One could say that today's crop of films are as bad as they've ever been, even worse than the early "talkies." Chances are such a statement would not be met with much argument by most cinephiles. An apocalyptic, defeatist, "worst of times" viewpoint is easy to succumb to and is perhaps even valid. After all, the evidence is all around us: Norbit, Wild Hogs, 300--and that's just in one month!
Even our Oscar-winners pale in comparison to winners of twenty years ago. Is mediocre genre work like The Departed and white bread docu-drama like The Queen the best we have to offer? Are these the future classics? Are we really going to be talking about The Departed in 20 years? 10 years? Five even? It's over. Throw in the towel. Art lost. Those studio creative executives out there in Tinseltown (who are now more likely to have a MBA than a MFA) don't know what they're doing.
It's almost too easy to blame Hollywood for this, to throw up our hands dismissively and act as though there is nothing to be done about the whole mess. But what if that's not the whole story? What if Hollywood's not the only guilty party here? What about us? Is the audience responsible? This might smack of self-flagellation, but what if it's true? What if we're not watching the right films? What if great films, masterpieces even, are out there, right under our noses, and we're missing them? Are we ignoring the future classics?
Paul Greengrass' United 93, Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men, Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, David Lynch's Inland Empire, Terrence Malick's The New World, Stephen Gaghan's Syriana -- these are recent films that pushed boundaries and questioned the status quo. And yet there's only two Oscars among them, and none of them made a dime. You can like or dislike these films; after all, they're daring, divisive works. But aren't these films much more likely to provoke discussion in years to come than The Queen? Sure, that moment with Helen Mirren and that deer is, like, totally deep and symbolic and stuff, but can anything in that film compete with the last half-hour of Children of Men?
This is a form of neglect that borders on tragedy. With all the new ways we have to discover films, how can these films fly under the radar? Part of the blame can be placed on the studios, who found these films too hard to market either because they didn't understand them or didn't care about them. It's much easier to sell Wild Hogs than it is to sell a three-hour movie about ... well, I'm still not sure what the hell Inland Empire is about. But I do know that experience will stay with me until the day I die, while, on the other hand, it probably won't be long before I have to ask my wife, "Was Babel the one with Brad Pitt or that cute little elephant in the green coat?"
Does the fact that The Departed is an overblown, over-awarded trifle mean that cinema is dead? Of course not. All it means is that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has its head so far up its ass that it thinks it's doing yoga. The truth is there have always been terrible, terrible movies--some of them have even won Best Picture--and there have always been fantastic movies. The bad have always outnumbered the good and always will, but the bad are always forgotten quickly, while the good are remembered forever.
So the sky is not falling - it's just really freaking cloudy. Occasionally, though, an amazing beam of light pierces that dreary veil and stops us in our tracks. That is, if we're only willing to pay attention.
All worthwhile art takes time to find its audience, not necessarily because it's difficult, but because it doesn't present its rewards right away. Some effort is required on the part of us, the audience, and we have to be willing to put forth the effort if we care at all about cinema, art, or life in general. The fact that Hollywood has become more and more about money does not absolve us from the situation--they cannot make any money without us. We vote with our dollars, and it's time we made our vote count.
It's our responsibility as patrons of the arts to seek out great art. To do so, we have to be willing to take a chance. We have to be willing to be challenged. We have to be willing to be uncomfortable. We have to be willing to have our cages rattled. We have to be willing to be bored. We have to be willing to be changed.