Gabler Revisited

A few days ago, I wrote a relatively lazy takedown of Neal Gabler’s LA Times op-ed, “The Movie Magic is Gone.” At the time, I was more interested in taking on some of his claims about the centrality of movie culture and about what he diagnoses as a culture of narcissism associated with the new social networking technologies. But Kristin Thompson’s insightful analysis of Gabler’s editorial has led me to revisit some of my original claims. Essentially, Thompson identifies seven different ways in which Gabler’s article is completely wrong, and this is yet another quick attempt to hit a few highlights.

First, I think she’s right to be skeptical regarding Gabler’s assertion of a box office decline, especially if that decline is measured from 2002, which was a hugely successful year for the film industry with four major franchise films hitting theaters (Spider-man, The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and Star Wars). Thompson and David Bordwell make a strong case that annual attendance has been relatively stable, and these numbers, of course, don’t begin to reflect non-theatrical audiences, which vastly outnumber the audiences in movie theaters.

Second, she challenges Gabler’s claim that movies are no longer the “democratic art” they were in the 20th century. This claim seems perhaps the most absurd of all of Gabler’s arguments. Given the emergence of a number of energetic film blogging communities, debates about movies may be more democratic than ever before. I’m still convinced that movies allow us to work through some of our big cultural debates through the mediation of film texts. While Davis Guggenheim’s An Inconvenient Truth is one obvious example, the current box office champ, Zack Snyder’s 300, which I haven’t had time to see, might be another example, especially with the allegorical Iraq War readings that have been circulating across the internet. While these readings may go well beyond Snyder’s intentions, they do speak to the ongoing importance of questions about representation in the cinema. On a related note, Thompson takes apart the notion that movies have lost their communal appeal in their search for “niche markets,” noting that genre films have, for a long time, sought to appeal to what are now called niche audiences.

Thompson is also correct to challenge Gabler’s thesis that filmgoing has been eclipsed by what he calls “knowingness,” the idea that we are more interested in film gossip than in the movies themselves. In my original entry, I made a snarky and mildly satirical comment that I am more interested in TomKat gossip than I am in Cruise’s latest movie. To some extent, that’s probably true, but as Thompson points out, studio publicists are only too happy to collaborate with the infotainment industry, which suggests that the studios clearly benefit from all of that attention to the intimate lives of celebrities.

I think my comments about YouTube in my initial response to Gabler more or less echo Thompson’s. Yes, audiences appear to be more active in producing their own entertainment, but much of this content is based upon films and television series, including reworked trailers, slash videos, and other texts that draw from Hollywood films. If anything YouTube is a testimony to the fact that movie cultures are alive and well, that fans continue to be invested in movies as a medium, whether they encounter them in theaters, on DVD, or online. Finally, Thompson points to the vibrant film festival culture, which increasingly supports a network of indie and DIY films, as further evidence of the ongoing interest in movies.

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