I think I may have already written this, or something like this. I can’t help it. My mind works in circles, looping around to places I have already visited. Maybe there was something left to say. Or simply the same thing, expressed differently. Which may actually be enjoyable in the comparison.
“I liked the first way he said the same thing. Although the repetition is not entirely without merit. I look forward to the third repetition. *”
* (I put that last part in the speaker’s mouth, just in case.)
What came recently to mind – admittedly not for the first time – resulted from a recent TCM showing of Scaramouche (1952), which to my conscious recollection was the first movie I ever saw in the theater.
I was seven, so it is likely that I missed the “bastard son” element, as well as the meaning of the “love triangle”. But I did see – and happily remember – the sword fighting and, minus the actual specifics, easily distinguished the good guys (who smiled and ultimately got the girl) from the bad guys (who scowled and ultimately died.)
In those days, there were no actual “Children’s Pictures.” Scaramouche was an action-adventure picture for all ages, not “Children of all ages”. All… ages.
Apparently in 1952, grownups were able to enjoy movies like Scaramouche, though the men wore clingy tights and big hats with enormous feathers. Today… well, they are not making Scaramouche today. Or The Master of Ballantrae. Or The Crimson Pirate.
They might do a parody of a pirate movie based on a Disney theme park ride, but never a serious and earnest rendition. The audience is too sophisticated for that. (Can you watch Brad Pitt in Troy with a straight face? I can’t.)
I know – all periods make all kinds of movies. But this period no longer (believably) makes this kind. You are perhaps thinking of superhero movies, but they are not quite the same. Adults are welcome to these movies – if for some reason they are interested – but they are primarily made for people without mortgages.
Starting in the later 1950’s when both the acting (James Dean and Marlon Brando) and the storytelling (Marty, On the Waterfront, Twelve Angry Men) become distinctly more realistic than earlier films in which “Matters of Honor” were settled with a swordfight at dawn – audiences demanded entertainment that more closely depicted everyday life, rather than the life of a pirate, a cowboy or a fop. (I miss fops. Nobody raises their hankies up to their noses anymore.)
I know there is still opera, but opera includes wonderful scores and incomparable voices. Does anybody go to the opera for the story? Or do they accept their credulity-stretching over-the-topness as the price you pay to hear the memorable arias?
You might chalk the current predilection for reality in our entertainment up to the ever-recycling vagaries of fashion: Wide ties, narrow ties – wide ties, narrow ties. But that would mean that someday audiences will take Scaramouche seriously again. And I am betting they won’t.
“Mindless distraction” is not out of fashion. It is lying dead in the cemetery, its crumbling headstone turning rapidly to dust.
So was the audience that made Scaramouche a success – its box office grosses were more than four times greater than its production budget – actually a different breed of animal?
My hunch concerning this matter, quoting my favorite line from The Muppets’ Take Manhattan, is that
“Pipples is pipples.”
Pipples… I mean, people from back then weren’t stupid. The audiences were entirely aware of what they were watching, and, as with the Mia Farrow character in The Purple Rose of Cairo, they were eminently grateful for the “escapist entertainment.”
“Life is bad,” they seemed to be saying, “We’re here to forget that.”
Current moviegoers are also seeking a break from reality, but today, it’s
“Life is bad. But compared to the senseless brutality, mental derangement and insidious conspiracy theories of the movies, things could actually be worse.”
Both are understandable evasions. The earlier one involves, “Recess from everyday life”, the current one involves relief that everyday life is not as horrific as our movies tell us it could be.
They say, crossing their fingers.
Which leads to the question:
With one audience accepting the reality of the outside world and the other side, arguably, denying it…
Which then is the more sophisticated?