I watch a lot of movies. Especially old, classic ones. In fact, I usually watch at least one old movie every night. I don’t know what I’d do without Turner Classic Movies. And although I can rarely afford the ticket prices for new films, I also watch many more recent Hollywood offerings, courtesy of Showtime, Starz and other movie channels.
As might be expected, I have strong opinions about various films, actors, screenwriters and directors. If my novel The Simulators is ever published, readers will be treated to many of my rants on the film industry. Some genres particularly interest me; pre-code talkies, filmed before the censorship kicked in post-1934, and film noir of the late ’40s through the ’50s are a few of my more recent obsessions. I also still love any old horror movie and the wonderful sci-fi films of the 1950s.
When watching films released during the past ten years or so especially, I’ve grown increasingly frustrated by the sound levels for dialogue. It’s as if the filmmakers don’t want the audience to hear what the characters are saying, as everything is whispered and mumbled now, even narration and voice overs. At the same time, every other sound effect is recorded at such decibels that they blast the audience’s eardrums. Is there anything more important to a movie than dialogue? Can one imagine the dialogue in a novel being printed out in murky, barely legible fashion? That is what most modern films do now- make it extremely difficult to hear what the characters are saying. And I appear to be the only one noticing.
In addition to whispered dialogue, many films have recently begun featuring incredibly poor lighting, so that night scenes in particular are barely visible. It’s as if they’re filming by candlelight. Who decides that this is an innovation? How is it an improvement, or some kind of progress, to force audiences to strain to hear and see what’s transpiring on screen? The Dark Knight Rises was noticeably guilty of this, as even the scenes filmed outdoors in broad daylight were poorly lit. In any movie from the birth of sound to the early 1960s or so, characters spoke their lines clearly-I believe they used to refer to it as “projecting”- and even night scenes were filmed so that the audience could easily see the action onscreen. Sure, Marlon Brando and James Dean used to mumble their lines, but can anyone picture Clark Gable, or Joan Crawford, or William Powell, or Jean Arthur, or Cary Grant, or James Stewart, speaking inaudibly?
Predictably, I tend to think of some screen legends- like Katherine Hepburn, Lawrence Olivier, Meryl Streep and Robert DeNiro- as being incredibly overrated and unworthy of the Oscar nominations and wins they’re received. How did Jean Arthur- perhaps the greatest actress of all time- never win an Oscar? The only time she was nominated, she lost to the minimal talent Jennifer Jones. Another superb talent, Barbara Stanwyck, was nominated four times, but never won an Academy Award. The incomparable William Powell had three Oscar nominations, but no wins. By contrast, Meryl Streep’s overacting has garnered her an astonishing 18 nominations and 3 Oscars. Hepburn- whom Clare Boothe Luce sagely observed “ran the gamut of emotions from A to B,” had 12 nominations and won four times. Another overrated ham, Bette Davis, was nominated 10 times, with two victories. The underwhelming Paul Newman was nominated nine times.
Jean Arthur and Barbara Stanwyck weren’t the only ones shortchanged by the Academy. Peter Lorre was never even nominated for an Academy Award. One of the best light comedians, Myrna Loy, also failed to receive a single Oscar nomination. Marilyn Monroe was never nominated. The marvelous Donald Sutherland has never been nominated by his peers. In more recent years, neither have Jim Carrey, Jeff Daniels or wonderful character actor Steve Buscemi. How have Jamie Foxx and Matthew McConnahey won Oscars, while Johnny Depp hasn’t? If it can be believed, John Barrymore was never considered worthy of a single Oscar nomination. Despite being named the second greatest movie star of all time by the American Film Institute, Cary Grant was only nominated twice and never won an Oscar. Alfred Hitchcock died without winning at Oscar.
These are the things I obsess about. Why is there so much male nudity now, as compared to female nudity? Why do characters still get locked inside of rooms, when no such locks exist any more? Why do all bombs in films still have those digital timers? Why do Hollywood car wrecks result in impossible explosions? Why is every modern comedy saturated with potty humor? Are adults really entertained by “humor” that would have been considered immature by most ten year olds fifty years ago? My questions are endless, and usually annoying to those watching films along with me.
I indulged much of my keen fascination with Hollywood in The Simulators. I’m intrigued by the early history, the failure of so many to make the transition to talkies, the myriad of murders and suicides. It’s an unusual industry, filled with unusual people. I’ll keep watching, and keep commenting.