Do movies matter?
When I first became interested in them, in the 1970s, they seemed to matter very much indeed. People with cultural interests talked about movies, argued about them, studied them, loved them, emulated them. Highly regarded directors of foreign films—Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, François Truffaut, Akira Kurosawa, Satyajit Ray—attained an elevated cultural standing in the United States that surpassed the poets and novelists and painters among their own countrymen. And small-scale movies that today would be consigned to art houses and tiny grosses and limited runs—M*A*S*H, American Graffiti, Midnight Cowboy, Shampoo, Network, Coming Home, Kramer vs. Kramer, even The Graduate—not only provoked general conversation among the chattering classes but became major popular successes.
That doesn’t happen any longer. For the most part, moviegoers are uninterested in provocative depictions of the way we live now. Consider The Hurt Locker, which won the 2009 Oscar for best picture. Without question, this piece of highly kinetic and suspenseful filmmaking on the literally incendiary topic of an American bomb-defusing squad in Iraq would have been a huge hit in the 1970s. Even in the mid-1980s, Oliver Stone’s disgustingly pernicious though admittedly exciting Vietnam melodrama Platoon made $138.5 million. But The Hurt Locker earned an astonishingly paltry total of $17 million.
The year that The Hurt Locker won its Oscar saw the release of Avatar, which has grossed more money worldwide than any other movie ever made by a large margin—nearly $3 billion. When the blockbuster age began in the mid-1970s, the movies that exploded into the marketplace the way Avatar did—Jaws and Star Wars, especially—were basically seen by everybody. People stopped going to the beach out of fear the summer that Jaws premiered, and that summer’s cultural echo can be heard 36 years later in every hot-weather story about big fish scoring a human snack, or whenever the Discovery Channel announces it’s time for SHARK WEEK.
As for Star Wars, it entered the national cultural consciousness within a week of its release in 1977 and has remained lodged there ever since. Three-year-old boys of my acquaintance today who have never seen a frame of any of the films know who Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader are, what a lightsaber is, and the phrase “may the force be with you.”
One mark of a work’s pop-culture influence is whether the names of its characters move from the screen into the real world, when the young people who loved it have children of their own. Thus, when the TV show Dynasty became popular, thousands of babies came to be named “Krystle” after its lead character. A chart on the website BabyCenter.com indicates that the name Luke was barely in use before Star Wars and then took a vertiginous climb into the top 50, where it has remained ever since.
But what of Avatar? Its heroine is named Neytiri—gorgeous, lithe, sexy, brave, noble, though with blue skin and a tail. The name sounds fun and exotic, and given Avatar’s astounding box-office take, should have made the same transition from screen to Social Security baby list as Krystle and Luke. It didn’t. According to Baby Center, Neytiri was the 25,501st most popular name for girls in the United States last year.
What happened? Or rather, what didn’t happen? Simply this: Avatar didn’t matter. Some of that is due to its failings as a work of popular art, which I believed at the time and believe even more now are colossal. But it also says something about the fact that movies have so little to say to us now that audiences no longer engage with them as they once did. They do not expect to be drawn in—and they aren’t. The movies they have been trained to attend for decades are contrivances, amusement park rides, seemingly designed to be disposable, forgettable, pointless.
It has become a commonplace to say that television series now serve the role movies once did in the cultural consciousness, but with the possible exception of The Sopranos and Sex and the City, none of the gripping and gritty programs that most closely evoke the movies of the 1970s has an audience anywhere near the size of a hit picture from the time, much less a television show of the time.