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?


MH

One of the many reasons why you can't make an objective comparison is that the audience's context is important. Many people here are claiming that old movies are too slow, but a moviegoer from the 1940's would say today's movies are too fast. One of the reasons the original Star Wars movie was so popular was its pace; it would show two seconds worth of a ship firing its cannons and that would suggest a whole battle was going on. That was new in the 1970s, now almost every film does it. Audiences expect it. George Lucas said he thought he could only do that because of TV commercials; the audience had gotten used to being shown short bits of video and processing them quickly.

How would Star Wars be received if it were released in the 1950's? How would Spartacus be received if it were released today? My guess is, they'd both be failures and forgotten quickly.

sandman

It is exceedingly difficult to compare popular art from different eras. The more expressionistic acting style of films from the 50s appears overly broad and theatrical to viewers who've grown up with the more realistic styles pioneered in the 60s and 70s. Likewise, much of the early Beatles output sounds like show tunes to listeners of Radiohead and other current acts.

Also, it is worth adding that popular success and Oscar attention should in no way be equated with artistic merit. Any correlation in that regard is coincidental.

Finally, when I experience the feeling that there is an ongoing degradation in the quality of film, literature, music I find it useful to remind myself that 99% of all artistic output is crap and that much of the crap from prior decades has been weeded out (either by lack of availability or by selective memory) so that we're comparing an enriched pool from the past to the full spectrum of current output. The past will always profit in this scenario.

So, the question was - how does one objectively judge the artistic output of different eras? I think historians are best equipped by training to cut through the background chatter and come up with comparables, but then they aren't critics. We need cultural critics with a strong background in historical methods. But that sounds awfully academic and dry - can a stodgy academic realistically compare Tears of a Clown with Rehab? The 400 Blows with 300? Spartacus with Gladiator?

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Larry

To be objective, I think you have to decompose the good/bad continuum into its pieces.

As time passes, our knowledge of how to do things improves, and this includes art. Experiments succeed or fail, commercially and/or esthetically. The successes reappear in later works. We stand on giants' shoulders.

Conversely, earlier works have a greater likelihood of being innovative/fresh when they are produced, because less has already been discovered. I.e., they pick low-hanging fruit.

The audience also changes. I have experienced vastly more art (movies, music, etc.) than my father at my age, because there's so much more out there and it's so easy to access. Entertaining me now is a much different project than entertaining him then. Does experience make one jaded or more discriminating?

Measuring quality is tricky. One test is to look at changes in popularity over time. I'm comfortable saying that works that become more popular as they age are of higher quality than those that do not. Conversely, the quality of works that start out highly popular but are then forgotten is suspect.

Another measure is remakes and covers. Works that get remade or stolen from get the nod in quality over those that do not.

No measure is perfect, of course. We're talking about art!

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Chesapean

You ask about quality, but there's an economics component in your question: What is the value of art (music, visual arts, literature, theater)?

If art has economic value, then you'd expect there to be some objective way to measure the quality of it, the same as with goods like corn, cotton, and condos.

My guess is art is worthless. So, any measure of quality would be arbitrary.

I say art is worthless because -- no matter how much you enjoy creating or consuming it, or how much you are willing to pay for it -- it does not in itself feed, clothe, or shelter anyone. To be worth something economically, there has to be an "energy effect" of some type.

You could also say art is priceless, for the very same reasons. Art simply doesn't correlate to money.

I like the idea that art can contain hidden messages by encryption. Art which has entertainment value tends to survive, and can transmit information in this way across any number of human generations.

What a benefit, completely free!

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Stephan Schwartz

Thanks for posting this. I agree that a desire to list a range of films with different time periods is at play.

http://www.linkedin.com/in/stephanschwartz

Ex Army Guy

Old fogeyism. 15 years ago my Sergeants were complaining that we were all soft and useless whiners compared to their generation. When I speak to friends now still in the service they are making the exact same complaint with the same amount of conviction.

