Mad as hell, but ready for more

Monday Book Review

January 07, 1991|By Thomas Cripps

SEEING THROUGH MOVIES. Edited by Mark Crispin Miller. Pantheon Books. 266 pages. $11.95. EVERY moviegoer knows that film criticism ranges in style from daily reviewers who know what they like to the writers in "Jump Cut" and "The Velvet Light Trap" who know the secret codes embedded in movies, codes known only to people with doctorates in "film studies." For the most part, the authors of the six commissioned pieces in this anthology are crossovers who seem to understand both codes, having taught in universities and commented on the media for public television, worked on magaThomasCrippszines and written tradebooks on film.

If they share a common lingering trait left from their academic lives, it is their willingness to regard the movie mainly as an apparatus that, if not specifically designed for the purpose, routinely reinforces the ideology of a capitalist status quo. Indeed, these writers' collective preoccupation is with how movies work as economic and ideological agents. Together they seem to agree with the legendary "mogul" (was it Harry Cohn?) who, when asked if movies were an art or an industry, replied, "Neither; they're a racket."

The editor, Mark Crispin Miller of Johns Hopkins University, sets the agenda by quoting Harry Warner in 1939 on the "obligations" of movie makers to make not only "enjoyable box-office entertainment," but also "to educate, to stimulate and demonstrate the fundamentals of free government," a sentiment Miller contrasts with Michael Eisner of Disney, for whom "the Disney stores promote the consumer products which promote the [theme] parks which promote the television show." The gap between these two corporate visions, suggests Miller, reveals "a gross decline" from the days of colorful (if voracious) moguls to today's "neo-moguls" who "prize a movie only as a multiply [sic] exploitable resource."

But things get "worser," as Variety once said of box office receipts in summertime Baltimore. They're so bad, in fact, that the sociologist, Todd Gitlin, longs for "any commitment to traditions or particular practices" that might arrest the drive of "media omnicorporations" to make "each technology . . . a marketing zone for the others." Otherwise, he writes, we are left with a permanent glitzy "media spectacle" in which movies are no more than "fodder" for TV talk shows, gossip magazines and T-shirt marketeers. Already Gitlin sees an accommodation of movies to the sensibilities of other media in the differences between the bitter, anti-TV populism of Paddy Chayevsky's "Network" (1976) and the softer tweaking of television in the recent "Broadcast News" (1987).

Douglas Gomery traces an even longer slide in the quality of moviegoing, beginning with his delight in the mock-heroic glitter of the 1920s "picture palaces," where movies were given a tTC setting that made a night at the movies an "event." In contrast, we go to unadorned "cineplexes" set down in malls alongside other retail outlets where we see commercials just like those on television. Then we settle into our seats surrounded by walls so thin that we pick up the crack of Indiana Jones' whip next door while we are watching "Mystic Pizza."

Two of the writers are dismayed at Hollywood's politically empty handling of the Vietnam War. First there was, in the view of Pat Aufderheide, "the noble-grunt film," a retreaded version of the World War II platoon genre in which moral order crumbles, idealism fades and alienation grows, until finally only survival matters. The politics of the war surfaced only in Rambo movies and then only at the most primitive level of revenge-seeking for a war lost by faceless Pentagon bureaucrats. Years after it mattered, the politics of war was taken up only in vast, technological allegories in space such as "Star Wars," in which "the empire" is America, its emperor is Richard Nixon and Darth Vader is Henry Kissinger -- or so said its director, George Lucas.

The most tantalizingly ambiguous essay is that of Stuart Klawans, film critic of The Nation, who strives for a balanced view of the debate over the "colorization" of everybody's favorite classic" movies. The stock response to the decision of new, corporate owners of the oldline studios' film libraries -- everybody's heavy being Ted Turner after his purchase of Metro's film library -- was one of outrage at the mutilation of

heretofore immutable works of art. But as Klawans argues, Turner's decision to color the sacred classics resulted in a "pleasant side effect": Turner's deposit of hundreds of original negatives and fine-grain masters in the Museum of Modern Art, the UCLA Film Archive and the Library of Congress.

Miller's own essay concerns a shameless violation of movies that takes place as they are being shot. "Dozens" of companies, he reports, are brokering deals between filmmakers and advertising agencies for the plugging of products in the completed movies. The result, he writes, reaches beyond the occasional character asking for a Coke or a Bud to 13 specific plugs in "Rambo II" -- an orgy of "product placement."

Give this book a close reading, and you end up in a whacked-out rage like that of newsman Howard Beale in "Network," who urged viewers to shout from their windows: "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore." But of course we will take it. The snit will pass and we will meet each other again in old familiar places from Westview to Golden Ring.

Thomas Cripps, a professor of history at Morgan State University, is an authority on filmmaking and the author of many books, articles and scripts.

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