The Culture is Fine, Thanks


Ryan Noonan

Ryan Noonan is an economist with a small federal agency. Fields in which he considers himself reasonably well-informed: literature, college athletics, video games, food and beverage, the Supreme Court. Fields in which he considers himself an expert: none. He can be found on the Twitter or reached by email.

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28 Responses

  1. Avatar E.D. Kain says:

    This is exactly what I was trying to say in my anti-decline piece. In thirty years people will be bitching about how crappy movies are, and oh what a high point 2011 or 2005 or whatever was.Report

  2. Avatar wardsmith says:

    Video games passed movies about 8 yrs ago in revenues. As Andy Grove said long ago, it is all about eyeballs.Report

  3. Avatar J.L. Wall says:

    Things aren’t as good as they used to be. They’re just different.Report

  4. Avatar KenB says:

    It’s all been downhill since Modern Times.Report

  5. Avatar Rufus F. says:

    Does the anti-curmudgeon argument amount to anything more than, “When people say that X used to be better in the past that is sooooo annoying! Because X is just as good now!”?Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. says:

      It’s like you say that the curmudgeon argument is unquantifiable and biased, and both criticisms are totally true. Then you assert that recent years were some of the best ever for movies, without any attempt to quantify that. I thought maybe you were being ironic there or tongue in cheek. Yes, The Lives of Others was absolutely excellent, although the Germans have been making excellent movies since the beginning of cinema, so I’m not sure what “the proliferation of choice” means. The problem I have with the claim that people have always been saying that art was better in the past is that it totally discounts the possibility that the quality of art could ever decline because it writes off any and all claims that it is declining. Hey, people used to say the same thing about Elvis, so there.

      I mean, I’m really not decided about whether past decades or this decade have been better for art, but it seems to me like you and E.D. don’t think it’s an interesting question to ask and find it irritating that someone might suggest this era isn’t just as good as any other for (fill in the blank).Report

      • Avatar E.D. Kain says:

        No, I think the argument is that it has always been this way. People always pine for the good ol’ days, and then the present fades and becomes to another set of people the good ol’ days and so on and so forth ad infinitum.Report

        • Avatar Rufus F. says:

          “The problem I have with the claim that ‘people have always been saying that art was better in the past’ is that it totally discounts the possibility that the quality of art could ever decline because it writes off any and all claims made that it is declining.” Maybe it has always been this way, but even if it were to decline, how would we know, given that people always pine for the good old days? Unfortunately, it’s not something like climate change where we can easily quantify whether it’s been getting hotter or not in recent years and come to the same conclusions without controversy. 😉Report

      • Avatar Ryan Bonneville says:

        I’m willing to make two claims. The weak one, which is easier to defend, is that people always think the past was better. As I say, you hear this a lot. But you wait a few years and people forget those arguments and start new ones. This is E.D.’s version of the argument.

        I would further make a strong claim, which is that “it used to be better” is just obviously false. Movies are just as good as they’ve ever been, and I will argue with anyone who says otherwise. I don’t need this claim for my overall point to stick, but I do also believe it.Report

        • Avatar Rufus F. says:

          Okay, so I guess I find the first claim irrelevant if we’re trying to decide if movies are getting better, worse, or about the same in quality. Let’s say that, starting in 2012, movies really do get worse each year, so that by 2032 the films are something like ‘Ass: The Movie’ in Idiotocracy. In that case, the fact that ‘there have always been people saying the past was better’ is not at all helpful in assessing the situation. Similarly, the fact that there have always been people, particularly the very young, who overestimate the present doesn’t get us anywhere.

          In terms of the stronger claim, you may well be right about that, but your point- that the curmudgeons don’t quantify their claims and it’s not clear how they would quantify them- is just as valid about what you’re saying. Saying it’s self-evident that movies are just as good as they’ve ever been is a bit of a dodge- it’s self evident so you’re not offering evidence. Similarly, saying you’d argue with anyone who claims otherwise isn’t really offering evidence for your claim.

