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The Decline of Films

A couple of readers have asked why I rarely mention films these days.  The answer is simple: I seldom see any – at least not new releases.  Most of these are too dystopian for my tastes, not to mention too violent, too drenched in sadism, and altogether too fantastical.  I have a strong aversion, I must admit, to tales of science fiction or of hobgoblins – which seems to rule out most of the cinematic offerings of recent years.

The last film I saw at a cinema, while we’re on the subject, was The Wolf of Wall Street.  That must have been two years ago, maybe more.  I enjoyed it, up to a point Lord Copper, but it could have been an hour shorter and still told the story as effectively.  Excessive length seems to be the norm now.  Most feature films having a running time of more than two hours. WoWS ran for over three.  Martin Scorsese, who directed WoWS, may be a talented fellow but he has graphically, painfully, and I’d add all too gleefully, depicted the corruption of the American dream by the criminal underworld so many times that the novelty has worn thin.  In case you’re wondering what films I’m referring to, they are Goodfellas, Casino, Gangs of New York and The Departed.  

There, that will serve as my review.

Films (like Alan Bennett, I still can’t bring myself to say ‘movies’ even after many years living in the United States) ought to have scripts.  If that strikes you as stating the bleeding obvious, I’d point out that  many, perhaps most, of the films I’ve seen of recent years have been singularly and painfully lacking in that essential discipline.  The actors are fine, well, most of them.  The photography is usually commendable – although many are so gloomily lit that they are not so much atmospheric, or whatever effect it is that the cinematographer (awful word!) is trying to achieve, as fogbound.  As for the special computer-generated images, they are often undeniably brilliant, sometimes wondrous, but almost invariably overwhelming.  What they overwhelm are not so much the senses, as the plot, the characters, and the dialogue, such as it usually is.

In too many cases the scripts seem to have been based on well-worn clichés that have been fed into a computer programmed to sort them out into some semblance of order, and then given the final once-over by some Russian émigré with an impressive flair for technology but a slender grasp of English.  Sure enough, whenever I see the name next to the credit for the screenplay, it’s often some unpronounceable Slavic name.

I’m not saying here that all old films are good and all new films bad.  That would be absurd, and it is not remotely true.  What I am saying is that so few films are made these days, and the pressure to produce box-office hits now so great, that the studios are insisting on spectacular science fiction, end-of-the-world, insanely expensive blockbusters, leaving little money or energy for ordinary stories that feature interesting characters as opposed to mind-blowing computer-generated monsters.  The exceptions are all the more notable, and I have enjoyed them – when they eventually show up on television.

It is television that has provided a permanent outlet for most of the good writers of screenplays.  That much is inarguable.  Why go to the cinema and listen to people chattering, coughing and munching on popcorn or endlessly crinkling sweet wrappers when you can stay home and, from the comfort of an armchair, and in silence, watch, say, Mad Men, The Wire, Homeland, Game of Thrones (if your stomach is up to it), House of Cards, West Wing and The Newsroom.

Cinematic feature film-making has been in decline for years, actually decades, and there is probably no stopping it.  That is no matter for regret, merely a fact of changing lifestyles and rampantly innovative media technology.

Having said that mouthful, the next time a decent film comes round, I’ll make an effort to see it in a theatre and review it.  It may be some time.

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