Mourning for Hollywood: 10 Days the Movies Died

For film fans, the must-read article of the week — to hell with that, the year — is Mark Harris’ brilliant think piece for GQ on the state of the current cinema, “The Day The Movies Died.” Harris, whose book Pictures at a Revolution is the single best piece of film writing of the last decade, despairs of a Hollywood that, in the words of a studio executive, “doesn’t tell stories anymore”; instead, it cranks out endless sequels and adaptations and remakes and reboots, more concerned with built-in brands than quality or craftsmanship.

“As you read this,” Harris writes, “the person who gave the go-ahead to Fast Five, the (I hate to prejudge, but…) utterly unnecessary fifth installment in the Vin Diesel–Paul Walker epic The Fast and the Furious, is sleeping soundly right now, possibly even at his desk. On June 10, 2011, he will bestow on several thousand screens a product that people have already purchased four times before. How can it miss?”

That’s not the only good quote. Chew on this: “We can all acknowledge that the world of American movies is an infinitely richer place because of Pixar and that the very best comic-book movies, from Iron Man to The Dark Knight, are pretty terrific, but the degree to which children’s genres have colonized the entire movie industry goes beyond overkill. More often than not, these collectively infantilizing movies are breeding an audience — not to mention a generation of future filmmakers and studio executives — who will grow up believing that movies aimed at adults should be considered a peculiar and antique art. Like books. Or plays.”

And then there’s this: “It’s your run-of-the-mill hey-what’s-playing-tonight movie — the kind of film about which you should be able to say, ‘That was nothing special, but it was okay’ — that has suffered most from Hollywood’s collective inattention/indifference to the basic virtues of story development. If films like The Bounty Hunter and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time define the new ‘okay,’ then the system is, not to put too fine a point on it, in very deep shit.”

In one of the piece’s most penetrating passages, Harris presents a carefully constructed (and basically airtight) argument that the smash success of Top Gun in 1987 marked the real beginning of the end for Hollywood: “Top Gun landed directly in the cortexes of a generation of young moviegoers whose attention spans and narrative tastes were already being recalibrated by MTV and video games. That generation of 16-to-24-year-olds — the guys who felt the rush of Top Gun because it was custom-built to excite them — is now in its forties, exactly the age of many mid- and upper-midrange studio executives. And increasingly, it is their taste, their appetite, and the aesthetic of their late-’80s post-adolescence that is shaping moviemaking.”

But before he even makes that case, Harris grants that this may very well be a fallacious argument. “How did Hollywood get here?” he writes. “There’s no overarching theory, no readily identifiable villain, no single moment to which the current combination of caution, despair, and underachievement that defines studio thinking can be traced. But let’s pick one anyway.” With that openness in mind, we decided to pick ten more “days the movies died” — the moments when a little event had major repercussions on the way the movie business, on a daily basis, breaks our hearts.

June 16, 1916: The Fall of a Nation, cinema’s first sequel

We’ll artfully sidestep the inevitable, uncomfortable conversation about the importance of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, which was a watershed moment for film craft, used in the service of a story that remains horrifying for its racism and hateful rhetoric. Suffice it to say that the film, which ran an epic 190 minutes, was a monster box office hit (grossing something like $10 million in its original release, which began in 1915). Director Griffith went to work on his follow-up, the more ambitious (and noticeably less incendiary) Intolerance, but Thomas Dixon Jr., who co-wrote The Birth of a Nation (from a pair of his books) wanted to cash in on his association with the smash, so the following year, he wrote and directed The Fall of a Nation — which is, most film historians agree, the first movie sequel.

Dixon’s follow-up was a flop (and has subsequently disappeared, as something like 80% of silent films did), but in the decades to come, Hollywood would learn to love the sequel and its built-in (and inevitably disappointed) audience. That love affair has reached a fever pitch in 2011, with an astonishing 27 sequels slated for release — or, as Harris writes, “four adaptations of comic books. One prequel to an adaptation of a comic book. One sequel to a sequel to a movie based on a toy. One sequel to a sequel to a sequel to a movie based on an amusement-park ride. One prequel to a remake. Two sequels to cartoons. One sequel to a comedy. An adaptation of a children’s book. An adaptation of a Saturday-morning cartoon. One sequel with a 4 in the title. Two sequels with a 5 in the title. One sequel that, if it were inclined to use numbers, would have to have a 7 1/2 in the title.” That’s quite a tally. Now, let’s take a look at the genuinely original movie ideas slated for this year. Um…