In these frigid months a Saturday night trek to the movies can assume singular importance—a kind of American survival routine undertaken in the belief that shared experience is vital to a hybrid culture and, moreover, that a person is dying an early death if he too often surrenders to the knitted afghan and TV listings. There is a peculiar satisfaction in the punishment of it all, in braving icy blasts on the ticketbuyers’ and then the ticket-holders ’ line, huddling in the drafty auditorium, straining to hear over the bronchial hack and snort of those who might better have spent the evening swallowing megadoses of ginseng.
It is with a heightened sense of expectancy, then, perhaps even with increased intellectual awareness (although that might be going too far), that the patron watches the screen brighten and settles back on the treadless corduroy cushion. Laughter is registered here and there at the familiar run of gaudy preliminaries—animated commercials hawking candy and Coke, a plug for a motel in Fort Lauderdale, a musical prohibition against smoking— and then a semblance of quiet ensues as the solemn moment arrives. The feature presentation, at last.
Let us not underestimate the importance of this enterprise. The movie house is perhaps the most intimate setting for the American experience, especially if management has set the thermostat on a mark below freezing. Here we sit in a hall with a few hundred persons much like ourselves and, no doubt, much different as well, each looking for a hint as to who we are and what, together, we will become. People don’t say such things, of course, unless they happen to live on the east side of Manhattan and have careers in cultural anthropology. Most of those who would sooner camp in hyperborean darkness with a crowd of strangers than stay at home tending their automatic popcorn machines are wary of analytical chatter and thesis-level criticism. They want only to trust what they see on the screen. It’s not asking too much.
And yet how often we are disappointed. We are awash in cinematic soda pop at the moment. If it’s not a movie about a teenage hooker or a homocidal automobile or extraterrestrial disco-dating, it’s yet another attempt to portray the shattered emotions of some gorgeous man or woman recently di-
vorced and wondering who will get custody of the butcher-block furniture.
But while movies that are foolish, inept or irrelevant may be considered only misdemeanors of sorts, those with duplicitous intentions carry the weight of felony. To lure us into theatres, dim the lights and roll a slick piece of goods before our eyes in the belief that Americans are sappy enough to believe just about anything—that, friends, cannot easily be forgiven.
A vapid, albeit well-reviewed, Burt Reynolds effort, The Man Who Loved Women, dpes little damage, for instance, because one tends to forget most of the film on the drive home. So this strapping, playboy sculptor can’t settle down with any of the several remarkable women he encounters and, thoroughly distressed, surrenders himself to a psychiatrist played by Julie Andrews, who, soon enough, surrenders herself to him. Big deal. Pass the
We are now awash in cinematic soda pop—in movies about teenage hookers and homocidal automobiles'
Raisinets, if you don’t mind.
More a problem for the devoted theatregoer is the sort of production that teems with intent and asserts its point of view with the delicacy of a machine for splitting logs. Among the most jarring of these productions is something called the docudrama, an often indistinguishable farrago of fact and editorial comment. A couple of years ago the Greek director Costa-Gavras brought forth a film called Missing, linking the United States with the 1973 coup in Chile. So smoothly did Missing whiz over the particulars that one might have thought Costa-Gavras was choreographing the Ice Capades—a style the film-maker stoutly defends. “A film is not a court,” he told a reporter. “I can’t
go into secondary details____Don’t ask a
director to be a political technician.”
This season another movie, Silkwood, demonstrates uppityness of astounding proportions and, in fact, very nearly delivers a murder indictment. Directed by Mike Nichols, the film advertises itself as the real-life saga of Karen Silkwood, a worker in a plutonium processing plant outside Oklahoma City who
clashed with her employer over safety regulations, suffered radioactive contamination and died in an auto wreck while on her way to meet a newspaper reporter. The story has plenty of drama and intrigue, but, wanting more, Nichols leads the audience to believe that Silkwood was forced into the fatal mishap, most likely by agents of her employer, the Kerr-McGee Corp. Evidently of little concern is that back in the real world charges have been filed against no one.
This kind of Junior Crimestoppers detective work might make for fine conversations at Malibu cocktail parties bpt what is it doing up there on the screen? Many Americans are inclined to believe the United States did meddle dangerously in Chile. Many have read about lax safety practices at the KerrMcGee plant and suspect the company was vindictive in its dealings with a spunky reformer who enjoyed giving management fits. But murder? Without anyone being accused? Professionals such as Costa-Gavras and Nichols must fear that without their expert assistance we will suffer a diminished capacity for remaining right on. They must assume the general public cannot adequately absorb information and forgo rational determinations. They don’t trust us to think. And yet there are moviemakers of principle who have kept faith with the audience, directors whose work does not have the feel of a teach-in sponsored by the local chapter of Youth Against War and Fascism. Woody Allen, Milos Forman, Mel Brooks, Francis Ford Coppola. Monty Python! Even a big bucks, high-gloss, mass-market undertaking like The Right Stuff makes a more persuasive statement about government foolishness and corporate greed than either of the movies in question.
Certainly, it is appropriate that artists nail the mean-spirited and expose venality, that they chronicle official mischief and raise embarrassing questions, but the project must be undertaken in co-operation with filmdom’s silent partners—the people in the seats. Allow us a thought or two on a winter’s night, then, fellows. Don’t dress up hypothesis as truth. Tell the story as though you aren’t the only ones equipped to deal with life’s “secondary details.” We paid our five bucks. Give us all we have coming.
Fred Bruning is a writer with Newsday in New York.
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