This week Cineaste launched the last installment of its ongoing survey of critics under 35. (Full disclosure: I was honored to take part; my responses can be found in the spring print edition.) While most of the discussion is collegial, one question was posed as a challenge. “It is often assumed that younger audiences and critics are unduly consumerist and are rarely interested in the nuances of film history,” the survey suggested. “If you believe this is a stereotypical view, how does your own critical practice combat such assumptions?”
No brush fires are started. Indiewire’s Eric Kohn notes that younger viewers are “actively contributing to the evolution of film history by consuming a wider range of possibilities than any previous generation ever has,” given web and DVD access to titles cinephiles might once have had to wait years for at a rep house. Toronto’s Adam Nayman offers a different diagnosis. “It’s less that younger audiences aren’t interested in the nuances of film history than that there aren’t any external factors compelling them to learn it,” he writes.
The idea that young moviegoers are somehow disdainful of film history is almost as old as film history itself, even while — as another question in the survey implies — cinephiles tend to discover their passion for movies in youth. To paraphrase something I once heard Robert Christgau say: every generation believes the next generation doesn’t give a shit. It’s important to correct for that.
In a search for early instances of critics casting young filmgoers as scapegoats, I stumbled across this treasure trove from longtime New York Times first-stringer Bosley Crowther, in a report on a lecture he delivered at Columbia University in 1947. The article is headlined “Youth Is Blamed For Poor Movies[:] Crowther Sees Few With Exacting Taste.” Apart from attributing an alleged glut of bad films to Hollywood’s need to cater to an audience “of people under 30 years of age,” the famously stuffy taste-maker is said to have run through a list of complaints that would hardly seem out of place today. He blames what he perceives as the poor quality of movies on — in the reporter’s words — “excessive standardization on the part of the producing industry,” as well as viewers willing to “swallow any fare dished out at neighborhood showplaces.”
Bear in mind that this is 1947, the year that gave us “Out of the Past,” “The Lady From Shanghai,” and “Miracle on 34th Street,” and two decades before the always stodgy but increasingly out-of-touch Crowther left the post in the wake of his attacks on “Bonnie and Clyde.” It was also a time when film history wasn’t taught in colleges, when Crowther could hold the title “Motion Picture Editor,” and when the Columbia Spectator could draw a distinction between reviewing a “screen play” and the “legitimate stage” (an archaic phrase that’s become an endearing component of Variety slang).
The report on Crowther’s remarks is worth reading in full — especially for the acid last line, which suggests the supposed lack of discernment among young cinephiles wasn’t the most salient topic for the evening.