The Dickensian state of film

Charles Dickens probably never realized what a gift he’d given dithering journalists when he opened “A Tale of Two Cities” exactly 150 years ago with the classic sentence, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” It’s tempting to fall back on that venerable truism when examining the last decade of film, but the reality is that, frankly, it was close to the worst of times, with some good things thrown in to keep us from getting suicidal about the state of cinema.

I’m not just talking about the proliferation of graphic horror films, slasher and splatter epics and a whole new genre felicitously labeled torture porn. It’s almost as if the increasing sanitization of everyday life has led to a parallel desire to vicariously sample the savagery of others on screen.

Yet the real problem with torture porn is not that it signals a sea change in American taste but rather that it marks a wholesale takeover of the movie marketplace by the young and the restless, who traditionally like that sort of thing.

For the saddest truth of all is that, with increasingly rarer exceptions, the last decade has witnessed the studios’ gradual and nearly complete abandonment of the adult audience. You may or may not trust anyone over 30, but the reality is that getting people in that age group into movie theaters on a regular basis has become too herculean a task for Hollywood to attempt on a regular basis.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that good things weren’t done in the last 10 years. The best of them were accomplished, paradoxically, by a trio of filmmakers who proved that it’s possible to do intelligent, adult-friendly work within the studio system and still garner a huge audience.

The youngest of the group, Christopher Nolan, had his first sensation of the decade with the offbeat thriller “Memento” and ended it with “The Dark Knight,” one of the most successful films ever made. His ability to bring an independent film sensibility to blockbuster territory is something to be grateful for.

Then there is Clint Eastwood, whose streak of seven remarkable films directed by a man in his 70s, going from “Mystic River” in 2003 to the current “Invictus,” shows evidence of a late flowering of talent almost unprecedented in American film.

Between Nolan and Eastwood in age is John Lasseter, who has done his share of fine directing but who became best known during the last decade as the creative force behind our current golden age of animation. As advocate for Japan’s Hiyao Miyazaki and godfather to a generation of Pixar filmmakers, Lasseter has convincingly demonstrated, like Nolan and Eastwood, that films can be smart as well as successful. Would that more people in Hollywood were listening.

Documentary films also prospered over the last decade, in part because the proliferation of digital equipment made it possible to shoot reality on the cheap.

Before all this good news has you feeling too positive about where film has been, ponder the widespread disappearance of smaller distributors and studio specialty divisions. And think about the numerous filmmakers who made one or maybe two fine films but then disappeared from view. Without a culture that supports strong work, the chances of quality films living long and prospering are not looking good.