Same thing with all the people running around saying crimes and social problems have never been worse. Bull! When I was a kid 20 years ago teen pregnancy was rampant, crime was common, and drugs were everywhere. Only the date has changed. Heck, by many measures things have gotten a lot better.

As for movies, eh. I'll admit a lot of new stuff is derivative, but movies were a fairly new art form in the 30s and 40s. Of course they will seem more original and fresh from that era, until you pull back another layer and compare them to plays, books, and other art forms that came before. I can't stand most movies from the 70's myself. Dark (not in a good way, I literally can't see what's going on), horrible audio, and ridiculous plots. And these are many of the so-called "classics" from that era.

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Kymberlee

Perhaps the comparison, and argument that the quality of films being produced today has nothing to do with the films at all. Perhaps its all relative to what was happening in your life at that specific time when you watched any of these now-classic films. As an example, my grandmother used to take me to this park in Toronto when I was little. At the time, that park was nothing short of paradise....cool swings, a big 'swimming' fountain, etc. etc. 5 years ago, when I was 32, I sought that park out and found it, and now regret doing so. The memory of how great and grande that park was is now soiled by the reality that it's not. Perhaps your recollection of these classics is further enhanced by whatever your environment was at the time? Just a suggestion.

No doubt, there's a lot of lousy film out there. But in all fairness, there are some FANTASTIC movies and television shows (even with the removal of special effects, etc. that didn't exist 50 years ago) and to draw any level of comparison between era's is nothing more then a waste of time.

The world is changing. We must change with it. :)

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Christoph

My approach would assume that the average quality is constant over time. Therefore, an objective indicator should measure how much a specific movie outperformed other movies that were released in the same year. Such an indicator can be very simple like money played in or # of cinema visitors.

Intuitively, I assume that movie quality is distributed (say normally) with the same distribution every year and I try to find out which movie is farthest under the tails of the distribution.

Tom

I have to to concur with the above poster who said this thread confirms his suspicions that econs lovers are cultural philistines. Only I'd expand that to most of the current public.

It amuses me to no end how readily people judge older films. One of the commentators point blank refused to watch older films, especially in b/w. Well, speaking as a film lover, and yes, only a film lover, not a critic or film professional, the older films are the best. How so many respondents can conflate almost a century of films into a single genre of "classics" is an insult to the vast variety and scope of the classics. Maybe you aren't interested in the ganster film cycle of the 30s (Little Caesar, original Scarface, Public Enemy). Have you thought about trying some screwball, which contain some of the funniest dialogue ever written (His Girl Friday and My Man Godfrey being two of the best). Or the hardnosed dialogue of the film noirs? I've watched hundreds of pre-1960s films, and quite frankly I find it astounding that one cannot distinguish between the acting styles of Cary Grant, Bogart, Brando, and Mitchum. I guess to the average respondent here, they're one and the same.

What the majority of people here fail to appreciate is that there is a reason so many of these older films are held up as classics. It's because they are compelling, entertaining and can still speak to the modern person with more power than most modern films, if only you'd give them that chance. And I speak in this from some experience, because I'm only 18 and came to the classics quite late, at 16. I discovered them on my own, and it's an ongoing process of education and constant enjoyment and fascination.

I shudder to think of the agony viewing a silent film must be. Perhaps it's safer to go back to your latest Coen Brothers or Scorcese feature (good directors, but at least they have the humility to acknowledge the huge debt they owe to their predeccessors; Scorcese even made a Hitchcock tribute short which can be found on YouTube).

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Mike B

There's a selection bias because for a movie to be truly great it must retain its greatness over time. Therefore it is hard to say which modern movies can be considered great because they are as of yet unable to prove their staying power. Moreover, looking back over 110 years of art one will tend to only remember the good examples from back in the day and forget the stinkers. Modern stinkers are fresh in your mind so the present day will appear worse.

