Exploring the decline of cinema in four bad movies
Autumn is a strange season, especially in America. There is a spirit hanging in the air, slowly dying. The pagan gods of Summer perish and return their power to be interned in the earth until judgment. And the living mark the passing with rituals of remembrance to find their place among the things that once lived but are no more.
But in 2023, remembrance is not what it used to be. The past haunts people, not so much because they feel the power of its death, but because they feel the power of the life that once was. You can see the emotion in people's eyes walking around an average American town, especially in Northeastern States with long histories. In Autumn, everyone feels the weight of the legacy standing underneath them, in the architecture, in the scenery, and even in the weather.
There is a pattern of life that needs to be fulfilled for the season to be realized, but people feel unworthy of carrying forward that tradition. It seems to require some innocence that we no longer possess as a people. So we follow the patterns of the Hallmark holidays, hoping to forget that these events and places once had a more profound reality.
We are not unfamiliar with this emotion online. Since 2019 at least, there has been an entire genre of video clips that juxtapose old film reels of metropolitan areas with their modern equivalents. The comparison is depressing on its face since the decline is obvious for anyone with eyes to see: the increased squalor, the vanishing families, and the new preponderance of unhealthy bodies everywhere.
But as Morgoth recently observed, the contrasts in living standards miss the larger point. Really, it's the small things that betray what was really lost, the subtle indications that the people who lived in these urban areas loved them and brought their humanity to the place they lived. Once these cities were enchanted, magic metropolises. And if you lived there, or even visited, you could encounter genuinely interesting individuals, vivacious and optimistic people, who were, in fact, your own.
And what has replaced them? Virtually nothing. Even in cities, or areas of American cities, that haven’t faced the precipitous urban decay of the last 1o years, there is no strong culture, not even an urban counterculture. What remains is just the hipster facsimile of novelty and faux-rebellion with no understanding of its own soul and no dream of a collective future, or really any dream beyond clout.
And that is a tragedy, isn’t it? For whatever other progress occurred in the 20th century, the spirit of our homes has been utterly desiccated.
But though it shames me to admit this as a Millennial, I feel the deterioration of my native city less sharply than the decline in the quality of my media, the stories told in movies and music. It might be dismissed as dumb entertainment, but these things were supposed to define the modern man. And in many ways, they did for me. These distractions, fantasies, and anthems were a type of emotional home, where the hard questions of the real world could be deferred, for a time. But where were they now?
Nowhere, it would seem.
If there was an epic tragedy written about the downfall of the West, the muse would sing of the death of Rock-and-Roll and the demise of the Silver Screen. These were the proud idols of the 20th century, who once literally stood astride the earth upending all other deities before them. Now they were little more than footnotes of a broader American decline.
It's difficult to explain how this happened, exactly. Our lives are totally dominated by the tropes of 20th-century music and film, even though, in 2023 these genres are almost entirely stagnant, completely non-existent as living pieces of culture. For example, when was the last time that a new piece of media penetrated the broader collective psyche and zeitgeist? The only example, film-wise, in the last few years, is probably The Barbie Movie, and even then, what a drop off in quality from the films of my youth like Forrest Gump, the Matrix, and Lord of the Rings.
Certainly, there is a problem with quality. In fact, as critics have noted, the decline in music and filmmaking has been going on for years. However, starting around 2017, the mainstream media industry precipitously lost its ability to produce anything remotely poignant or entertaining. And we reverted to the depressing form of soulless rehashes, Marvel-movie humor, woke political preaching, and nostalgia. And since, contemporary culture has been stuck in the shadow of the 20th century, clinging to what comfort could be excavated from the previous generation’s stories and optimism.
The decline is easiest to see in movies since new films are typically enjoyed by a broader audience and are not tightly linked to youth culture. And virtually no one denies that modern movies are terrible. As such, I suppose that it is unsurprising that the most popular genre of political YouTube is still pop-culture film criticism. It’s an old phenomenon at this point. Starting early with the comedic criticism of creators like Red Letter Media, to the rather based Dave Cullen, to more recent mainstream fare like The Critical Drinker, the popularity of these YouTube movie critics has been going strong even after political content on the platform has been de-emphasized by the algorithm.
