Nation of Eight Year Olds

Twenty-four movies have topped the weekend box office charts so far in 2011. Of them:

  • Five were based on comic books (Captain America, Green Lantern, Green Hornet, X-Men, Thor)
  • Four were youth-oriented animated films (Rio, Hop, Rango, Cars 2)
  • Four were rom-com/bromance flicks (Hangover 2, Hall Pass, Just Go With It, No Strings Attached)
  • Two were film adaptations of popular children’s books (Harry Potter, Diary of a Wimpy Kid)
  • Two were smash-’em-up action flicks (Fast Five, Battle: LA)
  • Two were horror-thrillers (Roommate, Rite)
  • Two were gritty adult dramas (Unknown, Limitless)
  • One was based on a series of toys (Transformers)
  • One was based on a theme park ride (Pirates of the Caribbean)
  • One was a monster movie featuring kids (Super 8)

Harry Potter is obviously an iconic cultural phenomenon, regardless of the quality of the individual films in the series, but beyond that one, I see maybe one great movie (Super 8) in the mix, bracketed by a lot of instantly-forgettable, unimaginative, unambitious, expensive, 3-D fluff. In recent years, this sort of mix has become pretty standard, as well-written, original, adult-oriented (not in the pornographic sense of that phrase) entertainment is squeezed out of the multiplexes by the loudest, biggest, splashiest, most derivative material possible. Last week, the internet buzzed with reports from Comic-Con, where Hollywood seems most happy to field test whatever reboots, regurgitations or repeats it has planned, pretty much guaranteeing that next year will be just as infantilized and superhero-videogame-toy-sequel based as this one was.

So when did we become a nation of eight year olds when it came to our entertainment choices? It used to be that quality grown-up movies could compete in the market with the big, loud fluff, so that Jaws and Dog Day Afternoon could both be box office boffo in the same year, or Chinatown could go toe-to-toe with The Towering Inferno and Blazing Saddles, while 2001: A Space Odyssey and Funny Girl could slug it out for top commercial honors in another year. The last time that the top box office film of the year was something other than a massive, effect-laden, franchise-based spectacle was in 1990 (Ghost), and you have to go back to a pair of Dustin Hoffman dramas (1988’s Rain Man and 1979’s Kramer vs Kramer) to get much by way of strong dialog and characterization and original story-telling for grown-ups at the top of the charts.

Don’t get me wrong: I love animation, I love strong graphic design, and I love a good, loud spectacle up on the screen — so long as those elements are deployed in the telling of riveting, well-written, original stories. But when a growing majority of big-budget screenplays are dedicated to endless childish variations of the DC versus Marvel superhero debates that I thought I’d left behind when I turned nine, or to squeezing every last dime out of stale, tired, flavorless film franchises, or to developing kid-movie characters around their potential for toy sale tie-ins, then I begin to grieve for my generation as I survey the cultural chaff in which we choose to nest.

And it is my generation that is leading this cultural retreat into the cozy womb of our childhood memories, of course, since we seem as a group to be terribly nostalgic for the ephemera of our collective youth, as manifested in Saturday morning cartoons, comic books, sitcoms, breakfast cereals and other such touchstones. I suspect this is because we were the first generation that had television as our collective babysitter, from our earliest sentient moments, since we came up in an era when economic and social changes resulted in more of us being raised in dual-earner or single-parent families than had been the norm before us. I can remember certain television commercials for toys better than I can remember actual television shows from my early years, and I suspect I’m not alone in that regard.

It’s not just in our movies either, mind you, where we show our reluctance to grow up. I remember sometime in the 1980s being struck by the fact that we seemed hell-bent on taking Hallowe’en away from the kids coming up behind us. That night used to be all about the wee ones dressing up to beg for candy, and the bigger ones having an excuse to engage in steam-releasing minor vandalism of the TP’ing, egging or shaving creaming variety. The idea of adults dressing up for Hallowe’en to go out partying seemed then, and still seems, absurd and embarrassing to me, but it’s become the norm for many folks my age and younger. As a result, Hallowe’en has replaced New Year’s Eve in my mind as the most idiotic of amateur nights, when grown-ups go out to act like ill-behaved teenagers, safe behind the security of their masks, after taking the kids to the mall for a sadly sanitized version of the trick or treat ritual. (I wasn’t the only one feeling this way in the ’80s, as the Dead Kennedys wrote a fantastic song touching on this phenomenon, called, appropriately enough, “Halloween.”) I stay home on nights like that accordingly.

