Moving away from make-believe

Posted: Mar 05, 2007 12:01 AM
Moving away from make-believe

The movies aren't what they used to be. Hollywood still imagines that it's the center of the cosmos, but the movies, politically correct as they have become (think Al Gore's Oscar for a slide show), don't move us as they once did.

A friend of mine once won an Oscar for a documentary -- a real one, not propaganda -- and for a while she carried it around in her handbag. When she was told to wait at the bar for a restaurant table, she often popped it out and set it on the bar. A good table materialized like magic. Oscar got respect even when she didn't.

But even Oscar ain't what he used to be. Academy Awards night has come and gone, and mostly what we remember are the ladies' gowns. Movie stars are no longer the icons of yesteryear, and they're often known more for their romantic liaisons, their rap sheets and their half-baked political opinions than for their work on the silver screen. The days of the divas, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Barbara Stanwyck, have vanished. (Meryl Streep still has a reasonable facsimile of their aura.)

"Before demographics became the marketing mantra, the movies were the art of the middle," writes Neal Gabler in the Los Angeles Times. "They provided a common experience and language -- a sense of unity. In the dark we were one." That's dying, too. The old movie houses, with their elaborate chandeliers and rococo architecture, were secular cathedrals for a classless society. Nearly everyone could afford the price of a ticket, and whole families and different generations were entertained together. Dinner table conversation was often about the latest feature at the Rialto or the Tivoli.

Not every movie was wholesome, but parents readily assumed responsibility for gatekeeping. Children watched what their parents thought they should see. The stars often failed to live up to an idealized image off screen, but the studios protected the public from off-screen antics. A star couldn't even pop down to the supermarket until she was properly coiffed, her outfit stylish and her nails immaculate. No gym suit or ugly shoes for her.

Movies gave voice to common moral standards that were imbedded in the drama. Partisan politics was shunned. "If you want to send a message," Jack Warner (or maybe it was Sam Goldwyn) famously told his producers, "go to Western Union." Content today has splintered audiences into age groups, and politically correct messages have often replaced a good story. The change in the movies, however, may account less for declining audiences than competing alternatives readily available on the Internet.

It's possible (and addictive) to sit for hours in front of a small screen, but what's offered comes in snippets and fragments, and competing dribs and drabs are just a click away, shrinking attention spans. There's nevertheless a reluctance to leave the creature comforts of home and office to go out for an expensive movie: "I'll wait for the video."

Even before the birth of the Internet, Marshall McLuhan reckoned the medium was the message, that (SET ITAL) how (END ITAL) we looked determined what we saw. Everything has sped up, and consciousness exceeds the speed limit, too. If movies link the separate frames of images into sustained narratives, the Internet separates those frames with disjointed data to create an intellectual blizzard of competing ideas. While much of the information can be useful, the appeal to the imagination and empathy is limited.

Personal blogs and websites fast-feed the appetite, suggesting that we know more than we actually know, misleading us to imagine we understand more than we really understand. Sympathies are shallow and synthetic. When a fan once told Cary Grant, "I wish I could be Cary Grant," he replied: "I do, too." The debonair man of the screen was carefully scripted.

Viewers of YouTube and MySpace don't want to be the people they watch -- they're usually not that dumb, and they don't have enough talent to imitate even if they were -- but viewers think they know them, and this naturally makes exhibitionists feel important. Personal identity and social intimacy are sacrificed to public presentation. To paraphrase Descartes, "I show, therefore I am."

Taste and technology threaten the psychological pleasures movies once afforded, and the shortened attention span, image fragmentation and celebration of the self aren't likely to sustain what we've affectionately known as the movies. And Al Gore is back lecturing about the gloom and doom of global warming at Middle Tennessee State University.