Now, I don’t want to put down the creators who make this kind of content. A lot of these channels are good at their craft, so to speak, even if their craft tends to be very formulaic. Typically, the creator will arrive at the latest Hollywood schlock and break down the various flaws in its plot and concept, pointing out the mistakes in writing and pace with a typically comedic angle. Subsequently, these film criticism channels will often reference larger philosophical and ideological deficiencies that are the source of the bad writing and bad content. And, as such, many of the YouTube film critic class are aware of the problems in our culture since the “Great Awokening”, with some even acknowledging the deeper problem of general cultural decline. Still, I always feel like they are missing the critical piece.
The problem with modern film and media is not simply ideological. Nor is it an extension of the competency crisis, a problem with good writing, competent acting, and crafted cinematography. There is an experiential quality missing in modern films, starting with how we consume them and carrying over to how we process their message into our collective consciousness. Movies are worse today because they don’t have the same kind of purpose, either in our society or our individual lives. This is partially because cinema has been eclipsed by newer technology, but it is mostly because we no longer have the will to make an investment in a piece of culture that might actually expose us to something more than pleasure, spectacle, or novelty.
For instance, remember “going to the movies”?
Any generation older than the Zoomers will remember the feeling. There was a process and an outline of events that comprised an entire evening of entertainment at the cinema: the standing in queue to purchase a ticket, the bad concession food, and the chitter chatter in the uncomfortably rigid seats before the lights dimmed. Then after, of course, there were the discussions. Was the movie good? What were the best parts and characters and was there a larger message? How did we see the drama on screen as it related to our own lives? It sounds trivial and stupid to write about it in hindsight, but those were the golden moments: sitting in coffee shops or walking through parks and downtown areas discussing and attempting to process the experience we had just shared, sitting and watching a screen for two hours. There was a spiritual experience there, a transmission of a type of folk culture, though perhaps not a very deep one.
Cultural critics and skeptics of technology will scoff at the pretension that there is an organic tradition found in the consumeristic rituals of cinema. After all, the 20th-century “Movie culture” itself represents a deracination of folk and high culture, as it replaced two deeper forms of narrative communication in live theater and physical books. And I concede this critique.
With my much more limited experience as a consumer of live drama, the magic of a movie doesn’t compare to the feeling of a live performance. And the bond you share with a friend viewing the same hit movie is nothing relative to the connection of having the same favorite book. In this pattern, it might seem obvious that the decline in cultural richness during the Internet age is a simple consequence of the decline in the medium brought about by technology. As things become more convenient and more massified, the naturally meaningful ceremonies of culture become diminished. Each time technological progress takes a step forward, the media feed becomes more intense, more technically complex, and less filtered through the common lens of humanity.
But I doubt the technical explanation is entirely sufficient.
Certainly, if our more recent woes are all part of a broader continuum of decline caused by technology, then why has there been such a sudden collapse in cultural meaning in such a short period of time? Certainly, books and theater were phasing out in favor of more technically driven media entertainment for the last century like television and the motion picture. But there still WAS a movie culture, the magic of experiencing the cinema, and a community that was generated from that commonality. The same can just not be said for its replacement in TikTok, Netflicks, YouTube, or Snapchat.
Perhaps the problem has something to do with the effort required to experience the media. This has changed significantly. Even with the relative convenience of movies, there was a physical set of actions required to go to the cinema, visit a Blockbuster movie rental, own a selection of videos arranged on your shelf at home, or physically put the DVD or cassette into your television to watch a show. By contrast, there is no such minimal investment involved with online video entertainment. You don’t need to travel or do any real work to obtain an online experience. You don’t own a collection of your favorite TikToks, the Netflicks titles you have saved don’t take up physical shelf space in your house, and you don’t need to kneel down and insert a disc to watch the new Amazon Prime show.
It sounds arbitrary, but for the thing to have meaning there must be an action to indicate that you assent to the experience. But online services aren’t like that. We don’t even really choose our media, in the classic sense. It just sorta of happens to us. New videos are recommended by algorithms more than word of mouth, songs are auto-played from the queue, new links filter in from social media, and the payment for it all is deducted from your account via automatic subscription; no burdensome transport or coordination with friends required, no handing dirty money across the till for a ticket, no effort and no humanity.
But even the broader perspective on the unique soullessness of online media doesn’t seem satisfactory. Even if there is a technical cause behind the broader public disengagement with mass culture, it seems a bit too coincidental for the sudden drop off in film quality to occur at the very moment that Western culture lost its political mind. The wokeness must have played a role in this process, somehow. The YouTube film critics have a point here.
