Engaging CultureMedia Production

Have the Movies Lost Their Cultural Impact?

I just finished watching the Oscars alone, sitting in the concierge lounge at a hotel. Not that I don’t watch lots of things from a hotel (because I travel so much), but for some reason, this year made me realize how little I cared. But it wasn’t always that way.

Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal” was mesmerizing back in college. An atheist who honestly portrayed his struggle with faith captivated me. Then, it was David Lean’s epic “Lawrence of Arabia” that really made me understand what a camera was capable of capturing.

In those days, films had a remarkable impact on culture. I’ll never forget the horse’s head in the bed from “The Godfather.” I suggested my parents see “Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid” until I remembered Katherine Ross undressing. When they came home, I thought my mom would kill me.

Remember The Graduate, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, or The Deer Hunter?  And during that period, filmmakers like John Cassavetes were literally inventing the independent film movement.

Back then movies really mattered. They dictated cultural norms, helped give a generation a voice, and were the dictionary definition of “influence.”

But now? We live in a far more disjointed, distracted culture. Water cooler conversation is far more likely to focus on TV shows like “Breaking Bad” or the latest mobile app. Young people follow other gamers on Twitch more than they follow talented film directors.

In the past, a significant part of the enjoyment of a movie was in the communal nature of the screening. All those people sitting in the dark watching the screen was something akin to a religious experience. But today? We have a generation who doesn’t even know how to behave in a theater. I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve asked to turn off their phone or stop talking. It’s easier – and far less stressful – to just watch on an HD screen in my bedroom.  And how much cultural impact can you really have when the mainstream movie industry admits the target audience has become 14 year old boys?

And apparently I’m not the only one who’s lost interest. I haven’t seen the ratings from last night yet, but last year’s drop in Oscar viewers (a new low of 37.3 million viewers in 2015) was obviously an indicator that something has changed.

And the uproar over diversity in this year’s films was telling as well. After all the grandstanding from a handful of stars, it only generated contempt from Chris Rock during the actual show: “Other years, black people didn’t protest the Oscars because they were too busy being raped and lynched to care about who won Best Cinematographer. When your grandmother’s swinging from a tree, it’s really hard to care about Best Documentary Foreign-Short.”

The bottom line is that for all the promotion, publicity, and celebrities on the Red Carpet, the film industry simply isn’t influencing the culture as it did.

But the question becomes, “What is influencing culture today?”

I’d love to hear what you think….

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32 Comments

  1. Culture is being influenced and changed organically on social media, long before a film can be written and made the issues have been presented, discussed, and have shifted to the next topic be it faith, or racial diversity, or sexual identity, or surviving a bear attack caused by global warming (what?)

    The moral values of our parents have been morphed into the right and left sensibilities of the baby boomers, all the way to the millennials. What alarms us today is savagery, apathy, neglect, and indifference, this is what shocks a self focused generation that wants desperately to believe there is meaning to their existence and they can cause change in the world.

    The Acadmey Awards show is disconnected from the audience because they believe that the Oscars should represent achieving the pinnacle of artistic movie making, recognizing the art of story telling, and celebrating the craft of filming making…the Awards still do that but the show itself has become a fashion spectacle for the media and fans, and that’s way more exciting than the Awards show itself, which is plodding and badly written,punctuated with lame pc jokes.

    Watching it without fast forwarding to the nominee for the “best whatever” is excruciatingly slow! And tonight’s show was particularly awkward. The commercials were almost more interesting than the show itself. And, oh by the way the gowns, and the red carpet interviews were singularly uninspiring, with few exceptions.

  2. For me, film is still the true faith. Television has certainly had a renaissance, with programmes like Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Battlestar Galactica, The Wire and so forth, but I’d exchange every episode of Game of Thrones for one reel of The Lord of the Rings.

    This year, the Oscars definitely got it wrong.The best film of last year by far, Inside Out, wasn’t even nominated in the best picture category. Not that I expected it to be as animated films are still not treated with the respect they deserve (despite rare exceptions, such as when Beauty and the Beast received a nomination). Of the nominees, The Revenant was probably the best film. However because so many Academy voters don’t bother actually seeing films in the cinema (relying instead on DVD screeners), The Revenant may have suffered in this respect, as it really, really needs a big screen. By contrast, Spotlight is far less overtly cinematic, and will lose little on television. It is a solid film, but not remarkable enough to deserve a best picture win.