What’s the solution? There isn’t one. How’s that for fatalism at its finest? I just hope that as we cling hard to the comfort of our own childhood memories, we also allow our children and their children to do the same. Perversely, however, we often seem equally fixated on getting them to grow as quickly as they can into tiny, world-weary adults.

Perhaps, then, they will share their comic books with us?

28 thoughts on “Nation of Eight Year Olds

  1. This is a direct result of the increase in movie prices severely outpacing the rate of inflation over the course of the last 25-30 years. It isn’t that we’ve become a nation of eight-year-olds (we’re actually entitled thirteen-year-olds who don’t want to pay for anything and are experts on everything but that’s another rant), but that Hollywood is putting all of their weight behind movies aimed at children and/or the child within all of us because that’s the only reason people are willing to part with $10.50.

    I very rarely go to a theater anymore, because the kind of films I want to see are on Netflix. Why would I part with over ten dollars for a film I can just wait to see on television, particularly if the focus is on things like story, character development, depth and art rather than explosions and giant robots?

    So while Hollywood certainly needs to be held accountable for creating more schlock and feeding the artless culture of nostalgia that the internet has bred, it moreso needs to be taken to task for pricing itself into this scenario.

      • Don’t even get me started on 3D. Which, by the way, is going to be done within the next 24 months. Mark my words.

        BTW, I too get what they call “3D sickness” and can’t even watch it. Supposedly, it’s our brains telling us that we’re not where we should be, and as a result it tries to correct itself and gives you the headache, nausea etc.

    • One other thing to consider, Kevin, is the rise of high-quality, relatively low cost wide aspect, flat screen TV receivers hooked up to cable TV/Internet. I only go out to the movies if my kids really want to see something (and I can stomach the thought of sitting through it myself.) Otherwise, the experience of watching a movie on a good HD set in my living room is adequate, especially for the price.

      • This is very, very true . . . I get a much better experience now in my den than I do at the theater, in large part because I don’t have any other people around me while I watch (well, except those who I LIKE having around me) . . .

      • Agreed; without trying to sound like an expert on anything, much less everything, the notion seems to be that the theater experience has to provide something the home experience doesn’t. Since pretty good home setups are pretty affordable these days, that really just leaves the mega-spectacle stuff — really, what is more enjoyable about seeing Midnight in Paris at the Spectrum aside from the mint brownies? On top of that, you have to realize who has the disposable income and desire to see movies in the theater, especially during the opening week, and makes a lot of sense.

        I’d like to see a comparison of how many of the more cerebral, “cinema” films are being produced now as compared to say, 5 or 10 years ago, and what their ROI is. Just a hunch, but I think more people may be watching the types of “good” films J. Eric mentions these days, primarily thanks to modern delivery systems…

        • Re: I think more people may be watching the types of “good” films J. Eric mentions these days, primarily thanks to modern delivery systems

          I hope that you are right in this regard . . . there’s certainly a lot to see out there, if you’re willing to poke around to find it . . .

          Re: what is more enjoyable about seeing Midnight in Paris at the Spectrum aside from the mint brownies

          I hate to say this, since I know and love some of the Spectrum projectionists, but the picture and sound quality in my house these days is generally BETTER than what I can get at the Spectrum, which has to deal with scratches on the screens, dust in the air, chewed up film or discs making their ways around the country, light bleeding in from exit doors, sound leaking between theaters, etc. . . .

          I hope the Spectrum is around for decades to come as a bastion against Nation of Eight Year Olds, but I’ll be rooting for them from my couch, missing their popcorn . . .

