The late 1990s were this cultural order’s years of twilight glow. Computer-generated effects were just maturing, creating intimations of a new age of cinematic wonder. Indie cinema nurtured a new generation of auteurs. Nineteen ninety-nine is a candidate for the best year in movies ever — the year of “Fight Club,” “The Sixth Sense,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” “Election,” “Three Kings” and “The Insider,” so on down a roster that justifies not just a Top 10 but a Top 50 list in hindsight.
Tellingly, Oscar viewership actually rose from the late 1980s onward, peaking in 1998, when “Titanic” won best picture, which (despite its snobbish detractors) was also a victory for The Movies as a whole — classic Hollywood meeting the special-effects era, bringing the whole country to the multiplex for an experience that simply wouldn’t have been the same in a living room.
To be a teenager in that era was to experience the movies, still, as a key place of initiation. I remember my impotent teenage fury at being turned away from an R-rated action movie (I can’t recall if it was “Con Air” or “Executive Decision”) and the frisson of being “adult” enough to see “Eyes Wide Shut” (another one of those 1999 greats — overhyped then, underrated now) on its opening weekend. And the initiation wasn’t just into a general adulthood but into a specific lingua franca: There were certain movies you simply had to watch, from “Austin Powers” to “The Matrix” (1999 again!), to function socially as a college student, to understand the jokes and references that stitched together an entire social world.
Just another form of content?
What happened next was complicated in that many different forces were at work but simple in that they all had the same effect — which was to finally knock the movies off their pedestal, transform them into just another form of content.
The happiest of these changes was a creative breakthrough on television, beginning in earnest with “Sopranos”-era HBO, which enabled small-screen entertainment to vie with the movies as a stage for high-level acting, writing and directing.
The other changes were — well, let’s call them ambiguous at best. Globalization widened the market for Hollywood productions, but the global audience pushed the business toward a simpler style of storytelling that translated more easily across languages and cultures, with less complexity and idiosyncrasy and fewer cultural specifics.
The internet, the laptop and the iPhone personalized entertainment and delivered it more immediately, in a way that also widened Hollywood’s potential audience — but habituated people to small screens, isolated viewing and intermittent watching, the opposite of the cinema’s communalism.