Calling It With Top Gun
If you haven’t read Mark Harris’ excellent GQ op-ed titled “The Day the Movies Died” yet, you really should. In it, Harris selects the Summer of ’87 release of Top Gun as the titular moment in history, and for good reason. Many will instinctually question the choice, citing releases like Star Wars and Jaws instead, but the article is much more than mere film-nerd “What if…” play — it’s aimed at a real trend in the industry that has shaped the new modern day studio system. Enough pretense. If you haven’t given it a read, go do so now.
Other Contributing Factors — The Death of Film Appreciation
Harris’ analysis of marketed film is right on the money, but there is a deeper corrosion at play. Roger Ebert has discussed the death of film criticism in wake of the rising “CelebCult” before, but I intend to carry this a step further. First, Ebert was speaking specifically about criticism in print. Second, Ebert’s thesis centers around the demand for printed gossip, which doesn’t necessarily align with Harris’ assertion that the age of “A-list celebrity as product” has come and gone in Hollywood, replaced instead by “proven product” — sequels, remakes, etc.
So what do I mean by death of film criticism? In film school, my circle of cineastes looked forward to each and every release. The late-90s — early-aughts were an extremely exciting times for American cinema. I’m not going to be so bold as to declare it a movement, it wasn’t. Not every film released was golden, but one can hardly deny that there was an incredible balance of high-concept films released, above and beyond the sequel / spandex genre. Films like Mulholland Dr., Boogie Nights, Requiem for a Dream, Fight Club, The Big Lebowski, The Thin Red Line, Rushmore, He Got Game, Happiness, Memento, American Psycho, Almost Famous, Traffic, Bringing Out The Dead, The Matrix, The Sixth Sense, American Beauty, and many more.
I mention these films for very specific reasons — many of them represent original screenplays, adapted works from lesser-known sources, early films from budding directors, anticipated vehicles from established auteurs, or perhaps most importantly many are, to some degree, polarizing efforts. It was a great time to be studying film theory. But it was ultimately killed, not just by a push to marketing as Harris illustrates, but also by cynicism, in fighting, and the inability to appreciate what we had. What happened?