A few weeks ago, Dustin Hoffman made a pronouncement that films were “the worst they’ve been in 50 years.” While some critics agreed, others argued that Hoffman was just being bitter because he no longer had a guaranteed place in the cinematic pantheon and was, perhaps, seeing his past triumphs through very rosy glasses. But Hoffman did have something of a point: middle-range dramas like The Graduate no longer really exist, replaced instead by massive epics, angst-filled melodramas, and prestige pictures with sweeping vistas and very little human emotion.
We have to remember that Hoffman’s “50 years” statement sends us back to a very specific time period: to the 1960s and 70s, when Hollywood was remaking itself and many of its current legends were just getting legendary. The fall of the studio system occurred somewhere around 1960-62, but was not so much a fall as an implosion and rebuilding. Yes, the Production Code basically collapsed and the power of the major studios took some heavy blows. The major studios were forced to re-structure themselves and change the way Hollywood as a whole did business. The industry was behind the times, and either had to re-adapt or suffer defeat. A new crop of young directors, actors, and writers stepped in, bringing with them a veneration of the Hollywood Golden Era (that period that stretches from the 20s and into the 50s, when Hollywood films were arguably at their height artistically and commercially). A new Hollywood was born, one that venerated the director and the actor to the detriment of the power studio.
Those young directors also brought a powerful awareness of contemporary and past film movements that stretched beyond the Hollywood system. A young Martin Scorsese was as influenced by the Italian neo-realists as he was by the film noir auteurs. Kurosawa’s samurai films influenced George Lucas’s later sci-fi blockbusters; adventure serials and monster movies fed into Steven Spielberg’s alien visions. Gangster films of the 1930s made The Godfather possible. Hollywood and foreign cinemas exchanged and overlapped, as they had not since World War II. The new Hollywood became more violent, more sexual, informed by the Method school of acting and the cinema verite of directing. Hollywood filmmaking grew expansive, forced into new territories by the demand of the external culture and internal movements. Just as the America of the 1960s and 70s transformed, so did Hollywood transform with it.
Looking back on many of the films produced during that period of upheaval, there is a sense of vibrancy running through even the most banal examples. Things are being said about America, politics, and society, and even when those things aren’t quite clear there’s always a sense of urgency and of passion. Filmmaking was no longer just a business; it was a passion, something that these directors and actors and writers adored in a deep and abiding way. These were the men and women raised on movies who had begun to both shape films in their own images, and try to equal what they viewed as the best examples of filmmaking. The French New Wave in Paris, the American New Wave in America, the Italians and the Japanese, the frank global exchange, the international marketing – all of these came together to form a very new, very vibrant, and very different kind of mainstream filmmaking.
I think it’s hard to argue that contemporary Hollywood films as a whole possess the same vibrancy that they did in the 60s and 70s, and perhaps it’s even foolish to imagine they could. Things have changed, some of them due to the very vibrancy that made the 60s and 70s so remarkable. But the increased emphasis on sequels, franchises, reboots, remakes, and adaptations all point to a Hollywood not in the throes of regeneration, but the throes of disintegration…much like the end of the 1950s and 60s. Hollywood execs demand a ready-made audience, especially given that films are now competing with TV, streaming, and DVD. There’s desperation for box office take: the “sure thing” is no longer based on actors or directors, but on franchises and recognizable characters. This points to lack of originality and fear of trying anything new or different in mainstream Hollywood – much like the Hollywood right before the implosion began. While studios tout the latest franchise installment’s massive box office numbers, they do so at the expense of future box office. How many sequels to Jurassic Park are we likely to see until audiences simply stop going? Hollywood’s reliance on the past will eventually stymie productivity; it will stop producing anything that people want to see. The question remains if there will be anyone to step into the void that will be left when the superheroes start kicking off. Will Hollywood resurrect itself once more, or will it finally perish in the apocalypse of its own mediocrity?
Hollywood has been remarkably resilient over the years, despite ups and down, the rise of TV, the rise of independent filmmaking, the rise of the Internet. But it’s not going to come back based on the trembling fears of a dozen producers and studios, or the overheated hyperventilations of fanboys. It’s going to have to fall before it can rise from the ashes. If it will come back is anyone’s bet. I don’t know about you, but I’m kind of looking forward to the apocalypse.