I have always found the IMDB ratings to be pretty accurate as that site has a very large sample of both lay movie enthusiasts and film buffs. The top 250 list has a good mix of films that are considered high art, high entertainment, or in rare cases, both.

BTW, in my opinion the time period with the greatest sustained quality was probably the "New Hollywood" era in the 60's and 70's where the top level management went hands off and allowed all sorts of new directors to innovate at their craft. Unfortunately, after Heaven's Gate bankrupted UA we once again saw the large shift back toward a less risky (ie more bland) targeted mainstream fare. Of course there are going to still be great films...they just have to impress the focus group first.

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Cosimo

I guess a possible criterion for movies would be home video purchases from the third year after release. If a lot of people buy a DVD of a relatively old movie, then one may conclude that the movie was rather good. I can always make good use of an Hitchcock movie. So Hitchcock is obkectively great. The same applies to the music industry. The best albums of the 1970s still score relatively high on the charts, and they certainly do better than Take That's albums. Again, I can always make a good use of an album by Nick Drake. So Nick Drake is objectively great.

James Kingdom

This has proven what I long suspected - that people interested in economics are Philistines. After all, utility is all, and it would be galling to admit that there is something of greater import than your arbitrary wants.

When we look back at the history of cinema, only the good films stand out. Yes, we forget the bad ones. But what this teaches us is that good films don't come around very often - perhaps only a couple a year. That's still the case now.

Another problem is having people discuss old films although they are not familiar with them. Yes, October or The Birth of a Nation or L'Age d'Or may seem dull and strange to you, but that's because you haven't seen a good sampling of films from every continent made over the past 120 years. You can't have any idea what made a film good then, or what makes a film good now. People who only take a flighty interest in the latest movies and the 10 other films that everyone has seen are in no position to judge. Leave it to the experts.

Of course, it goes with the plebian and vituperative spirit of the age that every opinion is equal and that the wise are somehow tyrants.

Today's films will seem staid, strange and dated in 30 years' time, too.

Your grandchildren will see the Dark Knight for what it is - a sloppy commercial formula incorporating the usual time crisis and emotional arc. They will think that the editing is too fast, the visual style as predictably dark and empty as with other films of the era. The effects and acting will be laughable. They will comment dryly on millennial paranoia and theorise about war allegories. The score will be turned down so as not to embarrass their newer ears. There will be a thousand retrospective details that will make it cheesy and unwatchable. To many of us, it appears this way already.

You will describe it as a 'classic' and your grandchildren will groan and roll their eyes. But you might at last recognise the ignorance that you labour under now.

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Adam Pelavin

I vote for old-fogeyism, and I think the giveaway is in your point that Gladiator is derivative. Not that the point itself is wrong, but I think you're wrong to assume that being derivative is relevant.

It's easy to dismiss a work as derivative when a medium starts to come of age. Sometimes the best plot elements are already taken. But it's a mistake to assume that a derivative work can't be dramatically better than the work from which it's derived.

For a simple illustration: Romeo and Juliet was highly derivative of a whole series of Italian plays. Does that mean that playwriting (playwrighting?) was in serious decline as of the time of Shakespeare?

flighty

The problem is there are many many ways to judge a movie:

How do you compare Citzen Kane to Ferris Bueller? They are trying to accomplish completely different things.

But as many posters have pointed out, you do tend to filter out the garbage thanks to memory. One movie I challenge you to rewatch is Bullit with Steve McQueen. It's supposed to be cooler than cool, but history has been more than a little kind to it. The editing is painfully overdrawn. Witness the number of times you see Bullit get out of his car/go through a door/go through another door/turn a door knob/ then finally enter a room - nobody in their right mind would do this anymore it drags everything down to a crawl. The car chase, while maybe the first of its kind, is little more than two cars going slightly above the speed limit and hitting some bumps.

TV on the other hand has dramatically improved. Sure there are some classic TV shows that still play reasonably well, but most were little more than radio dramas awkwardly staged. It's only recently that shows are beginning to realize the full potential of TV.

