Nice post-Oscars meditation by Neal Gabler in the LA Times on the way movies are moving from the centre of American popular culture towards the periphery.
What is happening may be a matter of metaphysics. Virtually from their inception, the movies have been America’s primary popular art, the “Democratic Art,” as they were once called, managing to strike the American nerve continuously for decades. During the 1920s, nearly the entire population of the country attended the movies weekly, but even when attendance sank in the 1950s under the assault of television and the industry was virtually on life support, the movies still managed to occupy the center of American life.
Movie stars have been our brightest icons. A big movie like “The Godfather,” “Titanic” or “Lord of the Rings” entered the national conversation and changed the national consciousness. Movies were the barometers of the American psyche. More than any other form, they defined us, and to this day, the rest of the world knows us as much for our films as for any other export.
Today, movies just don’t seem to matter in the same way — not to the general public and not to the high culture either, where a Pauline Kael review in the New Yorker could once ignite an intellectual firestorm. There aren’t any firestorms now, and there is no director who seems to have his finger on the national pulse the way that Steven Spielberg or George Lucas did in the 1970s and 1980s. People don’t talk about movies the way they once did. It would seem absurd to say, as Kael once did, that she knew whether she would like someone by the films he or she liked. Once at the center, movies increasingly sit on the cultural margins.
This is both a symptom and a cause of their distress. Two years ago, writing in these pages, I described an ever-growing culture of knowingness, especially among young people, in which being regarded as part of an informational elite — an elite that knew which celebrities were dating each other, which had had plastic surgery, who was in rehab, etc. — was more gratifying than the conventional pleasures of moviegoing.
In this culture, the intrinsic value of a movie, or of most conventional entertainments, has diminished. Their job now is essentially to provide stars for People, Us, “Entertainment Tonight” and the supermarket tabloids, which exhibit the new “movies” — the stars’ life sagas…