than just a story about a girl good with a bow and arrow, coming from a circa 1930's West Virginia-like coal town, and populated with characters whose names seem to have been the result of a Scrabble game with no rules. The setting wasn't supposed to be a post-war or post-anarchy America governed by PanAm – excuse me, "Panem" – an oppressive government located in some high-tech run Imperial Rome-like city that's full of evil men and a populace of perversely effete, gaudily dressed clowns entertained by a form of gladiatorial combat. The weird names -- Katniss Everdeen, Peeta Mellark, Finnick Odair, etc., all vaguely Celtic – didn't fool me one bit, either. It was all an allegory on America.

So I learned that both Hunger Games movies – I saw the first one, also, and there will be a third, to judge by the ending of Number Two – were political statements about the evils of technology and capitalism and civilization and how virtuous living the simple life at a subsistence level trumps technology and cities and badly dressed people every time. The "message" was as thoroughly embedded in it as it was in another fantasy, Avatar.

As the American consciousness has been progressively foreshortened, minimalized, and cramped over several generations – chiefly by a public education philosophy committed not so much to the acquisition of knowledge and the honing of one's cognitive powers and rationality, as to what the Progressives and the government wish to have Americans focus on (anti-intellectualism, pragmatism, conformity) – so has the "I.Q." of films diminished in terms of scope, scale and attention span. This has occurred, not overnight, but incrementally, in generational jerks and spasms, in syncopated tandem with the dumbing down and the engineered cognitive and cultural myopia.

Instead of adapting novels that require a modicum of literacy and an extended attention span to read and grasp – an attention span beyond what a text message or a tweet demands – we are getting movies more and more adapted from graphic novels. From comic books. And if not from comic books, then from juvenile or "young adult" novels, or computer games.  And often a computer-game-inspired movie will loop back into an advanced version of the game.

Left behind in this scramble for boffo box office receipts and securing the twenty-something and "tween" crowds are adults and adult themes and subjects (and I don’t mean pornography). "Adult" themes and stories are about individual heroism, or integrity, or mature but rational relationships and conflicts, and even political issues and crime stories based on a rational ethics.

Instead of something like Seven Days in May, we get Olympus has Fallen. There are no razzmatazz special effects in the former, nor any Korean terrorists (nor any Islamic terrorists, for that matter, that wouldn’t be Sharia-Compliant; see my column on that subject here), just nonpareil direction, acting, and suspense, even though Burt Lancaster, as the coup-plotting general was intended to be the incarnation of the "right wing." It's the well-made films with the subtle, unemphasized "messages" that are the effective and memorable films, as well as the ones with no ostensive political or "social justice" messages at all, such as the original The Browning Version, Leave Her to Heaven, or Laura.

Want a gripping story of tragedy or personal conflict from an adult perspective? Try Tunes of Glory, Tea and Sympathy, or The Runner Stumbles. Want a good comedy? Try Hobson's Choice, His Girl Friday, The Ladykillers, or Nothing Sacred. Want a "romantic" movie that features "adult" conflicts without showing an inch of flesh? Try Separate Tables, For Whom the Bell Tolls, or Brief Encounter.

Either you will not find their counterparts in modern movies, or if they've been remade, they just don’t evoke short-term memory, never mind nostalgia. The remakes especially are guilty of pointlessly changing names and situations to appeal to the current generation or the current political mantra. Too often those changes just don’t make the grade. You wonder why producers and directors bother with a remake, until you see what they've done to the characters, the story, and the theme. 

Needless to say, I won’t be seeing Captain America: The Winter Soldier, just as I have refrained from seeing any of the Dark Knight Trilogy, or any of the other comic book-based action movies. I'm a full-grown adult. I don’t need to be "entertained" by having my mind seared, scoured, and dulled by endless car chases, exploding CGI space ships, incredible fight scenes that induce mental whiplash, decibel-destroying automatic weapons, and flat acting.  There should come a point in anyone's life when he should know that he's being patronized and insulted at the same time, but the capacity to make that connection is missing in more and more adults. "We're going to treat you like an adolescent, insult your intelligence, and take your money, too." No, thanks.

