Story Norms

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Story Norms in Old and New Hollywood

Are there differences in plot and character between Old or Classical Hollywood (1909-1968) and New Hollywood (1968-present)?

This article will try to offer some suggestions.

I am NOT including post-1968 British, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand films as being part of New Hollywood. Nothing said about New Hollywood necessarily applies to them.

Downgrading Plot

Old: Story-centered movies. New: Movies and TV centered on non-story content, such as action, stand-up comedy, scares, special effects.

Old: Plot with strong logical progression. New: Film often episodic, with weak logical links between episodes.

Old: Plots often present difficulties for characters, solved by an ingenious final twist created by a character through thinking. New: Problems with clever solutions absent.

Old: Maps common in films. New: Maps rare.

Old: Geography of city streets and imaginary Western towns clear. New: Geography absent, vague.

Old: Comedy based on sight gags, or comic actors who take part in stories. New: Stand-up comedians in sketches and films that are only lightly fictionalized. Stand-up comics usually "hip".

The Assault on Reason

Al Gore wrote a book entitled The Assault on Reason (2007), which documents his claim that conservatives are conducting a war against thinking, reason and science. I think a related, similar attack has been happening in post-1968 Hollywood film.

Some changes between Old (pre-1968) Hollywood, and New (post-1968) Hollywood:

Old: A universe ruled by reason and laws of science. Events take place against a realistic world, or a science-based science fictional one. New: The supernatural, fantastic and paranormal are frequently present.

Old: Characters with special professional skills, such as musicians, reporters, authors, engineers, inventors, doctors, genius detectives or scientists. New: Characters without special skills, except those involved in inflicting violence - or in playing sports, or both (martial artists). (Exception: a few New Hollywood directors regularly have skilled characters: Robert Altman, Michael Dinner, Arthur Hiller, Joe Johnston, Steve Lisberger, Penny Marshall, W.D. Richter, Tim Story, Robert Zemeckis. By contrast, skilled characters are common in non-Hollywood independents: Adam Abraham, Neal Burger, Shane Carruth, Bill Condon, Julie Davis, Maggie Greenwald, Todd Haynes, Charles Lane, Christopher Livingston, Malcolm Mowbray, Michael T. Rehfield, Nanci Rossov, Dan Sallitt, Julian Schnabel, Bill Sherwood, Luis Valdez, Wayne Wang. All of these independent directors also resemble Old Hollywood in that they stick to either realistic or science fiction premises.)

Old: Heroes build things. New: Heroes rarely build things. (Exception: some of the sf directors listed above: Steve Lisberger (Tron), Tim Story (Fantastic Four), Robert Zemeckis (Contact).)

Old: Heroes good at thinking. New: Heroes good at fighting.

Old: Musicals common, and characters who are skilled at singing and dancing. New: Musicals rare.

Old: Interpolated song and dance numbers in non-musical films common. New: Interpolated musical numbers rare.

Old: Whodunit mysteries common, with detectives skilled at figuring out who committed a mysterious crime. New: Whodunits rare.

Old: Farmer and rancher characters frequent. New: Farmers absent.

Old: Interest in contemporary news events, life and technology. New: Disinterest in current events, which take place in a world sealed off from current news or technology. (Exception: the spate of political films, 1968-1971)

Old: Cutting edge, visually spectacular architecture, interior design and costumes. New: Ordinary settings and clothes.

Old: Depictions of classical music, theater, radio and publishing. New: No depictions of "high-brow" cultural worlds.

Old: Musical scores of classical or jazz music. New: Popular music scores, made up of individual songs.

Old: Vibrant Technicolor photography and bright color design in color films. New: desaturated, toned down color.

The Worship of Force, Violence and War

New Hollywood has made lots of pleasant comedies, without violence. But many New Hollywood films glorify violence.

Old: Violence restricted to short bursts, tied to the story, and frequently restricted to a climactic fight between good and bad guys. New: Large scale set pieces, showing violence, torture or gore, elaborate beyond story needs of the plot.

Old: Torture not shown on screen. New: Torture common, and shown as effective in solving problems.

Old: Stories centered on heroes and good guys. New: Stories often centered on sick, vicious or criminal actions of evil or emotionally disturbed people.

Old: Child abuse not shown. New: Child abuse, molestation common.

Old: Theft condemned. New: Theft glorified.

Old: Fist fights. New: Martial Arts, treated as an expert skill on-screen.

Old: Few films about sports, and those often about a non-sports topic (e.g. Pride of the Yankees, Angels in the Outfield). New: Sports films common, and centered on winning

Old: Heroes avoid killing people. New: Heroes commit mass murder..


Old: Characters who experience wild success fantasies or wish fulfillment. New: Characters who find success by being hip, cool or otherwise conforming to norms of a middle class social group.

Old: Foreigners and immigrants prominent in stories. New: American settings and "old American" characters predominant in the plot.

Old: Exploited or oppressed classes or groups, strong contrasts between wealthy and working class. New: Class structure invisible.

The Closed Shop

Old: Works often adapted from prose books or stories. New: Original scripts only.

Old: Scriptwriters often well-known non-Hollywood writers imported to write movies. New: Scripts by Hollywood insiders only.

The Missing Western

Old: Westerns, offering romantic glamorous fantasies. New: Few Westerns, and those de-glamorized to show the "real West" (a lot of mud and miserable lives).

Old: Western towns. New: Fictitious towns and cityscapes absent.