« Wednesday Evening Media Links | Main | Venus »

March 1, 2007

"We Have Become Our Own Movies"

Via Robert Young (and my del.icio.us friends): Neal Gabler's fascinating Los Angeles Times editorial on the state of Hollywood, "The Movie Magic is Gone." Gabler argues that despite a reported increase in box office in 2006, that the central place of moviegoing in the American psyche is being lost, adding that movies no longer "matter" in the same way they once did. He adds that the shift in emphasis away from moviegoing to other forms of entertainment is independent of the quality of the films themselves, as audiences increasingly seek out other forms of entertainment and amusement, including social networking sites such as MySpace, Facebook, and YouTube. But like David Denby did a few weeks ago, he sounds a cautionary note about the changes in moviegoing and moviemaking as prctices.

Gabler's article has a lot to recommend. I think he's right to argue that the activity of moviegoing has lost its appeal for a number of people, including the 18-24 group which has been one of the major audiences for Hollywood films, in recent history at least. And I think he's also right to point out that the adventures of TomKat, Brangelina, and Britney have been far more exciting than the relatively tepid films they've been making recently (we don't need yet another Mission Impossible sequel, and quite frankly, I'm just as interested in Angelina Jolie's commendable humanitarian efforts as I am her next film). And, finally, there's no denying the power of social networking and video hosting sites such as YouTube and MySpace that produce their own micro-versions of stardom and celebrity (or at least infamy); just look at the instant popularity of lonelygirl15 and The Pit Breakup.

But Gabler's comments miss (or at least misconstrue) pretty much everything that is valuable about this new shift in entertainment. First, it's a slight overstatement to suggest that movies no longer have a central place in American culture, or what might be called a popular culture public sphere. For better or worse, few cultural events have mobilized political opinion as effectively as the two recent documentaries, An Inconvenient Truth and Fahrenheit 9/11. While both films were probably more frequently discussed than seen, both films also reignited conversations about global warming and the Iraq War respectively. Certainly there are dozens of other films that pass by unnoticed, disappearing from theaters before we even know they are there, but hasn't that always been the case?

It's also worth complicating Gabler's numbers about MySpace and Facebook use as well as the implications of those numbers. Gabler reports Fortune magazine research that suggests that 54 million of those visitor spend, on average, 124 minutes on a visit to MySpace. What may get lost in these numbers is the fact that MySpace users are likely multitasking while "visiting" the site, keeping multiple windows open while engaging with other forms of media content. At the same time, many of these pages are filled with references to favorite movies and television shows (including a number of videos that remix Hollywood films in creative ways), suggesting that these narratives have not lost their vitality entirely.

Finally, as Robert Young argues, I think it is a mistake to regard media democratization as leading to narcissism as Gabler does. Instead, like Young, I think that a better way of characterizing the new landscape is in terms of “digital self expression.” While part of this self-expression may be the escape that Gabler associates with the fantasy of "imagin[ing] ourselves to be Cary Grant or Bette Davis," the modes of direct address associated with videoblogging seem to imagine a different model of self-expression. In this sense, I think there is less reason to be alarmed or concerned about these changes in definitions of community and desires for new narrative structures than Gabler suggests. And as more people continue to participate in sites such as YouTube, we may find that the movies themselves will be reinvented.

I didn't intend to write at such length about Gabler's article, but I will be talking about related talks in my paper at MIT 5 in April, so I've been waiting for an excuse to work through some of these ideas.

Posted by chuck at March 1, 2007 3:30 PM

Trackback Pings

TrackBack URL for this entry:



You might be interested in the very short piece in Ubiquity by Andreas Pfeiffer. Which provides the argument that although challenged by the emergence of new forms the media are adapting well. Like your reference to multitasking it is suggested that users/viewers are not inhabiting and either-or universe.


Ubiquity: Volume 8, Issue 9 (March 6, 2007 - March 12, 2007

Posted by: Francois Lachance at March 7, 2007 10:58 AM

Thanks for the tip, Francois. I'll check it out as soon as I return from SCMS.

Posted by: Chuck at March 7, 2007 11:16 AM

One of my friends used to say the same thing about the demise of the Variety genre in the 1980s. If you remember those shows were overtaken by two net shows in particular: "Real People" and "That's Incredible". By the mid 1980s "reality" tv began to grow with the likes of Cops, but it wasn't until now that the genre has become so big for a number of reasons. Anyways, my friend used to say that with the rise of the reality genre and demise of variety that the "people have spoken: We are variety".

It's an interesting proposition since things like "America's Funniest Home Videos" are indicative an odd documentary impulse that is both about self-preservation and celebration. Whatever it is, I like the formula.

Posted by: Tim Anderson at March 13, 2007 8:09 AM

Interesting connections here. I certainly remember the rise of "Real People" and "That's Incredible" (one of which featured a post-NFL Fran Tarkenton, IIRC). Jim Moran has some interesting work on "America's Funniest Home Videos," in There's No Place Like Home Video, and that documentary impulse is an interesting one (and something far more complicated than mere narcissism). If only Bob Saget hadn't been involved.

Posted by: Chuck at March 14, 2007 3:26 PM

Post a comment

Remember Me?

(you may use HTML tags for style)