Only three or four decades ago, I could presume that any class I taught had at least a few students who were aficionados of old movies and had an extensive knowledge of great movies. Those movie buffs from before were geniuses who could memorize lines or relate stories to any subject that was discussed in class.
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The streaming sites and cable networks provide a terrible assortment of both domestic and international film masterpieces, with the exception of Criterion and Turner Classic Movies. This not only represents the pricey streaming rights but also the tastes of the viewers. According to a recent poll, barely a third of millennials have seen a film from the 1960s, and less than a quarter had seen a film from the 1940s or ’50s from beginning to end.
Furthermore, movie theaters are neither the only site where “high-level acting, writing, and directing” takes place nor the point at which Americans lose their naivete and innocence. Movies are now “just another form of content,” one of the many entertainment options available to consumers.
Douthat is entirely correct in some aspects. Hollywood films now have “less complexity and idiosyncrasy and fewer cultural specifics” as a result of global distribution. The abundance of positive, message-driven animated films and thrilling roller coasters has been brought about by the concentration on the child and adolescent market, while the quantity of midbudget historical epics, biographies, conventional love stories, problem films, and, most importantly, serious, middle-brow, adult-focused melodramas has decreased.
There is really no comparison between watching movies at home and a theater. It doesn’t have the same immersive, group, operatic feeling that moviegoing used to have (back before sticky theater flooring!). With few exceptions, movies no longer offer a common cultural reference or a shared public experience due to the variety of entertainment choices available.
Douthat is patently incorrect in another way as well. Numerous events have signaled the end of the cinema industry, including the invention of television, the replacement of celluloid with digital recording, the explosion of product placement, happy endings, and sequels, as well as the emergence of cable TV and videotapes and DVDs.
It’s not unusual to hear complaints about cliched characters, fabricated endings, implausible plots, and emotional manipulation. In the 1970s, we were warned that the end of Hollywood history was imminent with the advent of the blockbuster, with its crayon-drawn conceptions, escapism themes, endless action, and commercial tie-ins. Not at all. Like me, a lot of my students view today’s films as windows into life’s diversity, as well as as profound and potent sources of emotional emotions, as well as aesthetic and sensual enjoyment.
However, I believe that Douthat’s final words, which emphasize making “the encounter with great cinema a part of a liberal arts education” as “a connection point to the older art forms that shaped The Movies as they were,” are particularly pertinent to today’s strapped humanities departments.
To which a lot of humanists might reasonably reply, “Aren’t departments already doing this?” With lessons on French, German, Russian, and Spanish film, several foreign language departments have maintained their upper-level enrollments; an increasing number of English departments also offer film-related courses. Since the early 1990s, I have been teaching American History Through Film, and Douthat himself attended Harvard two decades ago for a cinema-infused course on heroism in ancient Greece.
Douthat is undoubtedly aware of this, therefore I believe we should approach his advice differently and consider it a call to use movies as a means of discussing more significant issues related to philosophy, ethics, history, and aesthetics.
In the courses I teach, I view films as sociological and cultural artifacts that both record and influence cultural beliefs. Throughout the 20th century, one of the most potent catalysts for social and cultural transformation in the nation was film. Hollywood film served as both a teacher and a tutor to a changing American society.
Prior to 1930, American ideals were significantly modernized through the medium of film. The shift from Victorian ideals to distinctly contemporary ones was led by movies. Hollywood had a very different function between 1930 and the middle of the 1960s. It aided in creating a consensus in national culture. Hollywood, known as the “dream factory” of America, had a significant part in forming popular perceptions of American history, the country’s place in the world, and gender roles. Hollywood was vital in preserving some societal ideals, particularly during the Great Depression.
The late 1960s saw Hollywood gradually take on a very different role. Hollywood made pictures that were aimed at certain demographic groupings rather than ones that were meant to appeal to a broad public audience. Hollywood started to release movies that were much more critical of traditional values than those that expressed a shared set of beliefs.