After all, no amount of deliberation or purposeful media consumption is going to improve the actual quality of the films that Holywood produces. What are we going to do? Pretend it’s the 1990s, get the gang together, pay 20 dollars a head to watch The Marvels on opening night, and eagerly discuss after credits just how impactful the film’s girl-boss feminism was? Cultivate a careful collection of modern movie DVDs the way I did with my own film collection in the early 2000s, then wait with marked anticipation as my television plays back the home video version of The Last Jedi for the 32nd time?
For these reasons, it seems obvious that the solution to the problem starts with fixing quality. But I remain skeptical.
My skepticism begins with modern movies most people consider to be “good”. Woke regulations on Holywood aren’t consistently enforced, and every now and again a filmmaker is able to produce something that slips through the filter and manages to contain a distinctly non-woke theme, good acting, and strong cinematography.
As you might expect, the YouTube film critic class showers these films with praise as they are usually offered up as proof that they don’t “hate everything” and that “it’s still possible to make good modern movies as long as they avoid wokeness and focus on good writing”.
But really, don’t believe the hype.
After the fourth iteration of the “good modern movie”, I am pretty much over the phenomenon. To be sure, these movies are often technically competent. Each steers clear of the ideological poison. But they typically lack something critical. There is no ultimate purpose, no catharsis, no point, and no arrival at some central “Holy Moments” that might make an audience take something more profound into their personal lives beyond the pleasure of spending two hours watching a movie that doesn’t insult their intelligence. In short, these modern “good movies” feel oddly fake.
Here, I immediately recollect two recent additions to the pantheon of fake “good movies”: The Northman (2022) and Dune (2021). Really a lot has been said about each of these movies, and they unsurprisingly have defenders on the right. Both films are technically competent., their woke ideological injections are minimal, their cinematography excellent, and the acting quite passable. It’s difficult to put your finger on the mistakes if there are any. Still, they deliver no real impact. They are hollow.
Examining the first film, Dune, we have a story based on a classic piece of Science Fiction literature that embodies many core spiritual concepts of the right wing. And on the surface, Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation is worthy of its source material. The visuals were breathtaking, the casting adequate, and the pacing not altogether bad. Even some of the novel’s original right-wing themes seemed better articulated in the 2021 film than in previous film versions. Still, despite having very few flaws, the movie totally fell flat. I was left wondering what I really was supposed to take from the experience, what anyone was supposed to learn or understand based on the images they were seeing. Why did the filmmakers even want to make this movie other than to prove that they could avoid the mistakes of previous adaptations? Really, that’s not good enough.
A similar feeling was also present in 2022’s The Northman, which fashioned itself as a gothic-realist re-imagining of the Viking Saga. Certainly, the concept was brilliant, it even had a kind of Evolean sensibility. But The Northman was all concept and no soul. And, while the film toyed with right-wing themes of passion and insane masculine energy, it ultimately turned back from the precipice before it could say anything interesting. What was The Northman trying to tell us? That seemed indiscernible. In fact, beyond making sure each individual scene felt cathartic, historical, and deliberate, no one seemed to know what they were doing. Was it a tragedy? A love-story? A revenge flick? Did it see its brutal Viking protagonists as heroic supermen or savage animals? Hard to say. Even the actors seemed confused about what roles they were playing on screen. They played their parts well enough in each take, but their passions didn’t flow from scene to scene. Because really, there wasn’t any larger point to the endeavor or larger spiritual sensibility that the film was trying to communicate to its audience. It was just a spectacle.
And again, it’s worth repeating, that none of these problems are a question of quality in the way it is talked about by online movie critics. These films were clearly well made but also clearly a waste of time and effort.
Maybe quality is not the issue we are looking for. In fact, when I think back to those “magic” moments in cinema that made a large impact on my own life, what immediately stands out is, how many of them are, by any objective measure, bad.
A few examples might be illustrative.
