The New Depression Cinema

underdog's picture

[Hammer in hand, Vadim Rizov (The Village Voice, The House Next Door) makes an astute attempt at nailing down the gelatinous zeitgeist, at least in how the symbiosis of H'wood filmmaking and filmgoing will be affected by the ongoing economic collapse. Kick back with some boot stew and check 'er out. -Aaron Hillis]

By Vadim Rizov

Confessions of a Shopaholic In the time between Confessions of a Shopaholic's initial wave of advertising and its release, things have (to put it mildly) changed; a lightweight chick-flick parable about a woman with a spending problem who finds love and a way to pay for her material thrills (a frilly entertainment based on a 2000 book to be released in the middle of a mild economic downturn) is now a dispatch from a different age. Even if, as the Wikipedia page claims, reshoots have taken the recession into account, the question stands: do today's depressed audiences want vicarious materialism? Or will they turn indifferently on the film and run back to the more apropos comforts of Paul Blart and its ilk?

Trend pieces are the curse of the constant need to stall for real content; nonetheless, the excuse provided by Confessions is a good moment to think about the many claims being raised on behalf of how this new depression may or may not have an effect similar to the Great Depression's seemingly causal relationship to one of Hollywood's golden ages. Pretty much every media outlet has either weighed in with a variant or will soon enough. Joe Morgenstern tipped his hand by beginning his piece "Where are you, Fred and Ginger, now that we need you?", concluding the only thing that can save the movies is "originality." Unfortunately, Morgenstern's dubious example of the kind of originality we need is Slumdog Millionaire. MSNBC's Alonso Duralde went the hard-times-mean-escapist-thrills route, your basic recycled Great Depression argument. Spout's Karina Longworth conceded "I don’t have the answers! What say you?", but chose Shopaholic and He's Just Not That Into You as initial test-cases, which is significant for reasons I'll get into in a bit. The gloomiest prognosis came from The Village Voice's J. Hoberman, who concluded "Movies are expendable. Folks will give up $12 tickets, cancel Netflix, and cut cable to save their high-speed Internet connection."

Of course, they're all wrong about everything. Below, I'll explain why and offer my own cautious prognostications of the near-future. I was aided in my quest by Robert Sklar, author of Movie-Made America, whose magisterial overview of the scope of American film history is pretty untoppable; and Noel Murray, freelance writer for The AV Club, among other publications, who keeps a discriminating and incisive eye on mainstream American entertainment. My thanks to both.

The Depression 2.0? I. Counter-Arguments: What Won't Happen
Let's get rid of this obsession with the idea that hard times automatically equal good movies (a myth we owe as much to the '70s as the '30s). I don't want to give the Los Angeles Times' Patrick Goldstein too much stick as he's an industry observer, not a critic, but in an otherwise well-reasoned piece where he concludes you can never 100% guess what audiences will and won't go for, he signs off with "All we really know is that we know a good movie when we see one, whether the Dow's scraping bottom or running with the bulls." Goldstein, Morgenstern, et al. write with the calm assurance of men who know a "good movie" when they see one, and can be completely certain their readers will, too. For most, I assume, it's not nearly that simple. However, I'm not interested in the quality of the films being produced (well, I am, but not in this context). This is pure pop sociology.

The number one reason this new depression's movies won't resemble the '30s in any way: the studio system isn't built the same way. '30s Hollywood was a much more efficient machine. "When you think about comparing the role of Hollywood in culture then and now, there's no comparison," Sklar notes. "They're producing 400, 500, 600 films a year. They're very structured around stars and genres." The studios had a cultural monopoly, Sklar continues: "Hollywood was the only national medium, in a sense. Radio didn't really go coast-to-coast until '36." Compare the situation now: the proliferation of other media with more bang for your far-stretched buck aside, the studios don't work as hard or as much.

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