    On the other hand, whatever else one might think of The Revenant, the direction cannot be faulted. Shot entirely in natural light, from that astonishing early pass-the-POV shot, to spectacular bear mauling and the seemingly unending trudge through shivering wastelands, Inarritu ensures his
    film is the most aggressively cinematic contender in the pack. Must-see-on-the-big-screen kudos guaranteed.

    Then again, whilst I think DiCaprio is a fine actor, he really should have won for his turn in The Departed. His role in The Revenant, by contrast, is pure Oscar bait. Lots of “uglying up” and suffering for your art (a very “committed” performance), but whilst he is perfectly good in the role, I much preferred Michael Fassbender’s less showy but understated and powerful performance in the
    criminally undervalued Steve Jobs.

  3. I meant to say that despite my personal preferences, I do see your point about film not having the cultural influence it once did (it was the great art form of the 20th Century).

    Also, regarding badly behaved cinema audiences, I feel your pain. Mobile devices creating light pollution in a cinema are truly the work of the infernal one. That said, I have it down to a science when to avoid them.

      1. In the UK, definitely Sunday nights. People are hung over and it is a school night. For some reason, a better class of cinema goer seems to emerge on those days (like yours truly). Also sit nearer to the front. People who mess around on phones congregate near the back.

        Conversely, avoid two-for-one ticket offer days or the like. They are for mortals, not true believers.

    1. It’s interesting that Variety magazine a few months ago revealed the latest “Q” Scores – the influence ratings of entertainment celebrities. To the shock of many – the top 7 positions were held by YouTube stars. Then it was Taylor Swift, Bruno Mars, then a couple more YouTube stars followed. The list means that the most influential people in entertainment today are essentially people who produce online programming in their parent’s basement.

  4. Technology is highly influencing our culture making the ability of creating and constructing our own storylines through social media sites, podcasts, personal websites, Periscope, YouTube, drones, indie films, etc. Cinema may have less influence and draw simply because we can create our own world, our own stories where we can be the principal character in our own dramas. The downside of this I believe is it has promoted narcissism while living in silos.

  5. Well movies definitely have more competition. And I personally find television far more challenging than most movies I watch. (i.e. Finally caught both seasons of FARGO and found every episode more engaging than most films I saw last year.) Having said that – anecdotally – whenever I poll my students I’m surprised to find that most are not watching television. They are still watching film, although significantly less than when I first started teaching. Alot of gamers. And most shocking – the hours they spend watching Vine, YouTube, Snapchat – utterly baffling to me. The Variety article you reference below does not surprise me one iota.

  6. I agree that media and society are highly fragmented. I think the frustrating part is that it is very difficult to get a handle what IS influencing culture. Nielsen can’t figure it out. PR people can’t control it. Whatever your POV you can’t find a media/news outlet just for you. We don’t listen to other points of view anymore, we just vilify. There are few, if any, common/community media experiences. We’ve become a Silo Culture. (Look for my book on Amazon and bookstore everywhere. Kidding.)

  7. If anything, the values and mores expressed in films are impacting culture by their power to persuade as being normative. Use of the F-word is commonplace with nearly every age group. Acceptance of “gender confirmation surgery” (apparently invented to describe the film “The Danish Girl”) is all the rage. Situational ethics and moral relativism are the accepted religions of the consequence-free filmgoers, Game-of-Throners, Netflixers, and YouTubers of 2016.

    Make no mistake: the cultural influence is there. One need look no further than the rabid, lock-step, lemming-like supporters of several truly frightening presidential candidates (on both sides of the aisle) for incontrovertible evidence. Films and TV reflect society, distort it, and re-reflect a compartmentalized reality that is in the image of its creators. And the twisted image of the circus sideshow mirror has now become a great and evil beauty to behold.

      1. The otherwise excellent Game of Thrones seems to suffer from the reverse of the censorship television and film previously suffered under. So instead of nothing edgy being permitted everything is not only permitted but seemingly compulsory, often for no good reason.

        My wife and I take bets on how many nipples per episode. I support artistic freedom of speech, but insisting on “nipple quotas” is just as bad as saying you can’t show anything.

  8. 2 minutes of great story and visuals is where the impact is now. My son’s fiancé told me she doesn’t watch films on tv or at the theater because “they take too long”. We are going to have to rethink everything to reap this audience. The YouTuber’s may have it right.

