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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

question of the day: Are genre movies getting more respect these days, and if so, why?

Today’s question comes from reader doa766:

Why are Avatar and District 9 getting so much critical and awards recognition now when neither Aliens or Blade Runner got any when they were released?

is it because highbrow, art or oscar bait movies have decreased in quality? is it because of a generational and average age change on critics and awards institutions? or is it because critics/awards people back then were afraid of stand out, in the sense that they did think those movies were among the best of their respective years but it wasn’t proper at the time for a respected critic or award show to recognized them as such?

I think is the latter, I mean Avatar is great but Aliens is even better and back then the Academy nominating Weaver as best actress for Aliens was a way of saying “we know you’re movie is great but this is the best we can do if we want to be taken seriously”. Cameron is clearly one of the most talented director in Hollywood and yet he only received mainstream awards for Titanic. His more conventional (and non Sci-fi) movie.

I think doa766 hits on it with his comment about generational change. The critics reviewing movies today are, in large part, those who were teenagers when Alien, Aliens, and Blade Runner were new and fresh and exciting. And so we were primed to see District 9 and Avatar as something more than “mere” genre films, as science fiction and fantasy have generally been dismissed as. (The same might be true of all the love critics lavished on the Lord of the Rings trilogy.) I suspect it’s a symptom of the overall geeking of our culture.

To boil it all down: Are genre movies getting more respect these days, and if so, why?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)



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  • Accounting Ninja

    I think that’s it. My parents’ generation thought sci-fi and cartoons were “for kids” and they still hold those views sometimes. But we who grew up in the 70s and 80s are becoming the ones in charge now, and there’s been a sort of “geek normalizing” going on in our culture, where things like sci-fi, anime and video games are seen as more mainstream and for adults, too. I remember, being a kid, there was a much wider gulf between “kid stuff” and “adult stuff” and never the two shall meet. But now, I have friends and fellow parents who are into gaming and anime and comic books and other “kid stuff”.

    I, for one, am glad! I want to become a graphic novelist and I’m glad I live in a time when I wouldn’t be ridiculed for not doing something more “respectable”.

  • funWithHeadlines

    I dunno, the previous generation of critics grew up with Forbidden Planet, the Foundation novels and the Golden Age of SF. Going back long before that, critics had Jules Verne. SF has been around longer than we think.

    I do think intellectual standards have fallen (compare reading levels of mainstream newspapers and magazines today with those of fifty years ago), so people are more willing to say a genre movie is well made than than they used to. Look at how many adults wound up reading Harry Potter books, for instance, even though they were meant for the YA audience.

    But the primary reason District 9 got nominated is because we have 10 nominees this year, but in 1986 we had only five and that left out Aliens. Have only five nominees this year and D9 would have been left out and we wouldn’t be having this conversation at all.

    Avatar is a special case. It didn’t get nominated because it is a genre movie. It got nominated because of all the work Cameron put into the technology and because it made so much money even Hollywood woke up. I mean, in 1977 Star Wars got nominated for the same reason. You make enough money, Hollywood will pretend you made a great picture that will stand the test of time (looking at you, The Blind Side).

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Two outliers do not a trend make. While I agree that the critical community is becoming more openly appreciative of genre film, it’s foolish to expect some sci-fi or fantasy title to regularly appear in the Academy’s (now bloated) Best Picture list. After all, we don’t expect a token biopic every year, or a medical drama, or a police procedural, or a British period piece.

    Plus, Avatar and District 9 don’t even represent the best, or most Oscar-friendly, sci-fi films of the year. Moon is the more likely candidate.

    I also think doa’s examples are poor. Blade Runner, in all of it’s incarnations, has always been rightly critiqued as stylistically visionary, but otherwise a mess. We’re more forgiving of it now, in large part because of its influence on sci-fi filmmaking since. Plus, it was released in 1982, the same year as E.T. Aliens was well received in 1986, by both critics and audiences. I think nominating Weaver here was more about the Academy liking to single out strong work in unlikely places, something it does regularly. I think it may well have gotten a best picture nod in a 10 film field, as well.

  • CB

    I do think “genre” films, particularly sci-fi and fantasy, are getting more respect these days, for a lot of the reasons mentioned. I think it’s more the case than ever that sci-fi isn’t thought of specifically as a genre-film, but rather a film that happens to be of a particular genre just like every other film is. So it’s easier to consider it on its merits rather than having a prejudice.

    As far as why the Oscar nominations… I think Dr Rocketscience is closer to the truth.

