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Thumbs Up For The '70s

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Pelham One, Two, ThreeTwo weeks ago, I suffered a minor injury to my right thumb.  Real-life bodily injury, bloodshed, and anything of a medical nature makes me very woozy, so my greatest danger was passing out.  Thankfully, I maintained consciousness.  With the first-aid expertise of my girlfriend, I was soon on the mend.  More troublesome than the injury itself was how it impacted my work.  For the past several months my focus has been on editing and writing.  Three days after the injury, I attempted to get some work done – only to be punished for this impatience by my hand’s opening up beneath the bandage, and splattering my keyboard and mouse in blood.  I got the hint, and stayed away from computers for the next few days.  

A welcomed side effect to living in my temporary Computer Free Zone was relaxing in front of many movies.  My work schedule has been so intense that my movie-watching time has plummeted during the last year and a half.  While I healed, I elected to only watch movies - old and new - that I had not seen before.  From Robert Altman’s thoroughly enjoyable Thieves Like Us (1974) and Joseph Sargent’s thrilling The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) to a few 2012 films, this span of motion pictures certainly solidified an already firm opinion of mine:  They don’t make ‘em like they used to.

I very much enjoyed one of the newer films: The Woman In Black (2012).  However, the other recently-released films ranged from mildly enjoyable (but immediately forgettable), to supremely disappointing.  Oddly, these movies received rave reviews.  Perhaps audiences’ standards are slipping in tandem with the general quality of the films being produced today.

Why do post-early-80s films tend to leave me so cold?  A few theories surface…

I’m not old, but I ain’t fresh off the turnip truck neither.  I admit I am prone to “cantankerous old man” venting about contemporary films.  Do I have an old-timer “back in my day” tendency to reject newer films automatically as being inferior to films made when I was younger?  Nope.  This theory strikes out because my favorite era of cinema is 1968 through 1982.  I wasn’t even born yet in 1968.  My favorite films from this era I discovered many years after their release – so nostalgia has to be discarded as a culprit in my contemporary-films-negativity.

It is human nature to cast a positive light on what we cannot have.  The grass is always greener, and so forth.  Well, they really don’t make ‘em like they used to… so only by some supernatural intervention could you go to the theater today, or in the future, and see a film featuring the pacing, technique, tone, inventiveness, or zeitgeist-snapshot of Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), Sydney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), or Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979).  I admit, I may see cinema of the '70s in a more positive light simply because I know films like these will never be made again.  

Director Michael Cimino must take much of the blame for terminating our greatest era of filmmaking.  After making The Deer Hunter (1978), a masterpiece that won five Oscars and was a financial success, Cimino was granted almost limitless resources to make Heaven's Gate (1980).  One of the worst disasters in film history - especially on a financial level - Heaven's Gate destroyed Cimino’s career, nearly put the studio United Artists out of business, and ended the era of artists maintaining control of films.  After Heaven’s Gate, studio executives again held all the control.

Heaven’s Gate only indirectly connects to present-day film production and the sagging quality yielded by contemporary Hollywood.  Today, movies are disposable, so putting a lot of effort and thought into them is not necessary - it only serves to chip away at the profit margins.  

Taxi DriverOften, when I see a new film, the technical execution is better than the writing.  We have mastered the techniques of digital cinematography, color correction, digital sky replacement, image stabilization, and the perfect surround sound mix to go with it all.  The weak links in newer films almost always include the screenplay.

I don’t believe the talent of screenwriters has been steadily decreasing over the past three decades.  Instead, I believe the disposability of today’s films means no more than the most minimal efforts in the writing are justifiable.

A theatrical release competes with 19 other screens before it vanishes quickly.  A few may add the film to their libraries when the blu-ray streets.  The discs are rushed out almost immediately to best capitalize on the theatrical release ad campaign – proof that the studios know you’ll forget all about their mediocre product almost overnight.  Most likely, the movie will  be watched once on a phone during a layover in Houston, then discarded.

Movies are not cherished and discussed today.  They are not considered art.  They are time-passers, babysitters, and background noise… downloadable, disposable, forgettable filler material.  Studios produce the same, safe, expected, easily packaged and promoted product over and over.  As a film fan, I’m insulted by this.  I believe The Unexpected is one vital thing every good movie should deliver – and it is what every paying audience member should demand.  Studios and audiences alike have drifted from this.  

Typically, nobody will even know a film existed a year after its release.  Therefore, sloppy writing, directing, and editing are easily approved as “good enough” …oh, and don’t waste time being inventive and coming up with The Unexpected.  That’s not even financially viable anymore.

Certainly, terrible movies were made between 1968 and 1982… and there are films made within the last fifteen years that I think are brilliant… but there has definitely been an unfortunate shift.  I’ll continue to (very hesitantly) check out new films that are recommended to me.  Just don’t expect me to give very many of them the thumbs up.
    
Thanks for reading.

- Eric Stanze
 

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