After my recent exhaustive excursion into the depths of unknowability, I thought it would be a good idea to relax a little, but at the same time to attempt a summation of the thinking in my most recent essays about film. In brief, they have established that, starting in the latter part of the twentieth century and gaining momentum in the twenty-first, there has been a distinct shift in mainstream cinema. I have said quite a lot about the nature of the change, and made some suggestions as to why it may have come about, but have said little about the mechanism that is driving its acceleration, or (beyond some rather alarmist speculation) considered much what is likely to be the end-state of this process.
So, that is what this essay is about. I intend to gather together the strands from my recent pieces in order to extract their key unifying features, so as to get at the basic nature of the change process. Then, I have analysed causes but never mechanisms, so I want to examine the process that can have brought the change about. I will propose a model for this. Then, based on the proposed model, I will examine what is likely to happen. It turns out that there are basically two possibilities, one catastrophic and the other static, but in either case, though I was somewhat excessive in claiming in The Male Gaze Gone Wrong that a barrier to communication and comprehension would inevitably form between the mainstream audience and the non-mainstream, things will probably be nearly as bad.
Why I am writing this? Partly for the sake of clarifying my thinking, but also because a lot of rubbish is talked about the change in film. Commentator after commentator pins the blame squarely on the studio bosses, who are said to care only about money. But that’s the thing: they do care about money. If there was more money to be made in producing films like Secretary than films like Transformers, then people who care only about money would be producing intelligent, witty films by the bucketload. But the thing that we have to face is, it is more profitable to make films like Transformers because they are what the mainstream audience wants to see. In fact, the true situation is that there is a complex interaction between the studios and the mainstream audience, a folie a deux if you like, and it is that interaction that I want to analyse.
In The Tyranny of Realism, I established that starting in the latter half of the twentieth century, there has been a shift in mainstream cinema away from the creation of provocative visual effect and towards grand guignol spectacle. It has been suggested that this is a side-effect of the increased audience-base for movies, which has expanded to include those from many cultures. I reject this argument, first because it is unduly simplistic, second because it is so patronising as to verge on suprematism, third because its logic implies that I (as a Briton) should be unable to appreciate films like, say, Valerie and her Week of Wonders, and fourth because I showed quite conclusively in The ‘Other’ in Culture that such cross-cultural barriers to comprehension do not, in fact, exist (at least, within one species). Let me rehearse what I consider to be the correct analysis. There are some putative causes and (promisingly) a suggestion of a process:
- With the increased emphasis on the individual, as opposed to society, starting after the Second World War, came a fear of any experience or activity that might threaten the self. This can include quite legitimate fear of threats such as the totalitarian urge to collectivism, but it has the negative of rejecting enhancing experiences that threaten the self by promising to reshape it. In particular, this translates into a fear of transcendance, and hence avoidance of the complex artistic effects that cause it.
- There has been a general move away from the challenging to the easy, which can be seen as being a move from challenging oneself and ones preconceptions to having them gently reinforced, and so is just another aspect of the move to protect the unstable self from threats to its equanimity and smooth over its instabilities. In the wider culture we see this as part of the general confusion of the simple and the simplistic, leading to the extraordinary situation where a book called All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten is not a satire.
- I made the observation that if your concern is with the bottom line, then you want to be able to predict whether a film will make lots of money (i.e. fill lots of seats) before green-lighting it. And the way to have predictable returns is to have a predictable effect on audiences. Which means that you want to short-cut all the nasty, complex, sophisticated machinery that makes up the upper part of the human psyche and go for the reptile within, with its concern for the four Fs. So subtlety is out and spectacle is in. And people flock to see if because it gives an easy emotional ride, with exhilarating release of hormones, but without any troubling questions.