  • Bluejay

    FunWithHeadlines wrote:

    I do think intellectual standards have fallen […] so people are more willing to say a genre movie is well made than than they used to. Look at how many adults wound up reading Harry Potter books, for instance, even though they were meant for the YA audience.

    I disagree with the notion that genre and YA stories are more respected because of “fallen intellectual standards.” I side with Philip Pullman, who has this to say about children’s (and genre) literature:

    There are some themes, some subjects, too large for adult fiction; they can only be dealt with adequately in a children’s book.

    The reason for that is that in adult literary fiction, stories are there on sufferance. Other things are felt to be more important: technique, style, literary knowingness. Adult writers who deal in straightforward stories find themselves sidelined into a genre such as crime or science fiction, where no one expects literary craftsmanship.

    But stories are vital. Stories never fail us because, as Isaac Bashevis Singer says, “events never grow stale.” There’s more wisdom in a story than in volumes of philosophy.

    […]

    We all need stories, but children are more frank about it; cultured adults, on the other hand, those limp and jaded creatures who think it more important to seem sophisticated than to admit to simplicity, find it harder both to write and to read novels that don’t come with a prophylactic garnish of irony.

    But those adults who truly enjoy story, and plot, and character, and who would like to find books in which the events matter and which at the same time are works of literary art where the writers have used all the resources of their craft, could hardly do better than to look among the children’s books.

    Perhaps this is another reason genre movies are increasingly getting love. If genre films are where really cool stories are being told, maybe people are just more willing to recognize that.

  • funWithHeadlines

    What I mean by fallen intellectual standards in terms of movies is that adults used to enjoy Fellini and Bergman films. There were movie houses dedicated to bringing out the best foreign films, and there was a large group of moviegoers who enjoyed these films. Then came Jaws and Star Wars, and corporate takeover of movie studios, and instead of creating art they wanted to create product. They wanted to appeal to the mass market.

    To appeal to the mass market, you have to dumb down your product because, by definition, half of the world is below average in intelligence. Out went the intellectual movies, in came the action movies. Money flowed in, but standards dumbed down.

    When a generation of moviegoers knows almost nothing but dumbed-down movies, a movie such as District 9 (which would have been a clever B-movie in 50s) gets hailed as a movie with great ideas. It does have great ideas, but hardly in comparison to, say, Persona. It’s simplified intellectualism that looks great in comparison to the regular mass product, but is not all that smart.

    Pullman is himself part of this generation, and he’s talking about the world in which we live, a world that has been dumbed down by mass commoditization of intellectual product.

  • Ellen

    I really disagree that Moon is better than the films that got nominated. I found the much-touted Moon to be slow-moving, obviously plotted, and not rising much above a college-freshman screenplay.

  • Jim Mann

    What I mean by fallen intellectual standards in terms of movies is that adults used to enjoy Fellini and Bergman films. There were movie houses dedicated to bringing out the best foreign films, and there was a large group of moviegoers who enjoyed these films. Then came Jaws and Star Wars, and corporate takeover of movie studios, and instead of creating art they wanted to create product. They wanted to appeal to the mass market.

    I’d guess that as high a percentage of the population likes smaller art films now as did then. But I think there are two issues:

    1. The bigger films, that make lots of money, mean that many theaters want only to deal with the bigger money makers, not the smaller films. The smaller films would make as much money as they did 40 years ago, but theaters don’t want to deal with those small numbers.

    2. DVDs mean that people can see those movies at home, so there isn’t as much press to see them in theaters.

    I’ll confess that I fall into category 2. Given the choice between seeing Avatar in the theater and the latest equivalent of a Bergman film, I’ll usually go with Avatar. Why? Because Avatar really benefits from the huge screen of a theater, whereas the Bergman film or Woody Allen film or whatever looks as good on my TV. So if I only have limited time to go to the theater, I go with the films where the theater experience matters more.

  • “What I mean by fallen intellectual standards in terms of movies is that adults used to enjoy Fellini and Bergman films.”

    i think this is a prime example of a parallel with Pullman’s statement on “… stories are there on sufferance. Other things are felt to be more important: technique, style, literary knowingness.”

    Fellini and Bergman are examples of someone whose work is more style and technique than story telling. there should be room for both. but neither should style and technique be touted as “better” than story and character — nor should someone whose taste runs to straightforward storytelling be mocked as not intellectual. many films and books also have satire and social commentary in addition to character and narrative.

    i think the reason genre films and books are more “accepted or praised” now is that perhaps with more media available, there is also more variety available to the general audience than there ever has been previously. Franny and Alexander is one of my favorite movies; but so is Star Wars… and my all time favorite is Casablanca, but there’s room in my list for GhostBusters and Manhattan. i love Pullman’s books, but also enjoy Fay Weldon and Charles Dickens and pretty much all good mysteries.

    we shouldn’t be so limiting in our tastes and experiences.