Of course, I have to start with the ultimate bad coffee-house indy movie that spawned a thousand late-night college debates, Richard Linklater's Waking Life. Now, Linklater had been making versions of this “dialogue-only movie” in more restrained ways for more than a decade. But it wasn’t until 2001 that Linklater decided to go “full-retard” and forego any semblance of plot or character development to make this monstrosity. The movie is bad. The absence of a plot probably makes that a foregone conclusion, not to mention the pseudo-hippy stoner existentialism that is the principal message of most of its monologues. Still, I love this film. It was an experience for me watching it in college, not simply because of the new ideas it explored, but because the characters talked like they cared about the truth of what they were talking about, something disappointingly absent in my undergraduate philosophy seminars. After all, aren’t ideas supposed to matter? Even if life is a dream, and the only maxims you have to go on are adages from Camus and warmed over Kierkegaard there still is the human imperative to actually figure out what’s going on. And ultimately I did take one lesson away from Waking Life, that deep meanings could still be derived from moments in cinema that were completely unintended. And that’s quite the message for an otherwise flawed film, especially when it contains an unfiltered Alex Jones monologue in the second act.
I probably can’t escape this movie, ever. Certainly, Eraserhead is a cult film, maybe the cult film. And if we are honest it is bad. The plot doesn't come together. There is no character development. There is no goal or point. It’s just a vague feeling and a vague story of one very hirsute man, trapped in an industrial wasteland as a single father to a mutant baby, living in an apartment with a tiny singing lady in the radiator telling him that “in heaven everything will be alright”. I know it’s Lynch and nothing is supposed to make sense. But beyond the astounding practical effects used to construct the lizard baby and its bizarre atmosphere, I will admit that Eraserhead doesn’t really have a lot to say. But still, the film got to me more with a feeling than with a message, the feeling of powerlessness and claustrophobia. I first saw this movie in the Summer between high school and college, watching it with friends late at night in an unlocked college projector room that we really shouldn’t have been using. It was probably the least claustrophobic moment of my entire life, yet the film in every scene communicated the demons that might prey on a man if everything went wrong. Of course, every 18-year-old thinks that they are invincible and that nothing bad can ever happen to them, but we all know that horrible things will happen to us in the real world, a reality that haunts the adolescent mind like a specter. And for 2 hours, Eraserhead made that specter real.
Rocky Horror Picture Show
I mark this movie as a repudiation of all the people who think that wokeness drained the soul out of modern movies. You see friends, I loved shitty woke movies before it was cool to hate them. And Rocky Horror Picture Show is a shitty woke movie. It’s not just camp, it’s pozzed. It’s not just pozzed, it’s fake. It’s not just fake, it’s gay. And the gayness is everywhere, seeping out of every self-indulgent pretentious message and mediocre rock ballad. Still, this movie has a strange life to it, and as a period piece, Rocky Horror kind of makes sense. It asks us to remember a time when sexual liberation did actually have a heroically transgressive feeling to it. And the emotion was explosive, it seemed to cosmically expand the universe for one small moment. Looking back with knowledge of hindsight, I know that the sentiment of sexual liberation is deceptive and poisonous. But how much does that actually detract from the text of Rocky Horror as it is? And, in a way, it sometimes seems that Rocky Horror is observing its moment in history more than it is commending it. And that can’t help but save the film, because no matter its initial moral error, an artistic work that sincerely observes its reality can’t help but stumble on truths sitting in the background. For example, whatever other gayness defines Rocky Horror, I can’t understate how much Meatloaf’s single number played in my understanding of manliness, a stunning picture of masculine energy emerging like hope from the movie’s degenerate Pandora’s box. It’s this blithe earnestness in Rocky Horror’s approach that both makes the movie fun and also impossible to adapt or recreate in our present time, no matter how much its Millennial fans want it. Rocky Horror is about celebrating transgression, and there can be no sexual transgression in an age that only validates and affirms sexual deviance.
Singin’ in the Rain
This is probably an odd place to end since Singin’ in the Rain often makes top-100 lists for all-time best movies. But I think it’s high time that we all be honest with ourselves and admit that, in any objective sense, this 1952 Classic is not a good film. There is barely any plot, no character development, and its musical numbers have virtually no relationship to what is going on in the context of the story. Worst of all, Singin’ in the Rain falls into that dreaded category of movies about making movies, and celebrating (shudders) “The Glory of Holywood”. I know all old musicals are a little like this, but Singin’ in the Rain goes “balls-to-the-wall” without even a nod to realism, self-awareness, or creative self-control. The movie is bad. But then why is it magical? Why do its moments feel holy? Well because they just are. They are there. They are alive. And they are being watched by an audience who knows what it means to be living in these kinds of spontaneous moments of joy. Is there a way to explain it? The movie doesn’t need to. It knows what it is. It knows that it’s a movie. It knows it has a captive audience, sitting in a theater looking to be entertained. So it just tosses out the pretension of transporting its audience and forces us to acknowledge it as an illusion. And oddly enough, we love it all the more.
