Three men and a cutie: Movies that are good for you!

Russell Baker

December 02, 1992|By Russell Baker

PEOPLE said you had to see "Malcolm X." It was a new event. Everybody would be talking about it. It would be the basis for a new philosophy. If you hadn't seen "Malcolm X," you'd have no right to take part in the great policy debates it would fuel.

It made "Malcolm X" sound like a course in civics. What ever happened to going to the movies for the fun of it? Even movies that are supposed to be simple-minded fun for the simple-minded are hard to take nowadays. Look at the typical shoot-'em-up. If you like watching heart-transplant surgery and enjoy sitting through a good autopsy you'll love movies of the "Rambo" and "Terminator" school.

The publicity about "Malcolm X" made it sound like spinach: not much fun, but good for you. I figured it had to be seen. My life is a testament to the power of the notion that mankind should never flinch from things that are good for it, no matter how funless they be.

I eat not only spinach but also Brussels sprouts and cauliflower. I took physics and calculus in school, though neither was required and both humiliated me. I read Marcel Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past" and, despite medical warnings, remain determined to read every book Henry James ever wrote.

Such has been my enslavement to the proposition that humanity ought to improve itself through suffering. When it comes to movies, however, my policy has changed. The change occurred long ago after I spent two or three weeks watching "Gandhi."

Like calculus, "Gandhi" was supposed to be good for you. It made Gandhi out to be a preposterously boring man of inhuman nobility. I was amazed, having supposed that it would take a very interesting, flawed man to clear the British out of India.

When "Gandhi" finally stopped, I adopted a policy change affecting movies. Thereafter any movie that was good for you had to do its good work in less than 2 hours and 16 minutes. If it didn't I was entitled to pass it up.

To compensate, I would spend an extra hour each day for a week reading something that was not fun, but good for me. This policy not only excused me from a 3-hour-and-8-minute experience with "J.F.K.," but also enabled me to read 17 pages of Henry James, and, best of all, let me leave the room quietly whenever people who had seen "J.F.K." started quarreling about the Warren Commission.

Except for the post-"Gandhi" policy, I would not only have had to see "J.F.K." but also read the Warren Commission report, a veritable Everest of legal and federal prose beside which Henry James' "Golden Bowl" seems as frothy as reading "Peter Rabbit" in a shaded Cotswolds glade.

When I heard that "Malcolm X" was in the "Gandhi"-"J.F.K." ball park -- three hours and then some -- my policy left no choice. It had to be passed up until it is cut to 2 hours and 15 minutes, which is probably a good idea. Practically everything can be made better with cutting, and that includes Henry James. Yes, especially newspaper columns.

So instead of seeing "Malcolm X," I saw "Bram Stoker's Dracula." Why? The publicity hinted that it was not at all good for you, and the alternative was a retread of "Home Alone," which is basically "Woody Woodpecker" with humans.

Are "Home Alone" movies giving children the impression that a cute kid is more than a match for our nation's famously murderous thugs? The spirit of W.C. Fields, who is said to have despised cute kids, lurks behind these movies. Their deeper aim may be to tempt cute kids to invite obliteration when felony is afoot.

Professional reviewers, who probably see too many movies for their readers' good, have abused the latest "Dracula" unjustly. True, it has absolutely nothing on its mind except special effects, but these are entertaining in a silly way. Like most movies, it is also too long, and this lets the audience realize it's boring.

But "Dracula," of course, has always been boring. Stoker's book is boring. The Bela Lugosi classic is boring after that smash opening in Transylvania. The new version's special effects and sexual explicitness keep jolting the audience awake. Lacking these resources, the 1931 Lugosi "Dracula" was content to call it a show after a mere hour and 15 minutes.

If "Gandhi" had been so wise, this column would have been about "Malcolm X."

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