Another summer of cinematic wilderness is drawing to a close and I owe you all a big apology. Why? Because I am responsible for the terrible state of mainstream American cinema today. I know that’s some claim for an Englishman who didn’t first set foot on American soil until 2002.
If you’ve ever wondered why popular American cinema has degenerated into a constant flow of mindless effects driven spectacle, especially in summer, well look no further. Though it’s all my fault I do have an excuse – I was too young to know better.
The least I can do is explain.
When I was a teenager I used to get terribly frustrated that virtually every film which played at my local cinemas was aimed at adults and carried an X certificate, then the UK equivalent of an R rating. I’m talking about everything from Hammer Horrors, eurotrash and kung fu adventures to many of the landmark films of the 1970’s: The Godfather, The Exorcist, The Omen, The French Connection, Last Tango In Paris, The Devils, Don’t Look Now, Straw Dogs, A Clockwork Orange. Films, inside genre and out, broke taboos, pushed boundaries, took risks. Were exclusively for adults. I couldn’t wait to grow-up. Not because I wanted to see endless sex and violence and hear Marlon Brando saying rude words, but so I’d be able to get into any cinema at all. I loved movies, but no one seemed to think it was worth their while putting on anything a person under voting age could see.
It may be hard for young people to grasp now, in a period when almost every major film has the same suitable for everyone PG13/12 rating, but back then almost the only time there were films to which children could gain admission was during school holidays. Pretty much all the rest of the year it was adults only. And most of the films aimed at children or at a family audience looked cheap and stupid. All that was left were a few blockbusters like The Sting, The Towering Inferno, Jaws, the James Bond movies and Disney reissues. I never liked Disney. There were the occasional A certificate (now PG) genre films like Logan’s Run or the first official remake of King Kong.
The irony is that now I’m old enough to get in to films restricted to over 18’s there are very few of them, and of the handful which are released are so extreme I have no interest in seeing them. Regardless of certificate, there is hardly anything I want to watch.
Because Star Wars changed everything. And it’s my fault.
In 1978 I saw Star Wars at the cinema five times.
In 1979 I saw it a further six times.
In 1981 I saw it twice more on a double-bill with The Empire Strikes Back. I saw it again on a Saturday morning show round about 1993, and three more times in the Special Edition version. But that’s neither here nor there. One way or the other I saw Star Wars 17 times.
I saw Superman and Excalibur six times. Alien five times. Carrie and Time After Time four times each.
I saw lots of other films three or four times, almost of all them genre films.
Hollywood got the memo. If teenagers really like something they will see it over and over. That didn’t happen with older blockbusters like Ben-Hur or The Sound of Music.
And I didn’t just pay to see Star Wars. On opening day I bought two copies of the souvenir programme. Why two I have no idea, but I did. I bought the novelisation, nominally by George Lucas, actually by Alan Dean Foster. I bought the double-LP soundtrack album and other less worthwhile memorabilia.
It’s been argued that the success of Star Wars destroyed cinema. Equally that the success of Star Wars saved cinema. Whichever you believe, the unparalleled and enduring success of Star Wars began the transformation of the movies into something very different. So central now, in retrospect, is Star Wars to the history of cinema as a business that it must be considered the most important film ever made. Everything revolves around it. There were films before Star Wars, and massive franchises afterwards.
In the late 1970’s on a review programme on BBC television the British critic Barry Norman speculated that cinema was dying. That in another decade there would only be a handful of cinemas left. He said they would be massive, screening the same film for months at a time. Everything else would be made directly for home consumption. In the mid-80’s a woman indignantly told me that there shouldn’t be any cinemas at all. They were elitist. Everything should go straight to video.
At the time Barry Norman’s speculation was plausible. Star Wars played for almost a year in my home town. In London the same films would run for years, occasionally downsizing to a smaller screen. In the end Barry Norman was half-right, half-wrong. Wrong in that there are now more cinema screens than there were then. Right in that effectively only a handful of films play, because each film runs on multiple screens, even in the same building. In a form of madness, rather than the opportunity to see a film perfectly presented on one gigantic screen, you have the ‘convenience’ of seeing it badly presented on five or more medium-sized to tiny screens. You gain the ‘advantage’ of not having to wait, or rather not having to plan ahead, while the theatre company gains in being able to switch films around quickly between auditoria depending on how well they are doing.
But it doesn’t really matter which auditorium you end up in because almost all of the films are functionally the same, and they are almost all awful.
For which I apologise. Because by going to see Star Wars all those times I made Hollywood realise they could make more money targeting science fiction, fantasy and superhero spectaculars at teenagers than they could by making just about anything else. And of course Star Wars was lightning in a bottle. Making great science fiction, fantasy and superhero films is a very difficult thing to do and inevitably 90% of everything is rubbish.
Occasionally there’s a glimmer of hope. Warner let Christopher Nolan make Inception so he would follow it with another Batman flick. But even the success of Inception didn’t result in a new wave of intelligent SF movies. Probably because no one in Hollywood knows how to make them because they don’t understand science fiction. They understand ‘The Hero’s Journey’ and blowing stuff up real good.
So while you groan over the mediocrity of Oblivion or After Earth, or Elysium or Ender’s Game remember that those are just the obvious ones for which I am to blame. I’m also responsible for all the mediocre superhero films, from Avengers to Thor to Iron Man 3 and Man of Steel to every silly CGI franchise and Harry Potter and Jurassic Park and Twilight and The Hunger Games and Percy Jackson and Transformers all the other nonsense which takes up production budgets and cinema space which might otherwise be devoted to real films an intelligent adult might want to see.
I’m sorry. I really am. If only because what I chose to watch then means there’s nothing for me to see now.