  • funWithHeadlines

    Right, the people who love intelligent fare are still out there, but the marketplace for the masses rarely serves them. So you and I can seek out the really interesting stuff, but who buys the bulk of the tickets? The masses. Who nominates for the Oscars? The industry people who are all rah-rah about Hollywood product.

    But even what we seek out has changed. Ever compared today’s Scientific American to one from fifty years ago? Today’s textbooks to the verbally-dense versions of fifty years ago? Specialized stuff, yes, you can find as intellectually dense as ever, but I’m talking about the material meant for the masses.

    When the masses get fed mass market flash, standards drop. The movies nominated are better than most, but the entire field has been dumbed down, so we’re grading on a curve. Any movie that has any ideas at all stand out now.

  • funWithHeadlines

    Fellini and Bergman are examples of someone whose work is more style and technique than story telling.

    No, they were just telling different types of stories, stories of the mind. To see only their style is to miss the point.

  • Bluejay

    I agree with bronxbee.

    i love Pullman’s books, but also enjoy Fay Weldon and Charles Dickens and pretty much all good mysteries.

    Actually, Dickens himself is a great example of someone whose works were products intended for mass consumption during his time, but are now considered art. (See also: Shakespeare during his time; the Beatles’ later works; etc.) I think the line between art and mass appeal is a false one. And just because a critic praises District 9 doesn’t mean s/he places it above or in the same category as Persona. As bronxbee says, there’s room for both. I think there are merits in genre film and literature–as well as in what people seek when they go to these entertainments–that people who prefer “highbrow” art may be discounting.

    But even what we seek out has changed. Ever compared today’s Scientific American to one from fifty years ago? Today’s textbooks to the verbally-dense versions of fifty years ago?

    On the other hand, I have compared some children’s chapter books from fifty years ago with the stuff my daughter is reading today, and I have to say: in general, children’s and YA literature today wins hands down. The stories are just more inventive, compelling, fun, realistic (if realism is called for), and imaginative. Kids today who like to read are getting some really good stuff.

    Partly it may just be that styles of communication have changed. Information that used to be conveyed in “verbally-dense” blocks are now packaged in more interesting ways. Wander through the American Museum of Natural History in NY sometime, and compare the dusty, unrenovated sections (with blocks of dry explanatory text) with the newer halls and exhibits, which feature probably the same amount of information but in more visually arresting ways.

  • CB

    To appeal to the mass market, you have to dumb down your product because, by definition, half of the world is below average in intelligence.

    Actually, it’s not “by definition” that half the world is below average. “Average” as a specific measure of central tendency means “Arithmetic Mean”, and it is frequently the case that more than half of the sample is above or below the mean (the average of 1, 2, 9, and 100 is 28). “Median” is the measure of central tendency that is defined as being in the middle. Look up average vs median incomes for a good example (the average is much higher than the median, because the small number of extremely wealthy people drags it up).

    It is true that about half the world is below average, but that’s because human intelligence tends to follow a normal (bell curve) distribution. Not by definition. ;)

    Sorry for the semi-useless pedantry, but it’s a pet peeve of mine and understanding averages is important!

  • funWithHeadlines

    Point very well taken, CB.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    [threadjack]

    the average of 1, 2, 9, and 100 is 28

    OK, but what’s the median of that series? Despite a degree in physics and a career in teaching, I’ve never quite wrapped my head around the relative importance of mean and medians. Then again, I couldn’t quite scrape a C in Probs&Stats senior year.

    [/threadjack]

  • CB

    Yay! Math nerd threadjack!

    OK, but what’s the median of [1, 2, 9, and 100]

    5.5. Yeah, it’s weird. When your sample set has an even number of entries, the median is the arithmetic mean of the middle two. Normally it’s not a big issue in big data sets that are relatively continuous, rather than made up on the spot to make the math easy. :)

    Despite a degree in physics and a career in teaching, I’ve never quite wrapped my head around the relative importance of mean and medians.

    Well it’s not like there’s some mathematical rule for which you should care about, so that’s not surprising.

    Generally, the arithmetic mean is what you care about most. But by itself it can be very misleading, especially when people think of “average” as meaning “common” which isn’t always the case. So usually, you also want to know the standard deviation, which tells you how closely the data is packed around the mean. And knowing the median is also helpful, because it tells you if the average is skewed in one direction or another by outliers.

