Jonathan Kirshner in Boston Review, writing about a handful of books by Roger Ebert and about Pauline Kael, starts off his essay — provocatively entitled “When Critics Mattered” — like this:
The years from the late 1960s through the middle of the 1970s were remarkable ones for American movies. In the words of critic David Thompson, it was “the decade when movies mattered.”
With the collapse of the draconian censorship regime that had imposed a strict moral code on the content of films, the decline of the studio system, and economic and demographic changes in both the industry and its audience, a window of opportunity opened for a new type of commercial film. At the same time, the content of these movies was inevitably shaped by the social and political upheavals of the era: the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, the sexual revolution, women’s liberation, and the Shakespearean saga of the Nixon presidency.
These films, filmmakers, and, implicitly, their audiences, were dubbed the “New Hollywood.” New to reflect their relative youth, but also as a nod to the foundational influence of the New European cinemas of the 1950s and 1960s; Hollywood because the makers of these personal, ambitious, arty films nevertheless hoped to return a fair profit. During this golden age, a night at the movies was still an evening’s entertainment, but it was also an invitation to discuss important works of art that were shaped by, and in dialogue with, the political, social, and philosophical issues of their times.
Obviously there are still a few people — such as my dear readers here — who are interested in discussing the larger issues that movies raise. But this can hardly be said to apply to the overall film culture… not when the primary attack that almost any film critic faces comes from moviegoers who specifically tell us to shut up and stop thinking so much about what they deem “just a movie.” It’s impossible to imagine anyone in the 1960s instructing us to turn our brains off when we go to the movies.
So, here’s the question:
Do movies matter anymore? If so, in what way?
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