Barry Wightman

Barry Wightman
Elm Grove, Wisconsin, USA
June 09
Fiction Editor of Hunger Mountain, author of Pepperland--a revolutionary rock 'n roll love story, voiceover talent, freelance writer, rock 'n roller, MFA...


NOVEMBER 19, 2010 12:16PM

What's with movies these days?

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I went to the movies last night and I’m beginning to feel like Dylan’s Mr. Jones. You know, the line from 1965’s Ballad of a Thin Man:

“Because something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones.”

What’s with movies these days?

Not that I’ve been living on Mars for the last thirty years, returning last night only to find that movies are now almost exclusively based on comic books or graphic novel stories.  The previews rolled on screen and every one of them was a remake of some old comic book thing—a Green Hornet movie, some Nicholas Cage-meets-the-devil explosion movie and one or two others that looked just like the others—fast-cut action, hyper-real slo-mo warriors flying through the air swinging swords.

A literary critic might call it magical realism. But that’s another subject.

Okay, sure, there are a few adult movies out there in recent times—dare I say films?—although not too many come to mind at the moment. Got some?  Let me know what they are.  Yes, I know there are good ones out there—The Social Network comes to mind.  But movies, in general, ain’t what they used to be.

Something’s happening here. And I don’t know what it is.

Last night, we saw RED, yes, an explosion movie based on some graphic novel series, but with actual adults in the leading roles—Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich (in one of his trademark goofily unhinged roles) and one of my personal favorites Helen Mirren (first seen by me in Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man back in ’73).  All these old folks play retired over-the-hill has-beens—out to pasture AARP CIA killers.  The whole thing is action movie tongue in cheek, over the top, a wink at the audience—we know you know we know.  That’s why I like it.  Ironic detachment. Good movie.  Jill says it was “cute”—high praise from the wife.

Helen Mirren and Malcolm McDowell, ironically detached, in '73

Here’s where I get cantankerous.  Here’s where I, like those RED (Retired Extremely Dangerous) assassins, whip out the what-the-hell’s-going-on-here pen—where I am Mr. Jones.  What is going on?  What happened to intellectually challenging movies that explore character with deeply human themes?  Or moral issues?  Or social issues?   Intelligent comedy and satire?  What happened to movies thatmatter—movies that don’t simply evaporate in your mind like a computer-generated explosion.  Stanley Kubrick, Francis Ford Coppola, David Lean, Mike Nichols and all those classic 60s-70s risk-taking, hipster filmmakers, please phone home.

Oh yes, I know.  It’s the youth audience.  That’s where the money is.  And Hollywood money’s tight, nobody’s willing to fund crazy adult stuff—just go for the sure thing.  And what’s working now is the movie made for teenage boys and the poor girls they drag along—no matter how old they are.  No risk.

What does it say about our society?  Is it we Baby Boomers, who are now mostly in charge, haven’t got the spine to make a really good film?  Or, more likely—we, as a culture, don’t demand that really good films be made.  That’s more likely.  The demand isn’t there.

Are we getting dumber?  Is that it?

Or maybe I’m just a nostalgic old gaffer, wistfully longing for my younger days, when things seemed to matter more.  Probably happens to every generation.  Old folks think things are going to hell in a hand basket but then it all works out—culture inexorably evolves.  For good or ill.

Maybe Mr. Jones knows what’s happening.  Do you, Mr. Jones?

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I like some movies, but I prefer to read a book....
With few exceptions, I have not wanted to watch any movie made since 1980. Most of them were extremely lowbrow but then we don't have art cinema in our small town. Like Elijah Rising, I would much rather read a book.