Like many people my age (never mind), I have a tendency to look back on specific aspects of the past through decidedly rose-colored glasses. Motion pictures in particular are vulnerable to this alchemy, as I fell in love with movies during the late-60s and 70s; a time of groundbreaking innovation in film.
The growing pains of American cinema that typified the New Hollywood years, in many ways mirror my own. Both the era and the films it produced are inextricably linked in my mind to my adolescence and my nascent understanding of the world. So much so that if often felt that Hollywood and I were both growing up at the same time.
While such a subjective, emotional response to movies is at the core of every film buff, the negative by-product of such a polarized form of passion is that it makes one’s assessment of past films dangerously prone to a nostalgic sentimentality. Nothing wrong with deserved praise meted out to the films of the past, just so long as that rear-view adulation doesn't prevent the fair and objective evaluation of contemporary films.
Case in point: A typical rant of mine is to bemoan the annual summer blockbuster season. I complain about the dearth of watchable films released during the summer months and bellyache about how those without a taste for sequels, comic books (pardon me, graphic novels), or blowing things up, must content themselves with Netflix or cable until September.
As is my custom, I bolster my argument with assertions that this wasn't always the case. That "back in the day" the adult demographic wasn't wholly ignored and that intelligent films like: Klute, Carnal Knowledge, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and The Panic in Needle Park, were released during the summer months and met with considerable success. Not blockbuster success perhaps, but success.
As there are few who recall Hollywood's film release strategies prior to Star Wars and most agree that summer has indeed become a weeded garden of sequels, spectacle, and inexhaustible reboots of the Fast and Furious franchise; no one ever challenges my claims. So I'll do it myself.
Let's do a comparison that spans 40 years: The most anticipated films of the summer of 2013 and my personal most anticipated selections from the summer of 1973.
Star Trek Into Darkness
The most anticipated films of The Summer of 2013: Star Trek Into Darkness, The Lone Ranger, Man of Steel, The Wolverine, World War Z, Fast & Furious 6 (really?), The Hangover Part III, Pacific Rim, After Earth, 2 Guns, White House Down.
The most anticipated films of The Summer of 1973 (by me): Jesus Christ Superstar, American Graffiti, Paper Moon, Live and Let Die, The Last of Shelia, Cleopatra Jones, Soylent Green, Oklahoma Crude, A Touch of Class, The Last American Hero, The Legend of Hell House.
Other eagerly-awaited releases from the summer of '73 (although, not necessarily by me): Battle for the Planet of the Apes, Enter the Dragon, Shaft in Africa, Scream, Blacula, Scream, Super Fly T.N.T., Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.
Looking at both lists, the biggest difference I see is one of diversity. The movies made in the 70s were cheaper, didn't require such a huge payoff to be a hit, and thus could afford to vary their output. The expense of contemporary summer releases has led to fewer films having to cater to a larger percentage of the market. Hence, more generalized, mass appeal entertainment.
So while it may be both fair and accurate to claim that there is not much variety offered in summer movies today, I wouldn't go so far as to say the summer films of the 70s were significantly better. Indeed, what with the proliferation of movies about kung fu, women in prison, redneck car-chase comedies, sexploitation, Blaxsploitation, and that weird Dobermann Pinscher fad; one could make a very good case that they were quite worse.
What is clear is that for at least the last 40 years, summer has been the season for light, escapist films. Perhaps not classics, but certainly a lot of fun. And as any real film fan will tell you, a movie doesn't have to be "good" to be enjoyed.
So the next time you hear a classic film curmudgeon waxing on about the decline in the quality of films, whip out that Smartphone (or whatever that device thing is…) do a little research, and you're likely to find that throughout the entire history of American cinema, movies have been at their very worst at the exact same time they have been at their best. It's just a matter of changing seasons.