      1. I’ll second that. Sad but… No, I refuse to believe it. I am burying my head in the sand. At least my children will have an attention span, but then I’ve brainwashed them with as many classic movies as possible. I suppose it would have been in their blood even if I hadn’t.

  9. Phil, I don’t think the issue is length of the movie or whether people don’t like them – it’s just there’s nothing worth seeing! The movies you mentioned in your article were EPICS! Not epic as in The Ten Commandments epic (although Lawrence of Arabia is that) but Epic as in story telling, visualization, transporting the viewer into another land, time or whatever. Those movies cost more to make (or it’s assumed that they do) and Hollywood is into making TV on the big screen. Am I close?

  10. Our culture today is missing out on so much – they want things to happen so fast and not really live through the movie as they are watching it. There is so much to see and learn when watching a movie that I always found remarkable – I remember going to the movies as kid back in the 70’s as a pre-teen -teenager – I would ride my bike to the theater every time there was a new movie and this was a new theater that had 4 screens a big deal back then LOL – so I may get to see 4 movies that week depending on what they were rated- It was wonderful oh what adventures I would take during these movies and it cost $2 to get in – can you believe it!! I loved going to the movies then when I got my license I went to the mega movie theater in our town – it was huge and you had rocking chair seats- oh my – I saw the likes of Tora, Tora Tora – Jeremiah Johnson, Butch Cassidy, and so many more it was great!! Oh of course at these prices you could afford the popcorn and coke which was so much bigger than now- my parents spoiled me I was so blessed my Dad gave us everything but I feel we worked hard and appreciated all they did for us. Sorry got lost in memories – back to subject. I agree unless you can show it quickly folks just are not interested now in this day and time- oh what they are missing not getting to do the things I did as a pre-teen and teenager. I will say I tried to do this with my 2 sons who are now grown and having children of their own now – love being a grandparent!!! When they were younger I would take them to the $1 movie and pack my big pocket book full of goodies and if we could we would buy some popcorn and cokes. They loved it. And of course we had VCR tapes oh what a wonder – we would have movie night at my house with their friends. They both still to this day watch White Christmas with Bing & Danny every year sometimes even in July. I wish we could bring back these times to this generation they are missing so much with having these kinds of experiences and relationships with each other!! Sorry took up so much space just love the MOVIES!!

    1. My take is that was “new” to you(as me), but that’s old to today’s culture. They gravitate to snapchat & iPhone as personal content creation. Seems pithy to me, but it’s actively engaging… @ least for 30 seconds…
      Maybe the full length feature is dying, long well developed, 3 act stories.
      Shorts used to be the springboard to “big” stories, perhaps not so much in the future.
      Parables were pretty short back in the Rabi tradition of Yesus.
      Last night saw bits of Spartacus(Kirk Douglas) & was amazed at the epic wide angle battle formations with real people. What mm wide lens was that? ???
      Today & beyond CG flocking crowds with randomness…

      1. Spartacus was filmed using the 35 mm Super 70 Technirama format and then blown up to 70 mm film. This was a change for Kubrick, who preferred using the standard spherical format. The process got him ultra-high definition and to capture large panoramic scenes, including one with 8,000 trained soldiers from Spain representing the Roman army.

        1. You the man Phil!
          Thanks for 70mm info! Sometimes you can’t beat resolution. ??
          So I guess I do NEED 8k…

  11. Here’s my theory why YouTube stars are so influential. Ready?

    People grow up in dysfunctional surroundings. They crave for families, father figures and big brothers and sisters. We had that partially with the superstars in the 1980s and 90s, but today with the fragmentation of media, it’s the YouTubers.

    People feel that a YouTuber is “real”, is just like they are, relatable and a constant presence in their lives. A father or mother who may or may not be home, who may or may not even care about them … not so much.

    Checking phones for likes or notifications is a bit of another story, that’s more of a biological reward scheme. New message – endorphin rush. Another like – same thing.

    1. I do think that’s a big part of it. The disintegration of the family has far greater implications for our culture that policymakers and our leaders realize (or are willing to admit.)

  12. Phil, I am probably joining this discussion too late, but I would like to say what is influencing culture today. IT IS MONEY AND ABILITY/CAPACITY TO MAKE MONEY AND SPEND IT!
    Look at advertising in any area, its all about how you can influence people to spend or buy. Innovation was about what helps alleviate human misery, make life easier etc. Money makes the market and money influences culture. I see this more so in a third world county – India!

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