          So, maybe I’m just asking, when you say that movies are just as good as ever, how do you decide that? You mentioned 2006 as being great for movies, and I think we’d agree for that year on Babel, The Lives of Others, Pan’s Labyrinth, and the Last King of Scotland. Probably neither of us would think of Happy Feet. The Departed won a bunch of awards, but I think it’s uncontroversial to say it was pretty mediocre Scorsese. I don’t really know how 2006 would stack up to famous ‘great movie years’ like 1939, 1941, 1946, 1959, 1962, or 1974. And really I don’t even know how people come to a conclusion one way or another about the general quality of movies in particular eras or in the present era. So how did you get there?Report

          • Avatar Ryan Bonneville says:

            To be fair, I said 2007. And then promptly imported a 2006 movie into 2007 because that’s when it got an American release. Not totally fair, I guess.

            In any case, your Best Picture nominees that year were No Country For Old Men (a great movie, one of the Coens’ two or three best), There Will Be Blood (also great), Juno (as good a traditional comedy as we’ve seen in a long time), Michael Clayton (an okay movie filled with excellent performances), and Atonement (the only certified Oscar-bait movie on the list).

            You also have 3:10 to Yuma, the conclusion to the Bourne series, Ratatouille, Eastern Promises, the aforementioned-and-slightly-cheating Lives of Others, Knocked Up, King of Kong, The Savages, Sweeney Todd, Gone Baby Gone, Charlie Wilson’s War, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Into the Wild, American Gangster, the fifth Harry Potter, Superbad, the criminally-underrated Zodiac, Lust Caution, The Lookout, Persepolis, Enchanted, Breach, A Mighty Heart, Bridge to Terebithia, I’m Not There, Lars and the Real Girl, and the first Transformers.

            We can haggle about the overall canon-level quality of most of those (although several – No Country, Blood, and Lives of Others – are pretty unequivocally canon-level), but not one of them is anything less than “pretty good”. It’s just an amazing list of films, and people who can look at that and say, “Oh, it used to be better” just aren’t playing fair.Report

            • Avatar Rufus F. says:

              Sorry about that. I just woke up and looked up the Lives of Others without re-reading the post. This is also a really bad time for me to be commenting here, but doing so is getting my mind off a bunch of other things. Sort of.

              Okay, so definitely I’d agree that 2007 was superb. At the time, I remember saying this. My wife and I were stunned that we had so many great movies to go out and see. And I can see where the existence of a recent great movie year would dispel the claim that it used to be better. But I’m not sure how far 2007 takes us. I mean, I’m not a believer that it simply used to be better. On the other hand, I have noticed that my wife and I have gone out to the movies less and less in the last few years and we really do tend to see all the really good movies that come out. Last year was a perfect example. I am Love, True Grit, and The Social Network were absolutely superb; Winter’s Bone and The King’s Speech were overrated; Black Swan and Inception were interesting at least, and The Kids are Alright was alright. I don’t know if Paul Schrader’s comment that there would have been a Social Network equivalent released every week in the 70s was accurate, but, man, if they made more than a handful of them each year, we would go see them.Report

              • Avatar Ryan Bonneville says:

                I think we don’t disagree that there are weak years. I just think there is a tendency to overestimate the the number of strong years in the past. 1977 was great, but 1978 was just okay (The Deer Hunter, Grease, Halloween, Dawn of the Dead, and Animal House are of varying levels of quality, but it’s not a list that is on average much better than the best movies of the last year or two).