So we see a move towards a preference for simple sensation, dare I say gratification, as opposed to more complex, and potentially troubling emotions. A nice piece of evidence supporting this is the massive shift in the horror genre over the same period. We move from a theatre of suggestion and suspense, where terror can be found in a shadow or an otherwise everyday misplaced item, which was briefly and honourably sustained for a while by the Hammer horror series, and still exists in isolated non-mainstream films (Shadow of the Vampire – simultaneously a horror movie and a deconstruction of horror movies – or The Others), to the crapulence of Hostel, Saw and (heaven preserve us) The Human Centipede where all we find is grotesque acts of physical violence. But this is consistent with my thesis: seeings others dismembered or tortured gives a thrill but it also makes you feel good, because the bad things can only happen in the private world of the movie; the genius of the older, suggestive horror is that it leaves the viewer uneasy, for the world could go wrong in exactly the same way outside of the film. So once again we move from challenge to affirmation.
This was a theme I took up in Less is More and The Male Gaze Gone Wrong, here looking at the issue of eroticism, and its portrayal in the movies. Looking at the portrayal of female eroticism, we again see a shift from the complex to the very simple. So we progress from actresses who were beautiful, indeed sexy, and yet could dominate the screen by virtue of their acting and character, and who were given roles to match, to actresses who seem all but interchangeable, and an increasingly powerful emphasis on their bodies, indeed, on everything below the neck, as if the woman herself doesn’t matter, let alone her ability as an actress: it sometimes seems that actresses exist purely as carriers for surgically exaggerated secondary sexual characteristics. In other words, we have replaced the sensibility of glamour with that of pornography. And lest we think only the male of the species is guilty, we have reached the point where there are any number of young (and not so young) men who have no discernable acting talent, yet who are successful simply because they are sexually attractive. Once again, complexity has given way to primitive emotion. Actors no longer have to inspire love or devotion; all that matters is that they can reliably trigger the right hormones. Note, in addition, that this shift fits perfectly within the observed trend to self-affirmation: the new sexual sensibility is that of the masturbator or voyeur, not that of the lover.
So, it seems that my basic thesis is that in the second half of the twentieth century, the audience for mainstream cinema underwent a change of appetite. Increasingly as time went on, until now we reach the point where its dominance seems total, we see the advent of a paradigm in which emotions are simple and direct, anything hinting at complexity is shunned, as is anything that might lead to doubt or questioning of ones self or preconceptions. The movies now inhabit a strangely Panglossian world where everything would be perfect if only people wouldn’t occasionally (and not for very long, for they are always slapped back into conformity at the end) try to buck the established order. For it is a strange quasi-paradox that the constant talk of self-affirmation in film and the wider culture in fact constitutes a hymn to conformity. To not conform means to challenge and question why one is what one is; far easier and happier to conform while seriously believing that by dressing and eating and drinking and thinking exactly like millions of others one is somehow expressing oneself (a former manager of mine once complained ‘Julian, you’re so conformist’, when I enquired, it turned out he was referring to my dress; I was wearing a smart shirt, linen trousers and a tie, the only person in the office so to do; he said ‘Why don’t you dress like everyone else?’ I rest my case).
This uniformisation of emotion and identity seems to affect both the audiences and the pictures and suggests an increasing drive towards productisation, which might lead one to conclude that this is all a story of big bad business taking over the movies and ruining them for all of us. And that would certainly fit with the other observation that I made above, that I have so far left unexamined: the idea that simple, bold emotions make it easier to shift product. So is this just a story of how the suits took over the studios and robbed them of art?
No. There are two problems. First, making mainstream movies has always been about making money. Making a movie for wide-scale distribution is an expensive business, so if there were no profit to be had the movie would not get made. And, that being the case, it is very hard to explain why it is that the change that I have been describing only really got going some time between the end of the war and the mid 1950. Second, there is still the problem that even if the suits in charge of the studios were all philistines, as it is posited that they love money more than art, if high art had been what sold then it is high art that would have got made, even if in their souls the suits longed for dreck. Giving them what they want is what being a good businessman is about. And want it is very clearly what the audiences did and still do in increasing numbers, even though by now the mainstream has become so moronic that it is hard to see (to paraphrase Roger Ebert) what audiences gain from going to the pictures as compared to say, staring at a blank wall for ninety minutes.
And there, of course, is the beginning of the answer and the start of my thesis. If one is insecure about ones place in the world, the last thing one wants is that blank space that can allow dangerous questions to enter the mind. One will urgently seek out displacement activity, pabulum, preferably as unchallenging as possible, to quiet the mind, thrust the dangerous ideas back into the depths of the unconscious, and confirm, with any luck, that one is all right really. So a safe middle-brow (without even the vigour of good low-brow entertainment) show is just what one needs.
