I had a few coins in my pocket this week and thought my wife and I would go to the movies. Times have been tough and we hadn’t been in a while, and it seemed like a good way to get out of the house. As I looked on the movie websites I discovered that there was nothing that I wanted to see. Nothing I would chance investing $18.00 in, plus $20.00 for popcorn and drinks.
As I looked across the spectrum of movies offered I wondered; has going to the movies become something for teenagers and children alone, like roller-skating? Have I just gotten too old to go to the movies? I still enjoy the big screen and the outrageous sound system. I enjoy making smart-ass remarks while the theatre runs endless commercials for television programs before the movie. "Damn honey, we should have stayed home and watched TV! Look at all the great stuff that’s on!"
Headlining, was "Drillbit Taylor," a comedy about a guy acting as a bodyguard for nerdy adolescent kids. Okay, I’m too old for that one. Then there’s "Run, Fat Boy, Run," a comedy about an overweight guy who leaves his fiancée at the altar, only to find out years later that he still loves her and to win her back must finish a marathon. In Hollywood, at least, Fatty Arbuckle never goes out of style. The film is rated PG-13 for rude and sexual humor, nudity, language and smoking. Smoking? Cover your eyes children, that man is smoking!
Then there’s the Dr. Suess classic, "Horton Hears a Who" which, frighteningly, is the first film listed that appears to have a plot. A simple-minded elephant hears creatures living on a dust mote in their own miniature world. Horton seeks to rescue and save them, with his message of acceptance of others different from ourselves. Maybe I am too old to go to the movies; maybe movies aren’t supposed to have a plot or a message for anyone over age ten. I understand the different genres of film and I understand my tastes are outside the mainstream. But just how many fart and t*tty jokes or sexual innuendo jokes suffice? Couldn’t we have a film or two where you didn’t figure the plot out in the first five minutes?
It got me to thinking about how the times are reflected in the cinema, how during the depression Shirley Temple and Mickey Rooney were the biggest stars in Hollywood; the public wanted cute children and escapism, people who wore nice clothes and lived in nice houses and whose problems could be solved with a song and dance. However, the other side of the coin was portrayed as well, with Jimmy Cagney as "The Public Enemy," depicting the life and death of a prohibition gangster. Or Edward G. Robinson as "Little Caesar," and Henry Fonda playing Tom Joad in "The Grapes of Wrath."
During the '40s, the movies followed the US into WW2, but even then there was "Citizen Kane," "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" and "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre." These movies had plot and message; they dealt with greed and the arrogance of power. In "Sierra Madre," Americans, down on their luck in Mexico, meet up with an old prospector and they become enamored of the idea of finding gold. They profess their loyalty to each other and insist if they can just get $10,000 each, they will be happy. But in the end their greed destroys them and their work is for nothing, as bandits, unaware of what is in the sacks, cut them and let the gold dust fall to ground, where the mountain winds blow it back from whence it came.
The images of that gold dust blowing back up the mountainside or Cagney, face down in the street in a pouring rainstorm, had subliminal meaning. Then with the rise of the cold war and McCarthyism came a new film genre, Science Fiction, with the message of: Be afraid, be very afraid, there are things out there which you don’t understand. Things which want to take over the whole world, i.e., communism. Think "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." Again, there was the flip side of "The Day the Earth Stood Still," a message of peace with the subliminal message that we must learn to understand each other before our own madness destroys us.
The '60s brought us "Easy Rider," "Doctor Strangelove," Seven Days in May," "Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner" and "The Manchurian Candidate," stories about people, people in crisis, people with moral questions reflecting the times. I could go on through the '70s and '80s, but these days it appears that any thought-provoking aspect is gone. The studios are all now owned by overseas megacorporations, so it is doubtful that movies like "Soylent Green" could ever be made today. Instead, we get "College Road Trip." A college-bound girl has her hopes of independence shattered when her overbearing, police chief father (Martin Lawrence) insists on escorting her on a road trip to prospective universities.
Then there's the newest movie genre, torture films - not horror or suspense, but out-and-out torture films. A victim is captured by a maniacal, mad person (Martin Lawrence) and restrained and tortured for any number of vehicular reasons. Fortunately, most of these films only run ninety minutes, as the audience couldn’t take the full two hours. In the case of "College Road Trip," the torture only lasts an hour and twenty-three minutes.
The movie "Shutter" lasts an hour and twenty-five minutes. "Shutter," a lovely film also rated PG-13 for terror, disturbing images, sexual content and language, but thank God, no smoking (after all, we can only take so much). A newly-married couple discovers disturbing, ghostly images in photographs they develop after a tragic accident. Fearing the manifestations may be connected, they investigate and learn that some mysteries are better left unsolved. Be afraid, crazy people are everywhere, trust no one, things are going on that you don’t understand, i.e., the war on terror, or "Vantage Point," a film based around an assassination attempt at a big war on terror summit. Stack it on the pile with "Twin Towers" and "United 93." Rah, rah, cowboys and indians for the 21st century.
Is there no flip side? In the film "Syriana," George Clooney fights the labyrinth of government corruption and deceit in the Middle East oil dealings. It intentionally stays away from naming those countries friendly to the US and names only the powerless and villainous, despite the central country obviously being Saudi Arabia. But we mustn’t offend or smoke around those people who behead idolaters in the public square. We can graphically depict the vilest deeds of the dastardly, but we mustn’t ever offend our friends.
The cinema does indeed reflect our times; television network schedules bloated with: can you sing, or dance, or cook? Can you tell secrets or prurient gossip, TV dramas about how right the police or governments are ,and how wrong are the criminals. All sanitized for your protection, all sterilized from the need to think, to make critical judgments. The good guys are all good, the bad guys all bad, a far cry from "12 Angry Men," which was originally produced for the CBS program Studio One in 1954. The film, which followed the CBS production, has been rated the 13th best film ever made.
What is going on here? With all the technology and advertising money, that we get "Law and Order" and "Run, Fat Boy Run?" Can it be accidental? Are they not trying at all ,or are they trying and succeeding? Or are they perfectly mirroring our times?