                You are also, I think, slighting 2010 a little more than it deserves. I would add these to your list:

                Great: Restrepo, Scott Pilgrim

                Good: True Grit, Blue Valentine, 127 Hours, Tangled, Easy A, Biutiful

                Decent: Toy Story 3, How to Train Your Dragon, Kick-Ass, The Town, Harry Potter 7.1, The Ghost Writer, The Fighter, Despicable Me, Shutter Island

                I can make lists like this for pretty much every year, which is why I turned to the “make a list” metric in the original post. There are a lot of movies out there – I don’t have stats on things like the overall number of movies being made, but it has to be on a generally-increasing trend, right? – and you’re bound to find some pretty high quality stuff if you look.Report

              • Avatar Rufus F. says:

                This is why this gets so hard- it’s just so subjective. I definitely would put Shutter Island in the ‘good’ category and maybe very good; Scott Pilgrim, meanwhile, I’d rank a lot lower and Easy A I’d call ‘decent’. But it’s one of those ‘your results may vary’ things.

                Looking at the list though I notice exactly what Will Truman says below about children’s movies getting better. There are a lot of good children’s movies being made now, and definitely more than there were in the 70s when Disney was cranking out Herby the Love Bug Goes to El Salvador or whatever. Maybe if my wife and I had children we’d feel differently.

                As for more movies being made, it’s definitely the case. Oddly enough though, US distribution of foreign movies has narrowed quite a bit, but production of movies in other countries is way up too. There’s also a problem with film distribution in North America more generally. I said I am Love was really good- I didn’t mention having to drive an hour and a half to see it in a theater. But the narrowing of distribution combined with the sheer volume of mediocre tent pole movies that are coming out might be making it harder to see the diamonds in the rough.Report

              • Avatar Kim says:

                Toy Story 3 had a planeful of puerto rican men in tears. And they weren’t fluent in English. It’s a good story, for kids or no. I’d place it at Good.

                I’d upgrade Kick-Ass, but then again, I like oni.Report

          • Avatar Ryan Bonneville says:

            Oops, I forgot La Vie en Rose, Away From Her, and 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days. It’s probable that I’ve missed even more. As I say, I don’t think it should be even slightly controversial that a huge number of really good films came out in 2007.Report

  6. Avatar Will Truman says:

    When we talk about whether movies have gotten better or worse, more or fewer, I think you have to look at what kind of movies.

    Children’s movies have gotten better. Unquestionably. And there’s more than just the Disney annual flick like there used to be.

    Comedies have gotten better or worse, depending on how you look at it. There are a lot more raunchy comedies. There seem to be much fewer family comedies (in the theaters, at least), if you exclude the children’s movies that have become more palatable to adults.

    The overall range of movies seem to have gone down. Again, in the theaters. There’s 100 movies I’ve never heard of at the local rental place and RedBox has made direct-to-video a much more palatable model.

    Worth pointing out again and again is how much better, and more diverse, TV has gotten, making the necessity for good movies much less crucial than in years past. TV has, in its own way, exposed the limitations of the entire movie format. Why tell a story in two hours when you can do so in 10 with automatic sequels?Report

    • Avatar DensityDuck says:

      There’s also the issue of content restrictions, which are far less onerous (at least on premium-cable channels.)Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        Quite so. The introduction of new channels also allowed for more experimentation. That these shows were on cable networks lowered expectations and opportunity costs to the point that niche shows were in a better position to thrive.Report

  7. Avatar Jesse Ewiak says:

    Also, even if movies are worse than they were thirty, thirty-five, or forty years ago, which I’d disagree with, television is still loads better than it was at the same time. There are literally hundreds, if not thousands of hours of top-drawer entertainment being produced each year, compared to the 70’s when you basically had whatever Norman Lear was making and the odd really good episode of the Rockford Files (note – hyperbole alert :))Report

    • Avatar Will Truman says:

      There’s an amazing difference between watching old TV shows and watching old movies. You notice how much more one has improved over the other.Report

      • Avatar Jesse Ewiak says:

        Hell, there’s a huge difference watching TV shows from 15 years ago and today. I mean, ER and NYPD Blue are both good shows well above most network television today, but they wouldn’t sniff a Drama Series Emmy nomination today.Report