So I posit that this is what happened. Something in the post-war world created an imbalance in people’s minds. It doesn’t really matter what it was (though it would not be hard to make an educated guess), though it is interesting to note that while the Great Depression and its aftermath bred dreams of sparkling, unreal utopias, with the world of Fred and Ginger as the perfect escapist fantasy, the post-war darkness led to a retreat inward into mediocrity: to see this one only needs to compare the introverted escapism of Meet Me In St Louis with the exuberantly extroverted escapism of Roberta.
However, we have the imbalance, possibly small, and people feel the need for reassurance. That translates into a differential in return on movies, with the most consoling doing better. And that leads to the studios, eager to make money by giving people what they seem to want, to skew in that direction. But now, the need for reassurance being fed will not go away, but become more demanding, and so the returns for movies bias even more in the direction of wholesome pabulum. And so now we get a positive feedback loop: the more people choose dull, emotionally simple movies over complex ones, the more studios will make them, and as more of them get made, the more people go because, even with the original cause of the insecurity long forgotten, ego-reinforcement is a highly pleasurable experience and helps soothe the stresses of modern life. And so the audiences and the studios feed off one another in an escalating cycle.
The reader will, of course, have recognised what I have just described as being a description of runaway evolutionary adaptation on a particular characteristic. So, as with any evolutionary system, a small pertubation in the state of things causes an initial deviation within the population, but in this special case there is a very strong reward factor for a particular kind of deviation, so with each generation the rewarded factor is represented more and more strongly in the population. Now, the problem with a positive feedback loop like this is that it is inherently unstable: one cannot go on for ever adapting more and more, either because the adaptation will become so extreme as to be maladaptive and positively harm the population, or because the whole process, as it were, runs out of gas. We can see examples of both these scenarios in the natural kingdom. The first was effected by the Irish Elk, in which strong sexual selection on antler-size resulted in males with enormous antlers, so huge that the animal could not sustain carrying them, and so the species essentially selected itself into extinction. The second has happened with the Sperm Whale. There appears to have been very strong selection on a particular food source (deep-dwelling squid) with increasingly bizarre adaptations arising to serve foraging. Here, however, it appears that the feedback loop ran out of gas and left the Sperm Whale stranded, as an evolutionary isolate, dependent entirely on one particular ecological niche for its continuance.
So, what does that mean for the movies? In the Irish Elk scenario, movies get bigger and louder and simpler and dumber until the demand of the audience for even more simply cannot be met any longer because there is nowhere else to go. At which point the audience will desert the movies en masse in search of their next fix. In fact there is some evidence suggesting that this may be happening in the general trend over recent years for lower box-office revenues, which gimmicks like 3D have done little to disguise. What the audiences will take to instead I do not think I want to know (dumbed down porn?), but they will leave behind them a movie industry that will implode under its own weight. And that, for all the chatter about the evil of the industry bosses, is not something we want to happen.
The other scenario is more benign, but much more bizarre. What may happen is that the industry and their audience establish a kind of plateau of awfulness, where each is content to remain, promulgating and consuming something which is a distant cousin of the movie as we know it, but which is almost entirely incomprehensible to those of us used to less mainstream fair (and let us be honest, given the inexplicable popularity of post Scary Movie ‘comedy’, a genre so devoid of actual humour as to be entirely incomprehensible to those of us brought up to believe that, say, Bringing up Baby and Blazing Saddles are comedies, we may not be all that far from reaching that point). And then we will have reached the point I made at the start of this essay. We will have two populations who both believe they are going to see movies, but who will inhabit conceptual universes so different (go back to my parenthetical comments about comedy just now if you don’t believe me, or if you are not convinced, recall that there are people out there who believe that Eat, Pray, Love is profound) that one might be tempted to say that communication between the two camps would be impossible. As I showed in On Epistemic Barriers, this will not, in fact, be the case, but it will undeniably be the case that translation will be excessively difficult. And then what will happen? I have no idea, but I am sure that it would make a far more interesting movie than any released in the last few years.