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October 2, 2014
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Bored in the U.S.A.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

It happened on a recent weekend. I’d bragged to my son about my bad old days of movie geekdom. I recalled for him a time when a friend and I, along with a former college professor, used to jam in a weekend of theater and film.

I’m talking a binge-fest. No. Not the kind of over-indulging often associated with Netflix and Hulu. I’m talking if we could fit it in, we’d drive to the venue, pay the ticket, consume it with full relish, hop in the jalopy and move on to the next unspooling. From late morning showings to midnight, we’d gorge ourselves on whatever projected product we could fit around a couple of stage productions, fast food, capped off by a two AM deli meal and a discussion of the day’s consumption of pop culture.

I suppose my boy thought it was worth trying—though with a few modifications. Instead of stage plays employed as buffers between movies, we used football games. College on Saturday, NFL on Sunday. And yeah, I allowed him to choose the movies.

Know that I’m penning this more from the point of view of a film lover than a filmmaker. Possessing a passion for cinema is the source. We work at the art form because we love the art form. For me, movies both entertain and sustain. And Lord even after all these years, once I park myself in a movie house and the lights dim, I’m taken back to the womb. There’s that electric buzz inside me, anticipating being delivered into that collective dream state. For me, that moment is sacrosanct.

As my son and I settled into our first show, a recent sci-fi extravaganza, I found myself almost instantly dulled into submission. Sure, the movie was pretty wooden with all the emphasis being put on effects over content. That must’ve explained my lack of enthusiasm for the pic. I kept sucking on the caffeine contained within my mega Diet Coke to keep myself awake and quietly wished popcorn was back on my diet.

After wrapping up the first picture, we retired to watch a football game and plot our next movie, an R-rated comedy sequel. We paid, we found our assigned seats, the lights extinguished, and by the second reel, I was bored again. Sure, the picture had some moments. Belly laughs. But between the funny and the flimsily constructed story beats, I was once again fighting off falling into a dumbed-down stupor. I constantly checked my phone. My son kept nudging me, hoping I’d get my attention back on the movie.

As I retired to bed, I felt myself ruing the oncoming day. What other two pictures might my teen choose from the Cineplex pool. The super-hero leftover from three weekends earlier that was still grappling for an ever-smaller piece of the box office pie? Or the over-wrought Young Adult saga which promised a young heroine fending off both aliens as well the affections of two pouty, muscle-yoked not-quite-ready-for-prime-time leading dudes?

Instead of sleeping, I felt myself already writing off Sunday before it had even arrived.

Now, before you club me for sounding like a lousy parent—ergo my concern for content being greater than the young company I was keeping—please stow your big stick until I’ve completed my thought. There will be plenty of room in the comments section for beating the baby seal in me.

During that sometimes difficult tick tick tick between lights-out and daybreak, I tried to trace the source of my boredom. My first thought was that I’d become jaded. Or even cursed. After years in the business, thousands of viewed movies, and rewriting hundreds of mine and other’s plot lines, it was possible that it had become harder for me to find surprise in most movies. I’d not only seen nearly all the dramatic combinations, but spent so many years behind the scenes that I was too aware of the marionette working the puppets’ strings. I knew the tricks. Magicians offered me little magic.

Then again, I argued with myself, if I was so inured to most movie stimuli, why was it when I saw something simple and earnest was I still moved? Why when I watched movies I’d seen over and over again —pictures I’d practically memorized frame for frame —was I just as transfixed as when the picture had first unspooled before me?

Damn, I concluded to myself. As a general rule, modern movies just plain suck. No longer were they invested with characters whose jobs were to share their struggle with the audience. Those simple axioms of melodrama had been replaced by digital or comedic set pieces built more to please man’s need for spectacle or shock than the desire to be emotionally confronted.

Sure, there were the exceptions. There always are. That’s why they are labeled as such. But mind you, Hollywood has suffered many spells of succumbing to the short term need to produce crap over substance. The bottom line has always been about the almighty dollar. But the honchos chasing the box office buck used to be fans as big on the art form as they were stewards of the studios’ balance sheets.

As I lay there, staring at the ceiling and waiting for the Sunday sun to breach, I recalled how movie meetings used to begin. Usually after a bit of personal chatter, the conversations often swerved into movies we’d all seen. For ten or so minutes we’d all—from suits to scribes—allow ourselves to be reduced to movie geeks. We’d gab and giggle about actors, directors, rich dialogue, and those filmic flourishes that made each and every one of us feel lucky that we were in such a cool business.

No longer, folks. At least not so much anymore. Meetings are faster, more to the expedient point, often on the phone for convenience, and geared as much toward marketing and concept as they are story and content—which wouldn’t be so awful if I felt like we were all coming from the same place of cinematic fandom.

Over a Sunday breakfast slam at a local Denny’s, my boy cleared his throat and asked if we could bag on the afternoon movies and just watch football. All at once my soul leapt for joy while my heart sunk. I pretty much knew his reply before I’d asked him why.

