2003-2004 Academic Year

Newsweek Film Critic Sees Decline in Quality of Hollywood Movies

November 12, 2003
David Ansen, film critic and senior editor with Newsweek magazine, took a dim view of most major Hollywood movies at a talk Nov. 11 at Pitzer College. His reason? Technology has replaced storytelling, which leaves the viewer with nothing to chew on.

Ansen used The Matrix: Reloaded as the starting point for a discussion of the state of Hollywood.

Film critic David Ansen“There is this tremendous scene in Reloaded where the hero, Neo, is battling Agent Smith,” Ansen said. “Of course it’s remarkably well done and state-of-the-art movie making. But as I was watching the scene I realized it made no sense whatsoever. There is no dramatic tension and it’s actually insulting to the audience. There’s no way the two characters can hurt each other. Neo has become a superhero and Agent Smith is practically invulnerable as well. So basically what we’re watching is meaningless. It’s just filler, which gets to the point of what’s wrong with Hollywood today.”

“A lot of movies these days are like playing tennis with the net down,” Ansen said. “There’s nothing at stake.”

Ansen looked back at the movies of the 1970s to explain where movies are going.

“In the 70s, movies were at the center of culture,” he said. “Old Hollywood had collapsed and cinema became a personal art form. Directors were breaking down old formulas. And for critics, there was nothing more important to write about than movies.”

“When I first came to Newsweek in 1977, my editor sent me to a public theater to review the Roberto Rossellini film, ‘The Rise of Louis XIV.’ It was his feeling that this was an important cinematic event. The movie was probably playing in one theater at the time. Today, there would be no point in even bringing up a movie if it’s not playing in thousands of theaters nationwide.”

Where does the critic fit in with the movie-going public? Ansen’s answer to this question fell somewhere between leading the audience to the best movies out there and second-guessing what’s going to be popular with audiences.

“A good critic brings to the job depth, passion and an ability to persuade you to see the movie through his or her eyes,” Ansen said.

One of the primary reasons for the precipitous decline in the quality of Hollywood movies over the years, according to Ansen, is what he called the “Balkanization” of the audience. Mainstream culture has become quite fragmented. In its earlier days, Hollywood was able to make movies that appealed to everyone — people of any age and any class.

“Not anymore,” Ansen said. “Now films are made, by and large, for the lowest common denominator. That’s mainly because they have to appeal to audiences in Bangkok and Borneo, and Des Moines and London. What it boils down to is a movie in which you blow up a lot of stuff without a lot of dialogue. Explosions and violence are a universal language that doesn’t need a lot of dubbing and subtitles. The images speak for themselves.