Our Daily Bleg: Has Quality Declined or Is it Just My Old-Fogeyism?

Our resident quote bleggar Fred Shapiro, editor of the Yale Book of Quotations, is back with another request. If you have a bleg of your own, send it along here.

Thanks to everyone for the incredible outpouring of comments in response to last week’s posting about 21st-century song lyrics. The responses will certainly be of some use for the next edition of The Yale Book of Quotations.

Sirdonic pointed out that my own comments were unnecessarily negative. His points were well taken. I apologize for the unnecessary negativism, which was motivated by feeble attempts at humor, a shameless desire to attain a total of 400 comments, and some frustration at the lack of memorable 21st-Century lyrics (I regret adding to the negativism with that last comment, I’m just trying to be honest).

For this week’s bleg, let me pose a more theoretical question. Are there any relatively objective criteria for comparing the quality of artistic or cultural productions from different eras? I and many of the posters in recent weeks seem to feel that there has been a substantial qualitative decline in film, popular music, and probably other arts as well. I like to call this “the Gladiator phenomenon.”

I believe that the film Spartacus was not viewed as much different from other epics of the period when it was released. The film Gladiator was a highly acclaimed Best Picture Oscar winner. Yet to me Spartacus is far superior, to the point that the worst scene in Spartacus is probably better than the best scene in Gladiator (which is also a highly derivative blend of Spartacus, Ben-Hur, and Braveheart). All this can be criticized as subjectivity, old-fogeyism, failure to appreciate contemporary culture, or a verdict that will be proven wrong by posterity. Yet I suspect that many share my opinions on Gladiator specifically and today’s arts generally.

The only relatively objective criterion I can think of for making inter-era comparisons is citation counting (how many books and articles on film cite each movie, and does the impact of the film endure in the long term?), but citation counting has many flaws as an index of quality and takes many years to provide meaningful data.

Are there any other ways to make comparisons that are defensible and go beyond inevitable era-ism?

Another question is: What is the role of professional critics and reviewers — whose livelihoods depend on their appreciating the art of their time and elevating some of it to a pantheon regardless of the merits — in such comparisons? Is The Godfather rated the second greatest American film of all time by the American Film Institute and Raging Bull rated fourth because it would not look good for all the top films to come from the 1939 to 1942 period?

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  1. Ty says:

    You must not have seen Dark Knight yet.

    Also, this all depends on what makes a good film. I believe for myself and the average person it is all well and good to appreciate the fine art of film making but I think the base reason for watching film should be to be entertained, and I think this should be the base criteria for evaluating film. It is rare to see comedies to be ranked on best movie lists because they may not be as artistic as drama or some indie flick but I think they provide more entertainment value.

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  2. Marko says:

    It’s your old fogeyism. Movies are better than ever thanks to better technology and crisper pacing. I suspect that you have liked movies less and less as you’ve gotten older; not specific movies, movies in general. Consequently you think movies are getting worse.

    I’d be curious to know if you watched old movies and new movies now and compared them apples to apples or if you watched an occasional new movie, didn’t like it and thought to yourself “that was no Casablanca.”

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  3. Sprizouse says:

    It always bothers me when people think the quality of mass media is declining but they fail to actually go back and re-watch old shows & movies (and fail to take into account any one of the myriad memory biases affecting their recollection of those things from the past.

    Most often people compare low quality movies and tv shows of today (reality-type stuff?) to the BEST shows from the past. Which is a total ‘apples to oranges’ comparison. The past had some dreck too, but we tend to forget about it…

    Frankly if you went back and watched an episode of Hill Street Blues (a supposed groundbreaking timeless masterpiece), you’ll find it has a glacial pace and a plot that lacks the intricacy you’re used to today. There are more plot lines, characters and active brain work involved in ANY episode of The Wire, Sopranos or Lost than Hill Street. Not a single show from the past can hold a candle to any of those three as far as plot complexity. Re-watching a movie like Lawrence of Arabia has the same effect.

    Reminiscing about old shows and movies and remembering how much you LIKED them isn’t the same thing as comparing them side-by-side. Steven Johnson’s book Everything Bad is Good For You does a marvelous job highlighting some of these points.


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  4. Drew in Pittsburgh says:

    I found myself asking a similar question recently after seeing The Dark Knight. I did really enjoy the film, but was thinking about the previews of the coming attractions.

    We are all familiar with the law of diminishing returns. Well as film approaches its first centennial, is the capacity to create something original, amazing and timeless increasingly harder to do as time passes? It seems to me that Hollywood is in a period of redundancy, where sequels, remakes, and formulas are rampant.

    I do not question the capacity of human creativity. I just ask, is the ability to create something epic getting more difficult as time passes?

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  5. Jeff says:

    I can’t say I think that citation counting is a good indicator for two reasons: 1) there are a lot more people than there were in 1945. they are also more educated and have access to televisions and the internet, so there can be a lot more production of articles about a movie today, regardless of how good it is. 2) a movie is not a quality movie just because people write about it, think of all the people who wrote about the Affleck/Lopez movie Gigli.

    I think the two best rating systems out there for movies are: 1) IMDB – a rating where the general movie watching public can rate movies, only people that are into movies spend the time to rate them on this site 2) sight and sound poll – rated based on the individual rating from directors and critics, ie there’s no editor deciding that the top 5 films shouldn’t all be before 1950.

    also, to say that the worst scene in Spartacus is superior to best in Gladiator is, in my opinion, the epitome old fogeyism.

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  6. Munich says:

    A few weeks ago I watched Citizen Kane, which would have been a total waste of my time if not for the fact that I like to be contrarian. The acting was cartoonish, the plot was boring, and i didn’t care about the characters.

    But they say that movie had a bunch of groundbreaking technical advances. I didn’t notice because I’ve already seen all that stuff in modern movies. I don’t really care though, it was not an interesting movie at all.

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  7. Rojo says:

    At the very least, the writing is a lot better in SOME of the newer good movies, for example: the non-linear, interweaving plot lines of Pulp Fiction, the final plot twist of Sixth Sense, and the dialog in Glengarry Glen Ross. Most of the older movies have very simplistic plots and very stereotypical characters.

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  8. Eric says:

    It also needs to be realized that many of the Best Picture winners from older times (The Greatest Show on Earth, Oliver!) have not stood the test of time at all, but are now widely recognized as terrible films. The Gladiator argument thus strikes me as relatively moot, because every era has produced films that may not have achieved large-scale popularity but which have great artistic merit. There will always be good films that nobody knows or recognizes as such, and there will always be terrible films that people love. If you want to make comparisons across eras, compare the best from one era to the best from another, and the worst from one era to the worst from another. Otherwise, your comparisons are unfair, even if you think comparing two Gladiator genre movies is a fair representation of different eras.

    An interesting read that touches on this subject is Steven Johnson’s “Everything Bad is Good for You.”

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