December 2, 2020, 5:04

The Death of the American Movie Theater

The Death of the American Movie Theater

Every time I go to the movies, I am reminded why I never go. I am not a huge movie fan, but my parents gave me a certain appreciation for the art form done well. I sat through enough Depression-era black-and-white films as a kid that I actually like some of them. I think the 1989 Batman film is the best, because Jack Nicholson isn’t overacting as the Joker, and because half of the film is not filled with CGI 9/11 reenactments.

Many movies used to feature shots that lasted more than two seconds, and theatrical experiences that did not feature ribcage-rattling sound effects. And say what you will about all those Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers pair-ups and their even larger legion of clones, which were the mass-produced cinema of their day; they were not made primarily to push the envelope on violence or profanity, or to market a series of Fred Astaire action figures or Ginger Rogers breakfast cereals.

Sadly, I was thinking more about all of this than about the movie I was actually watching last week: Thor: Ragnarok. The film itself is, like most of Marvel’s output, light, predictable fun, with just the right mix of sardonic banter, over-the-top fighting scenes, and heroic and inspiring speeches. At number 17 in the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” (it would be impolite to call it a franchise, which it is), it’s not going to stand out much, but it’s at least enjoyable and inoffensive.

It is the general theater experience that is more disturbing. The trailers start and end with ads or PSAs, which are just as loud as the actual film. Even the innocuous Coke ad assaults the senses: the whoosh of the drink falling into the glass resounds with an ear-splitting din that makes Niagara Falls sound like a leaky faucet. The put-away-your-phone PSAs have become more and more strident and passive-aggressive over the years, only because the behavior of the people in the theater requires it. And who can be surprised? Movie theaters used to be more opulent than opera houses, and people used to wear suits when attending them (the same was once true of baseball games, which, like movies, also cost a lot less). Now, every state-of-the-art theater sports comfy electric recliners and a TGI Fridays-style menu of fried food and overpriced alcohol, so you can guzzle a neon margarita and pretend you’re on the couch. Since televisions are now pushing 80 inches and the movies are almost immediately available on demand, sitting on the couch isn’t a bad idea—which, in a kind of vicious cycle, is why the theaters are trying to emulate the living room in the first place.

Then the trailers begin. One of them, for a knockoff Transformers/Godzilla mashup called Pacific Rim: Uprising, has a story about as deep as the paragraph-long intros that used to grace Nintendo game boxes: imagine “Space aliens or monsters threaten to destroy earth, but this last-ditch experimental fighting machine or spaceship will save the planet or maybe the universe. There might be a forced romance subplot, but mainly, shoot everything that moves and then some.”

This can be fun if it is done competently, but even then, there’s something disturbing about these films: the sheer scale of everything. It’s not just the monsters, which are supposed to be big. The cities are depicted as massive inhuman walls of steel and glass, so often lit up with blinking neon and scrolling Asian characters, as if someone dropped a 1950s highway strip and modern Shanghai into a blender. The machines, which absolutely dwarf humans, are constructed in a world with no prospects of energy or resource depletion. Everything is large and nothing is familiar. There is no religion or history. Forget “a sense of place” here. These movies do not depict recognizably human societies facing relatable challenges, and induce something of an uncanny valley effect—they are almost, but not quite, human. The original Godzilla films, on the other hand, did not cost hundreds of millions of dollars to produce, and they were clearly inspired by the very real devastation of the atom bomb. Perhaps I am wrong, but Uprising looks more like copy-and-paste than homage.

The next one, 12 Strong, is ostensibly a barely embellished presentation of the “horse soldiers” who assisted in the Afghanistan invasion. If the trailer is any guide, its primary purpose is not historical illumination but rather using the pathos of 9/11 and the “War on Terror” to reduce you to a teary, obedient neocon. The YouTube commenters aren’t much enamored with it either. It should have been called “12 Angry Men With Horses,” so that at least it could have featured a modicum of comic relief and self-awareness.

And then there is the sappy self-help/rom-com hybrid with a golden oldies soundtrack and lots of crying middle-aged women, the nightmare-inducing horror flick filmed in the camcorder-chic style, and two or three others which are mainly distinguished for having audio tracks that are three times louder than the dialogue—which probably makes them a little bit more watchable.

It is, in short, rather astounding that this cavalcade of mediocrity is the output of one of the highest-paying industries in the United States and, more importantly, one of the most influential industries in our culture. The aura of moral credibility and the notion that it is crude to pass moral judgment on “art” have protected Hollywood for a long time and covered for both its moral bankruptcy and dearth of genuine artistic talent.   

For example, movie stars are famous for speaking out on gun violence, tsk-tsking Second Amendment supporters even as firearms—happily provided as product placement by arms manufacturers—are one of the industry’s most lucrative props. Or consider all the stars who have condemned Trump, not just for alleged sexual assault but for his general vulgarity and crudeness. Yet who has done more to normalize profanity, vulgarity, sadistic violence, and gratuitous sex, or to export them abroad as the premier product of the United States, than the entertainment industry? And on top of this, we are now learning, ever-more by the day, that the coercion and abuse of women is not an occasional sin but is largely endemic to the industry itself. The days of Hollywood execs touting progressive causes while pumping a steady stream of sewage into the national consciousness may finally be ending.

Yes, I thought all of this while watching Thor: Ragnarok. I suppose I am not very much fun to go to the movies with, but it really is getting harder and harder to plunk down your $15, stretch out your electric recliner, and enjoy the show.

Addison Del Mastro is assistant editor for The American Conservative. He tweets at @ad_mastro.


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