So these are four “bad movies”.
I understand that many will contest these films as being actually bad. Nevertheless, what I want to emphasize is how disconnected these films’ core vitality is from what an online Millennial movie critic would consider good writing and good filmmaking.
What do these magical “bad movies” possess that our new meaningless fake “good films”, like Dune and The Northman, lack? Well, these “bad movies” all speak to their time and their moments in history. They describe a spirit that the filmmakers, actors, and audience all believe in. As such, they produce Holy moments where it feels that the art breaks through the boundary of its form and reaches some greater and more poignant reality that the audience shares.
Ultimately, in a movie, it doesn’t matter that the plot is non-existent, or that the characters don’t develop, or even don’t exist in the first place. It doesn’t even, immediately, matter whether its explicit message is untrue. Through the sincerity of its observation and the belief infused in the effort, a good piece of cinema can obtain a type of pagan holiness, fleeting but real in its celebration of what it means to be alive and present in the spirit of the age.
Cinema is a ceremony; a ceremony of moment, a ceremony of remembrance, a ceremony of life’s observation. To feel true, a film needs to ask its audience for an almost religious belief in the spirit that it describes. Of course, as illusion and fiction, belief is always tricky. The subject depicted on screen may not be actually real or good or holy. Yet the audience must understand it as living, relevant to the existences they are experiencing, and containing some message that might bring their ordinary lives closer to ultimate meaning.
For those aspiring to make art, or just rediscover artistic experience, I would start with the central understanding that art needs to embody ritual. At all times there needs to be effort and deliberation in its creation and its consumption. At all stages of its reception, there must exist the possibility that it touches something spiritual, true, and happening in the moment.
That is a tall order, certainly, but I don’t think it’s impossible.
Perhaps, the first step is to develop a more mature attitude towards our experience of art. As modern people, we understand media consumption in the wrong way. We obsess over clout and perception. The media’s ability to “change the world” or have an impact. Like an appliance, we evaluate art with metrics concerning quality writing, believable acting, and the number of original scenes. But really, all of these things are secondary. What matters is what is going on in the physical experience and its collective spiritual implications. What is important is that you, me, and the other members of the audience are experiencing the text, and attempting to commune with the zeitgeist that it embodies. We are living vicariously through the life the art embodies to bring new and collective vigor to our own existences because we believe that, whatever other illusion is being employed, there is truth inside the work.
Media does mold us. It must in order to fulfill its telos. But the energy of art must be oriented outwards to the real world and to something believed to be good, true, and beautiful. Believe it or not, there is a difference between my father watching Casablanca and incorporating Humphrey Bogart’s style into his presentation as a man, and a Zoomer watching anime and then trying to live his life as a cartoon cat-girl. In the former case, the text is presenting something it believes could and should be realized in the actual world, the latter case presents a pure illusion that could only exist in the context of simulacrum. And, as J.R.R. Tolkien or George McDonald might point out, the distinction does not lie in the difference between fantasy and realism. The issue is the degree to which the piece of media believes in the ideal it is portraying. When that belief fails, the energy of the experience is turned inward, media becomes self-referential and masturbatory, and the real world becomes a staging area for the consumption of the product itself, this is the “fandom culture” that has consumed the modern world.
Escaping this should be simple. Just tell the truth, no matter what. Expose the audience to the reality of what you see around you and the lamentations of your soul. And if possible, find hope among the ruins. Ask the viewer to engage physically. To go out. To show up. To hand you their actual money To talk and discourse. To experience actively and create physical objects and spaces surrounding that experience, even if the substance of your media is itself entirely digital. And don’t be afraid of mediocrity, triviality, incoherence, randomness, or insanity that creeps into the work. That is part of the reality of the world we see, and it can’t help but be part of our expression.
What is the Zeitgeist saying? No one knows. No one has been listening. Probably nothing comforting or easy to process. But that is the truth that a modern audience needs to experience, and only thereafter find hope, faith, and identity that they can bring into their lives with vigor. Because, it is only in our imperfect but sincerely practiced ceremonies that we remember the dying truth of the present season, the infancy of a future world that has yet to be built, and the greater force of purpose, glimpsed in this holy moment, that unites them both.