Kevin Drum asks a question asked by many because Hollywood is having an off year financially–why are movies so bad? My answer is that I reject the premise. Not the premise that most Hollywood product sucks, but the premise that it was better five or ten or 20 years ago. You often hear about the decline of Hollywood, but there are obvious false comparisons created by the fact that history generally only remembers the best films of a given year. Now, it is true that my favorite movies of the year so far–Downfall, 5×2, Broken Flowers–don’t really measure up to my favorite movies of last year, but 1)it’s early, and 2)these movies are arty-farty stuff most Americans don’t have the chance to see in theaters even if they were so inclined. Kevin’s real argument seems to be about mainstream Hollywood movies–and is it really true that the movies he complains about are worse than most of last year’s top grossers? Many people will be appalled, but I see The Constant Gardener and The Incredibles as basically similar–very skillful movies that start strongly and then wind down into dreary didacticism and dreary James Bond moves, respectively. And I’d certainly rather watch The Wedding Crashers or The 40 Year-Old Virgin than Meet the Fockers or National Treasure or the Roland Emmerich thing. If you say that this year’s Top 10 is worse than last year’s I guess I can’t argue with you since I haven’t seen most of them, but it sure seems marginal to my eye. And then what about 2001, when box office receipts jumped? OK, you have a justly beloved mainstream classic (admittedly I’m not a huge fan, but I don’t deny its quality) in the #2 spot. And I like Ocean’s 11 a lot, and people seem to love Shrek. But great books or not, the #1 movie was directed by one of the biggest hacks in the biz, and look at the rest of the top 10–Rush Hour 2, The Mummy Returns, Pearl Harbor, Jurassic Park III, Planet of the Apes–ugh.
I don’t mean to deny that movies can generally get worse; certainly, the best movies of the 70s are a lot better than those of the 80s, and probably the influence of Star Wars has something to do with that. On the other hand, the best movies of the 90s are also a lot better, and I don’t see that Hollywood is making movies for dimwitted teenage boys any more than they were 5 or 10 years ago. I don’t think that the dip in box office receipts really means anything, whether they’re supposed to signify declining aesthetic standards or (as many conservatives seem to be arguing) political alienation or whatever. Sure, most Hollywood releases are crap, but that’s because they always are.