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pdxtran

A lot of presumably younger viewers complain about the pacing and "unrealistic" sets of older films. To me, that's an indication of how they've been spoiled by expectations that a movie will zip by and offer a laugh line or a visual thrill every couple of minutes. Frankly, I find most blockbuster movies today to be frenetic and stuffed with special effects at the expense of depth and development.

If you're looking for a thrill a minute and a plot that can be written on the back of business card, then studio blockbusters are for you. I gravitate toward foreign and independent films, because I want to see stories that I haven't seen before, stories that may offer excitement but most of all, offer emotional depth and an immersion in an unfamiliar world.

Matt

This may seem a crude example, but I liken this to my roommate, Chris's, bathroom tissue preference. Chris is 37 years old and, for the better part of his life, has used "cheap" bathroom tissue.

This subject came up because when he first took a room at my place, he commented on the plushness of the bathroom tissue (Charmin Ultra!). His follow-up comment was the curious part: "I don't like it."

How can this be? Charmin Ultra is an objectively (and subjectively for most) superior product when it comes to comfort and use.

It came out that Chris was raised on the cheap stuff and, with the exception of the interference of intermittent live-in girlfriends, had used it in his adult life as well. It's what's comfortable to him.

I suspect Fred Shapiro is much the same with movies. Newer, better, and, dare I say, smoother product is now available, but a nostalgia and comfort involved with the stuff you grew up on doesn't allow you to enjoy the pleasure of the new.

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Amelia

If one is comparing things across years, one needs to have a standard set of criteria to use. When comparing prices, for example, we compare the price of a specific shopping cart full of goods.

What then are the criteria which determine a movie to be good? How have the changes in film technology changed the way in which a movie is produced? In the 'black and white' movie days, movies were heavy on dialogue, with comparatively little editing and clumsy attempts at special effects. In 2008, many movies are heavy on the special effects to the detriment of depicting in depth human relationships. It would seem the goal of movie making has been changed through the advent of higher technology to movie makers.

HH

Three comments.

I generally take the position that you can't compare art, period. I've had this discussion about music, mostly arguing that, other than strict technical ability, you don't really have good or bad music, just popular and less popular. [And this very NYTimes has run articles showing that popularity is largely a matter of luck.] Movies might be a little different, since technical skill counts for much more, but in principle I don't see the difference.

More generally, I'm almost convinced that movies and TV shows today are better than they were 20 years ago, let alone 40 or 60. I think the average TV show is more realistic, more consistent, and less of an insult to intelligence than even the best shows of past generation.

Finally, it's almost impossible to compare art across generations, because the media evolve. How can we compare theater today to what it was 500 years ago. A visit to the theater in 1600 was more akin to a day at the ballgame than it is to the theater today. Movies in 1940 played a different role than they do in 2008. The cultural role that classical composers and playwrights played hundreds of years ago are being replaced by more accessible forms of entertainment. To compare across eras, and more recently, decades, is almost comparing apples to oranges.

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Nick B

Wooly Bully or Louie Louie vs. most Alanis Morissette songs.

mrrunangun

Handel, Bach, and Mozart were pop impresarios of their times. Their stuff still sells. At any wedding or big party you go to you will probably hear "string of pearls", "moonlight serenade", or "in the mood" and those numbers will fill the dance floors as they have for sixty years now. Frank and Ella still sell and still sound good. Our society has grown coarser since the men came back from WWII with a lot of fellow-feeling for each other and a yearning to put ugliness and ambiguity behind them. Our art has grown a lot coarser as a mirror to society. I do not know of any pop phenomenon in contemporary culture as widely popular as the musicians above were in their times and places, so it's hard to say anyone working today is comparable to them. With currently available instruments and recording technique good sounds are easier to make than ever, but little appeals to old fogeys like us. Nice to think what Frank and Nelson Riddle could do in a twenty-first century studio. Lionel Ritchie's late work gives a hint.

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