Someone might ask: But aren't these comic book movies upholding heroes and justice, things you are for? I don’t know that this is true. When you project heroes and justice outside the realms of reality, that might be fine for children and adolescents exploring the value of heroism or moral issues for the first time, but it hardly applies to adults. Children, adolescents and adults might get a glimmering of how to solve a serious moral problem by watching Executive Suite, not Wall Street. Or Shane, not The Wild Bunch.

About a million words have already been written by reviewers and critics about Captain America, but few, to my knowledge (and I've read a hefty number of them), observe the adolescence-orientation of that film and its ilk, or they reveal that their authors are oblivious or indifferent to the phenomenon. Mike Wilmington of Movie City News, however, wrote an ambivalent column about the pros and cons of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, while still pining for something a little more substantial than the facile razzle-dazzle of modern action thrillers or adventure films. He opens with:

In the mood for something super-duper, movie-wise? Something loud, fast, full of crash-bang and zip-zowie, and liable to make megazillions of dollars all around the world? Captain America: The Winter Soldier — which is the latest Marvel Comics super-hero spectacular — may be  just your super-ticket.

I’m being facetious, but maybe not super-facetious. The movie, directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, has a lot going for it, though I think it’s being somewhat overrated. A super-hero picture with a great two-faced super-villain, a super-jittery action camera, super-CGI tricks, super-credit teasers, a shrewdly super-paranoid script, and a sort of a heart, Captain America: The Winter Soldier definitely belongs in the upper echelon of Marveldom, somewhere under Iron Man  and Spider-Man 2, and somewhere above The Hulk and X-Men.

Discussing the plot of Captain America, Wilmington notes:

These nightmare fantasies of the teen-targeted super-hero action movies (or SHAMS) and young adult movies (or YAMs) — so wildly popular with younger audiences — are fashioned out of the Marvel comic books of the ‘60s and ‘70s, which is when Marvel Comics main-man writer-editor Stan Lee wrote a lot of his best stuff and when I read a lot of it), and this Captain America (created for the comics by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby) is a left-wing movie that makes its villains part of the military-industrial complex: self-righteous militarists who want to take over the world, and programmed mercenaries like the Winter Soldier himself. [Italics mine]

That observation can also be applied to the differences between the original The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and the remake (2004). The first was about a Communist conspiracy to install a president friendly to Communism. The second was about a capitalist plot to install a president friendly to capitalism. Some pundits have called President Barack Obama a "Manchurian Candidate." However, I'd call him the Ayers/Soros/Alinsky candidate. I might also add that when it comes to portraying a conspiring, manipulative mother-bear bitch, Meryl Streep can't hold a candle to Angela Lansbury.

Wilmington asks:

Is it a bad joke that this truly super art form is now often most expensively used to make ultra-costly versions of old comic books (even good old comic books) and new young adult novels (even good ones), intended for a world-wide audience of teenagers, and people who seem to want to be teenagers? Are we so steeped in teen fantasies… that the real world and all the magnificent stories you can cull from it are relegated mostly to the smaller budgets and cheaper seats?

No, it isn't a bad joke. Something unfunny is at work. What is responsible for the "reimagining" of older material is moral and esthetic bankruptcy, with directors, producers, and most Hollywood studios suffering from selective autism, with a strong strain of Alinskyite target-and-destroyism.  

Wilmington's plaintive remarks echo the subject of Diana West's seminal critique of American culture, The Death of the Grownup: How America's Arrested Development is Bringing Down Western Civilization (reviewed here).

West’s central thesis is that our culture has ossified into a “perpetual adolescence,” even though the Baby Boomer generation is nearing or at the age of retirement. That generation was sired and raised by the “greatest generation,” one of adults and even adolescents who fought World War Two in combat overseas and in the factories at home.

The “greatest generation,” however, in turn raised a not-so-great generation many of whose members became the creators and proponents of or adherents to the rebellious “counterculture” of the 1960’s and 1970’s, with its pronounced leftist, collectivist and nihilist means and ends. If members of that generation did not actively take part in the assault on the status quo, then they passively accepted a besieged status quo as mere powerless spectators.

