How movies reflect the culture

Steven Stark

January 15, 1993|By Steven Stark

THE box office returns from the holiday movie season are in, and, when all is said and done, the three biggest winners will be "Aladdin," "Home Alone 2" and "A Few Good Men." Certainly their success is a tribute to one part good filmmaking and one part slick marketing.

But popular movies always reflect the cultural currents of their times, if only unintentionally. While these three films may seem to have little in common, they share common themes that have helped them strike a chord with audiences this season. Briefly, ,, those themes are:

* The Dysfunctional or Absent Family. You don't have to be a devotee of Oprah Winfrey to know that just about everyone in the culture is into the pop psychology of family relations. Thus it's no surprise that a number of recent fashionable movies have highlighted the dysfunctional family, in everything from "The Prince of Tides" to "The Addams Family."

The popular films this season have continued the trend. Though the subject is depicted humorously in "Home Alone 2," there has to be something terribly wrong with a family that abandons a child at Christmastime, not once, but twice. As noted before, the film is a metaphor for a larger cultural reality: In an era in which both parents tend to work and far more children grow up in single-parent households, a lot more children are abandoned today,both literally and figuratively, than a generation ago.

As for "Aladdin," the princess grows up in a single-parent home which obviously isn't functioning quite right. Aladdin, like Kevin McAllister, is home alone, or better yet, homeless alone.

And "A Few Good Men"? Well, it may be a stretch, but many have compared the military to a surrogate family. How would you like to come home to that group of Marines every night?

* The Search for a Father. As male Baby Boomers age and have children, their thoughts inevitably turn to their relationships with their own fathers or their sense of loss because of an absent father. Hence we get treated to movies where that theme is present, such as "Top Gun," "Batman" and "Terminator 2."

So it goes again this season. The father theme runs throughout "A Few Good Men": Tom Cruise is obviously struggling with the image of his own dead attorney general father, even telling Jack Nicholson, "Don't call me son." As for "Aladdin," you don't have to know much Freud to see that the genie is something of a surrogate father for fatherless Aladdin, who finally decides by the end of the movie he doesn't really need a parent after all.

As for "Home Alone 2," Kevin's father once again never really seems to care that his son is missing. Maybe in "Home Alone 3" he'll wake up.

* The Rise of Clintonism. These three movies were obviously made well before the November election. But either by chance or through foresight, at least two are riding the wave of the new era that began with the election of Bill Clinton.

It's hard to make a case that "Home Alone 2" is topical; it's a virtual remake of a predecessor that was one of the most popular movies of the Bush era. But "Aladdin" at least hits some current themes with its portrayal of a "new generation of leadership" that rises to power by outsmarting the evil deeds of its elders.

Still, the most topical movie of the three is "A Few Good Men" -- a Clinton allegory set in the military. It's the story of a young, Ivy League-trained lawyer who didn't serve in combat and is considered soft -- not simply for avoiding the military fray but also for ducking any kind of conflict. (Defense lawyer Cruise plea-bargains all his cases, this film's version of smoking but not inhaling.)

Steven Stark is a columnist for the Boston Globe.

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