The average movie is mediocre at best. This is not meant as an insult to hardworking filmmakers. The simple fact of the matter is that few films in a given year can actually be given the label of a “good movie.”
People often look back fondly at a cultural era. In our short-term memory, this is often reduced to decades. Looking further back, cultural movements generally take up more time and are given weighty names (the Renaissance, the Enlightenment). Often someone will say “Remember the music in the ’90s? It was so much better than it is today” or “Movies were a lot better in the ’70s.” Think about it rationally, though: What possible reason could there be for the quality of art to change from one period in history to the next? It’s not as if new generations are less talented than previous ones, as much as Tom Brokaw tries to convince us otherwise. Generations are made up of individuals. Sometimes we lose sight of this much like we fail to acknowledge the tiny pixels that form our computer screens.
Let’s take a look at the conditions art needs to survive. First, there are the technological advances in artistic mediums. Oil-based paints and watercolor paints both developed at different times in history. The electric guitar spawned a revolution in music, just as programmed beats and synthesized instruments have done in more recent decades. The biggest technological change right now in film is the use of digital technologies. Even if a movie is still shot on film it will pass through a computer at some point, be it for color correction, CGI, titles, or DVD production.
The other major requirement is something that is more difficult to pinpoint. I call it cultural inspiration. These are the societal tendencies that are working both for and against the artist, and are often easier to pinpoint in hindsight. The great thing about art is that the forces working against it are easily neutralized by the work. The Vietnam War is an example of a cultural inspiration. Music underwent a fundamental change during this time, and films as well. For all the peace and love in the air, films seemed to get grittier and more cynical from this point forward. Star Wars, though an attempt at more uplifting cinema, was even inspired by the Vietnam War. George Lucas was originally scheduled to make Apocalypse Now, but when this plan fell through he began forming his space epic by following the same threads of rebellion and empires stretched too far.
With all this in mind, it becomes easier to view the cultural impact of certain films. I wager that we soon would start to see a change in the tone of films. Our nation and world has recently undergone a significant cultural and political change. We are in dire times both economically and internationally, yet there is a sense of optimism. It is my guess that films would adopt this attitude, much as films like Sullivan’s Travels did during cinema’s Golden Age (another weighty term).
With all this generational talk, we tend to forget about the lesser films of an era. In people’s fondness for the formative films of their generation, they tend to cast aside the insignificant creations. Sometimes a bad film can be enjoyable. Other times a film can be great but you will never want to watch it again, for all its weight.
Then there are films that are fantastic disasters. One that I have already mentioned is Apocalypse Now. The shoot was nearly catastrophic at times, but in many ways this only feeds the performances and the magic of the film. Coppola famously stated that “My film is not about Vietnam, my film is Vietnam.” A more recent disaster film is the Darren Aronofsky work The Fountain. This film is such a glorious mess that I can’t help but be absorbed completely by it. The Fountain is another film that underwent such turmoil during production that it lends the finished film an edge most cannot achieve. Recently, Aronofsky proclaimed that he wants to expand on it. It seems apparent to me that the film still has a hold on him.
I wouldn’t call these films “guilty pleasures.” I reserve that term for films that are so bad that they become enjoyable. These movies could be considered masterpieces or they could be considered failures. They exist somewhere in between the perfect and the mediocre. The simple definition is that they are fascinating and are much more interesting than any perfect film could ever be. They are to be admired for their ambition. A.I. is another such film. Many critics panned it, but it is such an interesting film that I remember being intellectually and emotionally stimulated as I watched it.
After all, isn’t that the only requirement a film must fulfill? It must stimulate you in some way, whether positively or negatively. The mediocre is a film that does neither and a bad film is infinitely more successful. That said I still never want to see The Black Dahlia again. It stimulated my gag-reflex.