    Going back to income, the average income in 2004 was $60,528 per household. The median was $44,389. So, half of households earned less than $44,389 and half earned more. It makes sense that the average would be higher, since the least (gross) income you can have is $0, but on the high end it is essentially unbounded. That the average is so much higher (about 40%) indicates that there’s a large wealth disparity between the masses and the wealthy.

    So the answer to relative importance is… it depends. Hope that helps! =D

  • Brian

    I think it’s disingenuous to cite Fellini and Bergman as examples of some imagined past golden age of intelligent cinema-goers. Look at the US box office figures for the period of time during which they released most of their films. (Try this link, for example. http://www.filmsite.org/boxoffice2.html) What were US audiences flocking to? Cleopatra. 101 Dalmatians. Love Story. Filmmakers like Fellini have always been more beloved by the intelligentsia than by the general public. That’s not a bad thing, that’s just a fact.

    Better, perhaps, to compare the box office leaders of yesteryear to those of today. While it’s true that there are some genuinely great, wonderfully thoughtful and “deep” films in the mix from past decades, there are also tons of not-especially-deep genre pictures in there. I love Ben-Hur, but I’m not going to claim that it’s any more sophisticated than Avatar — and the Biblical epic was the hottest genre of that time.

    Also, take a look at the top-selling films of any given year and note how many Oscar winners/nominees, and otherwise widely celebrated films there are among them. (Ben-Hur and Titanic both took home 11 Oscars!) I’d say therefore that the Oscars, and many critics’ tastes, track the nation’s movie-going zeitgeist much more closely than is generally acknowledged.

  • Mo

    Why? In two words: Star Wars.

    Think about it: anyone under 32 has never known a world without Star Wars. That Ewok-infested Ninja Turtle loving geek friendly childhood the under-30 crowd shared has so profoundly shaped our world view that we don’t see a reason why geekiness should be any less all-encompassing in adulthood. Skeptical peers forced to grow up around the young geek hordes would still have learned to tolerate genre stuff even if they didn’t like it themselves. This is our ‘normal’. And kids who grew up wishing they were Jedi are the ones who wanted to find a way to be one bad enough to get into film themselves. So the younger crowd with all the fresh ideas is going to be more likely to want to make something both geeky and brilliant.

    The just-under-30 crowd in 1977- the ones who were young enough at the time to still have been profoundly influenced by Star Wars and Alien and Bladerunner- is now the under-60 crowd. Yes the academy may skew older, but that’s still a substantial chunk of the modern-day voting block.

    So we have great genre stuff being made, and a voting audience that knows how to appreciate it. The logical result would be genre stuff getting awards. And hey look- genre stuff is getting awards!

  • Paul

    We live in a time when some of our best movies are cartoons (Incredibles, Toy Story) and we’re wondering why SF gets more respect than it used to?

    While I agree with a lot of what has been said about generational change, we should also remember that culturally we forget bad movies. We, as a culture, stop watching a movie if it sucked, it fades from the memory, and we are left with a false sense of the good old days when “all” movies were like “Casablanca.”

    Of course, it might be that SF movies actually improved over time. I feel pretty safe saying “District 9” was better than “Forbidden Planet” or the most recent “Star Trek” movie was better than most of the old Star Trek or Star Wars movies. Egads, can you imagine what JJ would do to reboot “Star Wars”?

  • funWithHeadlines

    Brian, your point is also well taken, and I never meant to suggest that the majority of filmgoers ever preferred intelligent cinema. My point, however, was that there was a golden age of cinema from the French New Wave into the late-60s/early-70s Hollywood that treasured the story-telling of the person, not the things. While you can still find individual directors and writers who treasure these things (I’m looking at you, Charlie Kaufman), the bean-counters took over the Hollywood studios and made it harder for such films to be made.

    So yes, you are right that there have always been mediocre films all throughout history (thank you, TCM, for demonstrating this), the post-Jaws/Star Wars period has seen a turning away from big-budget films of humanity (Godfather) and toward roller-coaster rides of technology. Avatar is a fun ride, but its story-telling is basic in the extreme. Even something as well-made as Up In the Air is deep only by the standards of its competition. Look at the Best Picture nominees from decade to decade.

    Something has changed in society. Anti-intellectualism was alive and well in the conformist 1950s, but got obliterated by the post-Sputnik race to excel. Watching society for a while now, I fear we are being forced back into anti-intellectualism, led by a media that feeds us pablum. So if I’m wrong on this question, if I’m reading too much into this, that’s why. I may be too focused on this area and just fit this question into this filter.