“I’m kinda bored with movies,” he said.

Yeah. I had to agree.

Have no fear, though. I’m not in any way predicting the death of motion pictures. Just marking out a spot in the cycle. When film fails, television has a knack for picking up the dramatic slack. Presently, there’s so much quality to watch on the tube. From smart to tart. And it’s not necessarily small screen fare anymore, witness the affordability of large, hi-def televisions and the sounds systems to go with them.

My guess is that by the time TV burns through its present heyday, movies will be on the comeback. I just hope I’m around to buy a ticket.


  1. Bryan Walsh says:

    Agreed 100%, Doug. I’ve thought about this topic of why films aren’t as good as they used to be in great detail, and I think it’s a combination of two thing. First off, when I was growing up (and you too, albeit a few years older than me) movies were made 80/20 entertainment to business ratio. During the 60’s and 70’s there weren’t many/any franchises like Transformers/Xmen/Twilight/Madea. Everything was pretty much one and done. Then all the studios got bought up by larger corporations and everything became about $$$. So every film that makes money then gets recycled/beat to death like the proverbial baby seal you mention.

    The second reason is the MTV Generation. After videos took over the boob tube in the 80’s viewers became accustomed to shorter, quicker, less indepth stories. The hook must be in the first 5 minutes, the end of act 1 better come within 15 or you’ll lose your audience. Most of the great films of the 70’s probably wouldn’t get made today because of the slow build in them. These days if a script doesn’t have an explosion, a dead body, a superhero, or a decapitated giraffe in the first 5 pages, good luck getting it made.

    • jch says:

      I see it too Doug – and Bryan is dead on.
      I watched The Verdict last night. Mamet did some great things with scenes, Newman chewed up the screen and there were wonderful long shots from a static camera as if it were a stage play. A two or three minute scene with a unedited shot of Newman and Jack Warden in a single take. Actors working with great words and Sidney Lumet showing them do it. Brilliant in its simplicity.

      And DOA at a 21st century movie studio.

      • Doug Richardson says:

        Agree about The Verdict. One of my faves. Lumet at his best. And changing the 1 to the 8! Thanks JCH.

      • Bryan Walsh says:

        Mamet is a great example. My favorite of his is House of Games. Again, no way that gets made in 2014.

    • Doug Richardson says:

      I truly believe most of those great movies from the seventies would’ve been premium or basic cable series today. Imagine Dog Day Afternoon as a ten part HBO special. Thanks Bryan.

      • Bryan Walsh says:

        That’s a good example. The one I like to use is All The President’s Men. No sex, explosions, or super heros. There’s NO WAY that movie gets made today.

  2. Herschel Horton says:

    My sister started using the saying “It is what it is…” several months ago to describe scenarios that she doesn’t have control over. I hated the statement until I realized that there are a lot of situations where this is a perfect way to calm the mind from going nuts because so many times we can’t control what’s going on around us.
    The movie industry is kind of there now… Big tent pole movies and the executives who can’t produce outside of the box for fear of being moved on out the door. As Bryan hinted to we live in a new generation of movie making because the audience, quite frankly, has to see something that they’ve never seen before. And after all, the 14-32 aged film-goers are the target audience.
    Another factor that we, the older film fanatics, suffer from is that we’ve seen so many “Big” movies over the years and our expectations are higher as far as story and the “art” of the whole movie experience.
    I have an add-on response to my sister’s “it is what it is” statement. I tell her, “it is what it is until somebody says ‘it ain’t going to be that way for me’.”
    As artists, we can keep fighting for those great stories to be told. When we get the opportunity to be a part of project, all we can do is our best and hope that one day we can make a classic. The other thing we can do is support the movies that may not be block-busters, but that are great movies.
    Doug, maybe the next round with you son will have you and him parked in front of a 50 inch T.V. reliving the best movies of your time – show him there’s still hope!

  3. M Pepper says:

    People pay to see spectacle on the big screen. They’re willing to wait for smaller stuff to show up On Demand or streaming. And so Hollywood and the cinemas bank on the big stuff because that’s where they get money (China notwithstanding). And as home theatre systems become more and more cinematic . . . And people want less and less to deal with the nincompoops that inhabit public space . . . I do sometimes wonder whether the cinema experience is in decline. I guess maybe D-box seats are meant to add something one can’t get at home?

  4. Phyllis K Twombly says:

    Perhaps it’s not just nostalgia. Now that anyone with a cellphone can ‘make a movie’ there might be a drop in quality until those who make less engaging movies become bored and move on. All we can do is write amazing screenplays and hope for the best, unless you want to go Indie with me on… Don’t worry, just kidding.

    Until a few years ago I wasn’t aware of the importance of film festivals. It seems much of the passion (at least as far as initial distribution) now resides there. I’m curious to see if Robert Downey Jr’s ‘The Judge’ lives up to its promotion.