On 1.21.72, right in the middle of the grandest, funkiest and most fabled era of auteurist glory, Dick Cavett asked four directors — Robert Altman, Mel Brooks, Peter Bogdanovich and Frank Capra — if Hollywood was dead. He didn’t mean L.A.-centric filmmaking but the big-studio system that reigned from the ’20s through the ’50s. He was also observing that corporations and corporate-think had taken over from old-school moguls like Harry Cohn and Daryl F. Zanuck and Louis B. Mayer. It’s interesting that Capra, an old-school conservative and a somewhat derided sentimentalist at the time, had the most prescient response: “This has been said many times before…Hollywood is down at the moment, yes…[but] film is not gonna die, I’ll tell you that. If not in Hollywood then someplace else. Maybe Hollywood is dying as a geographical point but…we haven’t really scratched the surface.”
Movies were then experiencing a rich and fascinating phase, certainly from a film buff’s perspective, and yet the dying of the old way was being lamented. The fear, not inaccurate, was that something malignant was afoot and that the studios and distribution companies were being run by corporate barbarians — a tendency that had became genuinely problematic by the early ’80s, when more and more former TV executives were running the show. But despite all this we still had “the ’70s.” Things today are much, much worse than they were 40 years ago. The rise of the CG zombie comic book-superhero-franchise mentality is an ogre stomping around Hollywood like Swamp Thing. But it’s been proven time and again that people can’t see the forest for the trees.
Six and a half years ago I posted a riff called “Downturn of the early ’80s.” It read as follows:
“The Guardian‘s John Patterson has written a lament about the downturn of commercial cinema that manifested in 1982. Despite the release of first-raters like Blade Runner, The Road Warrior, Diner, Missing, First Blood, E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial, 48 HRS., The Verdict, Sophie’s Choice, My Favorite Year, An Officer and a Gentleman and Tootsie, Patterson notes that “one can indeed foresee today’s mainstream Hollywood: special effects; science fiction replacing the moribund western; the rise of serious gore; one-dimensional worldviews and a paucity of powerful ideas.”
“1982 was the year in which everyone realized that the move-brat generation ‘had helped kill off their own 1970s renaissance with big-budget flops that frightened the studios‘ — Cimino‘s Heaven’s Gate, Scorsese‘s New York, New York, Coppola‘s Apocalypse Now (wait…it’s made $91,383,841 since opening in ’79…how could it be consdiered a loss-leader?), Spielberg‘s 1941, Beatty‘s Reds, Altman‘s Popeye and John Landis‘s gargantuan The Blues Brothers, ‘a huge flop until video made it a hit.’
“This left the field ‘clear for Steven Spielberg and George Lucas to solidify the foundations of the Temple of Dumb, and, well, here we all are today.”
“Let it be said again that in 20 years the name ‘Steven Spielberg’ will have far fewer positive associations that it does today. Spielberg deserves respect for being perhaps the greatest hack of all time, but once the memory of his having made truckloads of money for himself and thousands of other people fades, his true legacy will start to take shape. His Duel-to-E.T. surge and Schindler’s List aside, Spielberg’s record is undeniably spotty. Always, Amistad, A.I., Munich…the man has been a ‘problem director’ for too many years.
Here’s a related 2009 “Gloom Cupboard” piece by Greg Oguss called “Movie Malaise.”