West diagnoses part of the problem, as I note in my column:

Throughout her book West cites numerous instances of adults abdicating or never discovering their responsibilities as thinking, reasoning adults. She defines two species of this state of purported adult “adolescence,” a condition she also claims is exacerbated by multiculturalism and diversity:

A reluctance to assert or champion “adult” values one knows are superior, or a fear to assert them, lest one be accused of something terrible (fascism, elitism, or racism) by the enemies of those values;

An indoctrinated ignorance of or hostility to any values that are demonstrably superior.

Lest anyone accuse me of retreating to the past, let him. Today's culture and arts are not mine. I am not so much alienated from the culture, as it is alien to everything I hold dear. And I think that anyone who has read this column up to this point would agree that they're grown-ups, too.


Joe said...

I agree. I have taken my kids to see some of these comic book movies and though I enjoyed comics as a kid, i almost invariably fall asleep in these mind numbing movies.

Having access to better movies... Even b movies from the past on Netflix is more entertaining... And much cheaper.

Edward Cline said...

Joe: I read comics as a kid, too, focusing more on the "Classic Comics" renditions of noted literature. I liked "Superman" on TV. But as one matures to adulthood, these are things one leaves behind. One doesn't denigrate them, but they can't fill or answer an adult's needs for moral guidance or inspiration. Some of the movies I recommend in the column are only the tip of the iceberg of what I'd want others to see. They're not all perfect, but they are adult in the best sense of that term.

Edward Cline said...

Someone thought he had scored me on the meaning of "Panem" (which I parodied as "PanAm" in the column). But explaining that "panem" was, loosely, Latin for "bread and circuses" would have meant adding or complementing the reference to Imperial Rome. While composing the piece, I consulted my Latin-English dictionaries because I recognized the term, and decided it wasn't worth explicating when I already describe one of the purposes of the Hunger Games, which was to entertain the effete populace. See, however, http://www.britannica.com/blogs/2012/03/bread-circuses-the-hunger-games-ancient-rome/. As a patron of many Italian restaurants, I was familiar with "panini," the diminutive of "pane" or "bread." When I lived in New York City, I often patronized a bohemian place in Greenwich Village called the Chocolate Panini, and in Palo Alto, California, Il Fornaio, in which I wrote most of my Chess Hanrahan novels.

Victoria said...

Wow. I never thought of it like this. I really enjoyed the Dark Knight movies, and most of the recent Marvel efforts, because they took the old fashioned concept of a superhero and made it work with modern-day villains, problems, and technology.
I think that's why Batman is so beloved in general...because he's not really a superhero. He doesn't have any special powers, he just has a lot of money and believes in fighting evil. I like that.
I like these films because they are engaging beyond the typical dumb action film. It's not just endless explosions and chase scenes....
...but at the end of the day, you're right. They are definitely teen stories. There's no real depth to them; the morals, the problems, and the solutions are all pretty superficial.
I don't think that makes them bad, but it definitely speaks to our society's shallowness. Damn.

Edward Cline said...

Victoria: I never said (and I know you're not accusing me of it) that these movies were "bad." My point was that this is what the culture has brought people down to, although I must add that people who are looking for heroism and good defeating evil in movies (or even in literature) don't have much of a choice anymore. Another point I wanted to make is that there's a treasure trove of great movies that remain to be discovered. They're all "oldies" but they're there and they're evidence of what was and could be again.

Rich G said...

For some time now I've had an uneasy feeling about the quality of movies.The virtual societal push back, the politically correct goo, the dumbing down, everything would have me believe that I should get with the program.That I should enjoy these offerings. You're just and old curmudgeon they say.
I don't think I am.
Biological units die. Before they die they go through various stages. Helplessness, growth, pinnacle achievement,plateaux, decline etc. In the same way society is just a collection of individual biological units going through the same stages.
We've peaked, we're dying and the symptoms are all around.
Bad movies, bad literature, political correctness. Just an old man farting in the wind. Who cares.