Thursday, May 21, 2015

Food in the 90s, Film in the 70s

In every era, there's a realm where creative talent happens to cluster. In the 50's, it was jazz; in the early 70's, it was filmmaking; and in the 90's, it was restaurants... Truly great work is being done; hearts poured out and brilliance expressed while the creative bar raises higher and higher. And if you don't dive into a zeitgeist, you may has well be dead. I'd certainly have spent the 1950's in smokey nightclubs and the 70's in movie houses (if I were alive in the 10's, I'd have been sipping absinthe and arguing philosophy in European cafes). And lord knows I put in my restaurant time in the 90's.
--from my posting "Idiot Box No More"

Most singers become singers because they want to be singers, not because they want to sing. That's why most singers are so awful.
--from my posting "Billions, Millions, Thousands"

The food scene is downhill, and it has been for quite some time.

I've been saying so for over a decade, but my point seldom lands. Soon after I sold Chowhound, my friends assumed I was projecting. Fed up and burnt out, I was projecting my feelings onto my victuals. And these days, people assume I'm being willfully eccentric, or else simply curmudgeonly.

There is more excitement about the field than ever. More food blogs, more foodie pop-ups, more books and TV shows. People talk about food, care about food more passionately than ever, and there is way more action in the dining scene, with a profusion of new faces offering vibrant concepts and artisanal yadda yadda. When I first wrote about a Thai restaurant quietly lurking within a Blimpie Sandwich franchise store, the notion nearly tore people's heads off. Now that sort of thing is nearly a genre. With all this bustle and all this cool stuff, how can I possibly say it's gone downhill?

The early 1970's were an astonishingly fertile time for film. When that tap dried up, and the creative zeitgeist migrated elsewhere (as it always inevitably does), people didn't stop going to movies. Quite the contrary; the quality of early 1970s films had pumped up the industry, and the economics and hoopla remained in place for years after quality had faded.

When quality tilts the other way, it's not like flipping a light switch. It's not that God farted over Hollywood, turning everything unpalatable. There were good and great movies in the late 1970s and all through the 1980s. There are movies good and great even today. But as a whole the industry pales in comparison to what's currently going on in TV, which is the current center of creative zeitgeist. Nothing can remotely compare, quality-wise, to a zeitgeist.

Similarly, I'm not saying your favorite tamale place from the 1990's instantly lost its quality when the golden age of restaurants faded. That's the essential word: faded. It's gradual, and human beings are ill-equipped to register fade-outs. Like lobsters, amenable to being cooked if their water is heated slowly enough, our remarkable adaptability makes it easy to pull rugs out from under us, just so long as they're pulled real gradually. Remember how great those large Pepperidge Farm cookies were when they first launched? They've been continuously degrading, but most of us haven't registered the fade, so they're still for sale everywhere, shadows of their former selves.

Or consider an even steeper descent: slice pizza in New York City. If a time traveler from 1975 suddenly found himself in even one of our better slice joints (aside from Joe's and Sal & Carmines), he'd spit out his first bite in disgust and ask whether the pie had been shipped in from Nebraska. Yet these places make good money serving Nebraska pizza to gothamites, because the fade to awfulness was so slow (in fact, 1970's slice pizza may have been its own mini-zeitgeist!).

So there are already two caveats confusing my point. Food's largely lost its luster, but 1. that doesn't mean it's all bad, and 2. it's been a gradual fade, so people mostly haven't noticed. To add to the confusion, as with film after the heyday of the early 1970's, there's still ample lingering passion for the product, which has been cannily manipulated by business interests flocking into a realm previously swelled via sincere grassroots creativity and talent. These second-wave guys are not in it for the creativity, talent, or sincerity. It's that they noticed the swelling (they don't want to sing; they just want to be singers).

When films like Midnight Cowboy, The Graduate, MASH, Clockwork Orange, The Godfather, and Dog Day Afternoon gave way to films like Chariots of Fire, Raiders of the Lost Ark, ET, and The Right Stuff, did people consciously register the drop? Even now, it's hard to see it through the patina of reputation and conventional wisdom (both of which are salable commodities). Those latter four are considered classics, held in awe. Shoot, I like them, too. These are demonstrably masterful creations, with production values at a much more consistent level than the slightly shaggy craftsmanship in some of those earlier ones.

But are they soulful, like the (slightly) earlier films? Through this lens, can you spot what I'm pointing out?

When a creative zeitgeist - characterized by soulfulness, nuance, and fresh originality - fades, the vacuum is quickly filled by high competency and shallow cleverness. Iconoclastic creativity gets replaced by genre and formula. The resulting landscape isn't sullen devastation. It's a sparkly circus, where holdouts and misfits seldom tread (or at least not very enthusiastically).

That's what's happened to the food scene. After serving as an illuminated high point of popular culture for a decade or two, it's been seamlessly commercialized. Even highly independent operators have fallen into a second-wave mindset less about cooking from heart and soul and more about competently vying to be a big light in a field originally swelled by sincere grassroots creativity and talent. They're mostly there because of the swelling. Singers, not singing.

When a critical mass makes that flip, the human flocking effect begins to work against us. The same mechanism of contagion which can inspire people to such a high level can also distract attention and obscure vision. Especially when there's lots of money to be made.

As with neighborhood gentrification, soulfulness and freshness inevitably drain from the equation, and the sort of slightly shaggy luminous visionaries - spawned anew in each generation, in spite of it all - who originally set the stage set their sights on farther-flung landscapes.

1 comment:

Steve said...

I will take American Beauty, Passing Strange, Pleasantville, and Boyhood over all those 70s movies. It's hard to imagine The Graduate having emotional resonance with anyone. The 70s movies were more interesting than good.

Blog Archive