Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Are Hollywood Movies Inreasingly Culturally Irrelevant?

I've thought about movies quite a bit recently, partly because I've become obsessed with watching trailers on IMDB on my iPhone while riding the bus and partly because I'm teaching "Archaeology in Film." In generally I'm not really a big movie person (sssshhhhh, don't let my students know!) so I actually end up seeing very few of the movie of the trailers I watch. And that's because hardly any of them interest me (I have pretty high standards for how I spend my time and watching B-grade movies is not one of them, Facebook on the other hand, that's worth every second, right?); that and it costs $10 to go to the theater. Most movies either just sound dumb to me or just look like horror or action flicks with no real message.

This week in my class we watched the original Planet of the Apes (1968) with Charlton Heston. Where are the movies like that these days? Movies with with social and political themes that are so obvious you'd have to have lived in a box to miss them - civil rights, war and violence, environmental destruction, and evolution vs. intelligent design. Movies like Planet of the Apes were clearly intended to be used as social commentary. Sure, there are some recent examples - Hunger Games, Cars 2, Wall-E, but for the most part, the big budget, action/adventure-type flicks are just that; thrillers with been-done-before plots and characters that don't exactly keep you up at night thinking.

Yesterday I came across at article in the New York Times, "Movies try to Escape Cultural Irrelevance." Apparently way more people are in to watching TV shows rather than movies these days and the ticket sales barely even reach the number of people that watch a popular TV show in one night. Some argue that part of the reason is also that Hollywood is not producing culturally substantive films, that films are instead "...consumed in thinner slices, and ... often lack depth." I have to say I agree. The movies that do have depth and cultural significance tend to be historical dramas (Lincoln, Argo, Zero Dark Thirty). Those movies point us toward the past rather than looking toward the future, although I would argue that seeing our past can help us envision our current and future trajectories. But there is still of a lack of fictional movies with political and social undertones that force us to reflect on our society from a distance in the way Planet of the Apes does.

As far as the special effects go, I could do without most of that. As author David Denby argues, "...the enduring strength of film will depend on whether studios return to modestly budgeted but culturally powerful movies."

If you haven't seen Planet of the Apes recently, do yourself a favor and watch it again. The music may be ridiculous and the apes might have completely silly costumes, but you can't help but appreciate the movie for what it was meant to be: a commentary on the the social and political atmosphere of the 1960's.

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