        • For me the Spectrum is too far away (I live in southern Saratoga County) to go to regularly. So, for the last good movie I saw (the Coen brothers’ remake of True Grit) it was the living room couch and pay per view.

        • As an addendum, I do have one good reason to visit the theater (whether Spectrum or elsewhere… I walked to the Madison plenty of times when I lived in that neighborhood) aside from the technical production. We vote with our dollars, and I can fit $8 or $9 into my budget now and then so I like to show some support when something really interesting comes around. Though I still wish I had caught Moon during its run.

          I’m sure Netflix tracks usage data… I wonder how many people watch, say, Network every day. Certainly more than 5 or 10 years ago?

        • B –

          “I’m sure Netflix tracks usage data”

          Absolutely they do, it’s how the studios determine the licensing fees and why for most, especially those involved with streaming, it’s going to be shooting up into the billions this year (hence the rate changes)

          I’m with you on the theory that more people are watching good films, a combination of better accessibility and the internet making it possible to get exposure to and/or discuss them. “Network” in particular has been getting a lot of play the last few months on blogs in my reader.

    • Yes, this exactly. Smash-em-up movies and splashy special effects are (sometimes) worth spending the dough for the movies, but something like, say, Black Swan? I can watch that on my TV at home. My husband and I have a 40in LCD and a BluRay player. It’s a lot cheaper to stay in and far more enjoyable.

      I think that’s part of it, too – the equipment for home theatres is far more sophisticated than it used to be.

  2. I am so out of it. Last trip I made to a theater was to see Paul Giamatti in Barney’s Version and every year at H-ween I stay home to give kids candy and am appropriately grumpy. I am a bad American, pure and simple, and now I understand why.

  3. I’m totally with Kevin on this one. The box office is geared towards the demographic that they can actually earn from, which is kids. The rest of us are either using netflix and/or pirating. I don’t even own a tv anymore because I do not want to pay time warner cable anything more than the cost of an internet connection. I can find plenty of entertainment for $7.99 with netflix, and using utorrent if I really need to watch an hbo series.

    Idk maybe I’m just cheap or too old, but it would take a seriously epic movie for me to actually go to the theater and part with $10.50. Yeah, seeing things on a gigantic huge screen is probably cool…but watching things on my 24″ syncmaster with a set of sony xb500 headphones in the comfort of my home is pretty nice too.

    • We use a combination of DVR, Netflix and Pay-Per-View . . . one other nice thing about living in a Nation of Eight Year Olds is that our collective attention spans are hellaciously short, so the time between theatrical and television release is like a blink of an eye now, and some “little films” are actually released at the same time . . . or even previewed on TV BEFORE they hit the theaters . . .

      • Yep.

        Dan – exact same situation with me. It wasn’t just a matter of being poor, either, but rather the realization my roommate and I hit that, wow, we seriously never watch this stuff. The final straw came when we started talking about it and we realized that we hadn’t even turned the cable box on in over a week.

  4. Ha. Let me pile on (Eric, you really hit a nerve here, it seems.) Not only is $10 a ridiculous amount of money to fork over for an adult admission, but the commercial reel you have to sit through now just rubs salt into the wound. Add to that the legions of texting/talking/generally clueless audients in the average suburban multiples, and it’s not worth the gas money to go to the movies.

    • Yep, yep, yep. I hate the audience part of the equation more than any other, honestly . . . I think we’ve been to maybe three or four movies in the theater in the last year, and EVERY . . . SINGLE . . . ONE OF THEM . . . was marred by someone else’s rude, rude theater habits . . .

