It's not the same old story!

Posted: Aug 30, 2005 12:00 AM

A lousy summer, a rotten summer, a profitless summer is how the movie industry appraises the past few months -- in terms many a moviegoer, such as this one, would gladly appropriate. Lousy, rotten, profitless, and more daringly, let 'em try this on us again and see whether we return for another round.

 The industry's financial drouth promises to engage analysts and industry types for at least a few weeks. It seems right for the customers -- perhaps, more accurately, ex-customers -- to join the heckling and likewise to ask how this wonderfully American art form lost its gift for storytelling.

 The senior Murchisons, veteran moviegoers with a deep and practiced affection for the product, found themselves time and again this summer wondering Just Who Do They Think Is Going to Go See This Stuff?

 We liked, without quite loving, "Cinderella Man." "War of the Worlds" we thought slightly silly but watchable. At the megaplex, we grabbed a few minutes of "The Wedding Crashers," considered going back for the whole thing, never quite got there. One weekend, rendered desperate by the quality drouth, we ventured out to "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," which seemed more manic than anything else. As our desperation deepened, we considered that penguin movie many were praising. I couldn't bring myself to it. Penguins? It had come to that?

 Well, consider the competition: remakes of old movies ("The Longest Yard," "The Bad News Bears") and TV series ("The Dukes of Hazzard," "Bewitched"), and another Batman impersonation. "Revenge of the Sith" fled to the suburbs before we could get there. We think we might have liked it -- a little bit anyway. And yet a quantity of cinematic mold clung to the thing. We had been there before, had we not -- or at least to a galaxy nearby?

 What the movie industry must acknowledge sooner or later is that it wouldn't recognize a good story if various moguls jumped from bed at midnight and fell over it. For which I venture an explanation, a cultural one. Stories seem no longer to engage us. That means, among others, the people telling stories.

 A story has a point, an idea. It is about us -- how we live, what we think, what we worry about, what we want. A story is about life. We are the characters: John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara flirting and fighting in "The Quiet Man," Judy Garland dreaming-aspiring in "The Wizard of Oz," Bogey and Ingrid Bergman coming to terms in "Casablanca." It's still the same old story, a fight for love and glory, a case of do or die ...

 An adult knows as much, wherein lies the problem. Adults tell stories; juveniles crash cars and fixate on their childhood heroes and hang-ups. Juveniles, in terms of maturity if not chronology, run the motion picture industry, telling the "stories" juveniles enjoy -- not about life but about hang-ups and rude noises and bad language.

 And comic books! If 10 percent of the money spent on bringing comic book characters to cinematic life found its way into the telling of honest stories about the human condition -- love, fear, ambition, hatred, sacrifice, etc., etc., etc. -- half-empty theaters might fill once more. 

 Who would make such pictures, though -- pictures with a point? The cases of arrested development who run today's studios think smash-crash-bash equals wisdom -- to the extent they believe in such an odd commodity as wisdom.