    Interesting discussion though.

  • Knightgee

    I think SF and fantasy have just gotten more respect as a legitimate genre for story-telling as the youth that grew up with those genres get older and move into positions of influence. It also helps that there have just been a lot of good genre pictures recently. Not all of them are attempting to be the deepest films ever mind you, but something like Star Trek is just a solid sci-fi action film, while something like District 9 is both creative and makes you think a bit about how we dehumanize people. I also don’t think it’s because we’re getting dumber and to be honest I really detest that old statement. In general, education, literacy, etc. is all much higher now than before, so this talk of us getting dumber as a society reeks of the same alarmist cries that people are always making about the next generation not being as brilliant as their generation was. What they often fail to remember is that their generation and the ones before it had just as much mindless garbage.

  • funWithHeadlines

    Knightgee, since you called out my statements, let me be clearer: My views of dumbed-down society are not an indictment of any particular generation, and certainly not directed at the youth of the world. When I say our world is being dumbed down, I mean it is for everyone — at least the part of the world I see; I can’t speak for other areas where I have no direct experience.

    The media we are being fed is increasingly dumbing us down. All of us. The more you watch, the more it can affect you. You have to seek out the non-traditional media sources to avoid this.

    So while it is true that previous generations had just as much mindless garbage, we now see it in all of the dominant sources of information in a way we did not see before. Compare reporting during World War II to any cable news channel today. We get fed baby information now. It has changed.

  • LaSargenta

    There is another thing that is missing here: availability. I don’t know how much effect this had; but, I remember a lot more independent cinemas when I was a kid and a teen. And, these independent places also got the big blockbusters, but also showed smaller films. The mega-stuper-gazillion-plex was still a few years off from total hegemony. There were still second-run theaters (and porn theaters, not everyone got it on video).

    When I was in high school in a boarding school in Connecticut, there was a theater in the next town with two screens that showed Blade Runner, and Outland, and Diva and Das Boot, and Missing, and Breaker Morant. I’m pretty sure it showed Arthur and Chariots of Fire and Officer and a Gentleman, too. In other words, on its two screens, it showed a wide variety of stuff — some arty, some genre, some foreign & arty, some foreign and blockbuster, and some just plain big name, big box office stuff.

    Is there that much variety in the same size theater now? I don’t think so. So, how is someone going to find all this stuff? You go to the video/dvd shop and it is either lowest-common-denominator or it is orgainzed by genres and someone who just wants rom-coms is never going to even look in the westerns section…so god forbid if something gets misfiled.

    And now, with Netflix, there is probably some kind of algorithm for giving you more of whatever you are already looking for. I haven’t used it. How random is the browsing?

  • Bluejay

    …it showed a wide variety of stuff — some arty, some genre, some foreign & arty, some foreign and blockbuster, and some just plain big name, big box office stuff.

    There’s a theater like that in my neighborhood–it’s got maybe 5 or 6 screens–and I hope it sticks around forever.

  • doa766

    I think another reason is that now most of the frequent moviegoers and critics are what it’s generally called geeks, even if that word can refer to plenty of different types of people

    and they’re capable to see right through solemn art films like The White Ribbon and know that there’s really not much there despite what some pretentious audiences and critic think

    The White Ribbon has a theme (origins of nazism)and it’s just as important are worthy of discussion as District 9’s theme (how people treat those who are different), the difference is that one gets its point across with a slow moving and uneventful small time drama and the other with an exciting action-adventure movie

    and that also shows that the so called film artists like Michael Haneke or Lars Von Trier are actually lazy storytellers, they have a good ideas but they can´t be bothered to put on a show to sell them

  • LaSargenta

    Yeah, but Bluejay, you’re in NYC and so am I now. But, that was in the ‘burbs of Hartford, CT. These days when I’m in suburbs, I don’t see independant theaters. Maybe there’s a few still hanging on somewhere. Maybe they should be plotted on a special ArcGIS map!

  • Paul

    Ah, Charles Kaufman, a Hollywood SF guy who isn’t cribbing all his best ideas off novels.

    Funwithheadlines: Lots of people are going to non-traditional sources of infomation to do this, which is why viewership of traditional TV is in decline. Our options are continuously widening, both in and out of TV. Once upon a time, for a TV show to have 18% of the audience would get it cancelled. Now it’s a sign of success. And I’ve heard that some laid off reporters go rogue and work for the Internet sites, or have their own.

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