  5. Like a lot of guys our age, I loved loved loved comic books in my teens, and came back to them in my twenties. As I got older, the superhero stuff started to fade in interest and instead I became obsessed with old newspaper comic strips like Terry and the Pirates, Steve Canyon,and Little Orphan Annie — an art form that has completely disappeared. (Yes, I know paper still run comics, but they’re incredibly tiny, incredibly banal, and almost entirely non-serial. They used to sell huge numbers of papers.) But I grew up some more and my interest in those faded as well. So while I enjoy a few brilliant adaptations of comics I know (the first Spider-Man and X-Men movies) and some I don’t (Hellboy, Sin City), there is nothing on this earth that could cause me to look at Thor or Fantastic Four or Captain America. Enough’s enough. Between that and the 3D nonsense, there isn’t a single movie on that list that I have seen or would see. I actually enjoy the theater experience (well, at least at the Spectrum or Proctor’s), but there’s nothing there that I’d consider paying for — it wouldn’t matter if it were $2.

    The rude clueless audience problem isn’t new, and isn’t limited to the young and rambunctious. We went to an early film festival more than 25 years ago and were trying to thoroughly enjoy some fascinating pre-talking pictures, but apparently the lack of words (there was music) was a cue to a pair of at least 80-year-old hens to prattle loudly at each other throughout the movie, despite our repeated complaints. If cellphones had been invented then I’d have hit them with mine.

    • True in re: age is not correlated with rudeness in theaters . . . . while I like The Spectrum in concept, and love their popcorn, I’ve had some truly dire experiences in there with older couples discussing or explicating the film as though they were sitting in their living rooms . . . and as the theater has been increasingly subdivided, the screens there are starting to look smaller than my TV too . . .

      I’m a strip comic devotee, too, and still consider “Doonesbury” to be essential reading, though as a general rule, the comics pages around here are really, really bad . . . “Lio” is one of the more intriguing recent additions, though it doesn’t run long serial cycles. I read “Gasoline Alley” for decades, until it fell out of all the ‘papers around here.

      I love the great juxtaposition of words and images . . . so my sense of our social infantilization is not just a function of cartoons or comics, it’s the obsession with the Superhero model that seems so stupid to me, as the same tropes and memes and characters are endlessly re-chewed, year after year after year.

      It’s almost like these quasi-mythological superhero archetypes have emerged as the pagan religion that actually makes the U.S. function, while the priests of traditional churches natter away, blind to the spirits that actually move the next generation: Wolverine vs Jesus, coming soon to a theater near you . . .

      • If you really want to examine the superhero trope, it would be hard to do it better than by reading Chabon’s “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” which manages to simultaneously present a pastiche of the “golden age” of comic books, an explanation of how the superhero myth connects to folk legends, and a very tender romance. Just in case you haven’t read it already. It’s brilliant.

  6. Interesting assessment — which brings me to a potentially bigger picture correlation: We are clearly a nation of 8-year-olds at the box office, so is it surprising we’re acting like a nation of 8-year-olds in DC as well?

    Sadly, it seems life truly does imitate art…

    • It does, true, true, true! Maybe I need to write another post about the Federal government at this point, called “Nation of Terrible Two Year Olds Who Missed Their Naps and Have Thrown Themselves Down on the Floors of Congress, Kicking and Screaming, And Who Deserve to Be Put in the Time-Out Corner for a Solid Hour, at Least.”

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  8. Eric,

    You are welcome to borrow my copy of Chabon’s book. It won’t disappoint you.

    Movie-wise, I am the exception to all of the commenters here. Don’t have cable or Netflix, do have a Spectrum subscription card (10 movies for 75 bucks). I like the mint brownies, but more than that I like the process of GOING OUT to the movies, being in a group of others who also like it (despite their sometimes bad behavior), and discussing the film on the way home with my usual date.

    It’s a focus thing – can you really concentrate on the experience when you’re having it in your living room? I do have a big TV (inherited), and the DVDs I habitually borrow from the library (that’s free, yep) look great on it. But the spouse and I still go out – and would do it more if the movies were better than they are. Even at the art house, the quality of movies is getting worse every year, sadly.

    One recent good choice was Cave of Forgotten Dreams (in 3D, which kinda made it a stunning experience); also enjoyed Midnight in Paris and Win Win. I’m with you, Eric, that it’s not about the spectacle, it’s about the story. Which reminds me, Beginners has a very original and effectively quirky storytelling style. You might like it, and can probably still catch it on the big screen if you hurry!

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