At the Flicks; Not to Worry, Escapism Rules

Do you enjoy going to the movies? Who doesn’t? Well, there are some that don’t, and certainly they are the exception. From the days of “magic lanterns” in the 1880s, to the very short “actualities” that drew in droves of people to the nickelodeons to watch brief, single-take shots capturing trains pulling out of stations, or beach scenes, then the lengthier one-reelers, giving way to the more extended narratives made possible by technological advances in film stock, cameras and projection, up to 1915 and the 3 hour silent film epic Birth of a Nation, followed by the late 1920’s introduction of “sound-on-film,” going to the movies has been a significant aspect of people seeking entertainment. Maybe even enlightenment. Possibly thought-provoking. Or just escapism. Have you been to a movie lately?

Oh, wait, one needn’t go to a theater any longer to catch a movie. There’s all the streaming venues in our current digital world. You can watch some offering on your smart phone. Your tablet. Laptop. Or your 65 inch smart TV.

I’m not here to assess the many digital platforms that permit watching movies rather going to the Bijou. It’s whatever the “product” at which one’s eyeballs are aimed that still matters, not the venue. Sure, sitting on one’s rump in the comfort of one’s domicile beats going to some second run theater that’s in need of a new coat of paint and perhaps a power washing of its floors, walls and latrines. Sitting at home is possibly even more inviting than the most sophisticated mega-plex, with lounge seating and food service. The common denominator of any movie house is having to watch it with other people, mostly perfect strangers. With their foibles. Their lack of comportment. With their whiny kids. With those ubiquitous smart phones many simply cannot resist looking at occasionally during a presentation, scattering their screen light about the auditorium as though fireflies have invaded the place.

No, it’s that product that I’m talking about. Now, this is just my very personal opinion, but I’m finding it very hard to sit through, let alone even want to go to a movie much anymore. It’s getting hard to find a thoughtful effort  anymore, at least in terms of the distance one may have to travel to find an “art house” or other enterprise not totally committed to mainstream fare. Not that my lack of enthusiasm in this regard represents any kind of major trend. Whether movie revenues come from home viewing subscriptions or still going (wherever) to the theater itself, the movie business seems to be healthy enough here in the 21st century.

Boffo box office numbers are the norm.

What is drawing enough people to watch a movie, some of which can haul in 200 million dollars in its first few days of opening? That’s a trick question, of course. No, it’s not a trick question. The answer is A) comic book movies. Then B) more comic book movies. C) Star Wars/Star Trek sequels/prequels D) supernatural tales. E) animated kiddie fare. F) reboots of seemingly every TV show of the last 50  or 60 years. Then there’s an occasional effort at real drama, but usually cast with such high-profile performers that it’s hard to get past the casting, which is as formulaic and uninspired as the above noted popular products that keep the studios financially afloat. Ever notice you see a trailer of an yet to be released movie that stars the same person or persons that are in the movie you are waiting to see after the trailers? That’s when it gets a bit redundant. star-power wise.

I’m not against the studios making money. It would, however, be nice to see a few more attempts at making a movie aimed at those other than 14 year-old boys, if not the 3-8 year-olds whose parents have to take them to see Frozen 3, or Lion King or Incredibles 2, Beauty and the Beast, or Harry Potter 1 through 6 (maybe reaching the middle school/teen demographic). Lots for the kiddies, for sure. Fine, I loved going to see Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd back in the day. Then I started consuming the 50s sci-fi fodder of giant ants, grasshoppers, an octopus, a tarantula (all of them mutant monsters unleashed by radioactive forces of the nascent nuclear age) and then Body Snatchers, alien soul-stealing creepiness. Freaky but fun! With a grain or two of underlying truths, I came to realize many years later, as I studied how film can offer more than what meets the eye, how to incorporate factual aspects that inform a fictional narrative. How often do you leave the theater and are compelled to really figure out what you feel about what you just consumed?; or do you forget it all 10 minutes after the final credits role?

Eight of the ten highest grossing films of all-time are four (!) “Avengers” episodes (all in the last several years), Star Wars (2015), Jurassic World (2015), The Lion King, and Fast and Furious 7 (seven!!). The other two are “Avatar” and “Titanic”, which go waaay back to 2009 and 1997. No sequels on either of those, which seems incongruous given all the remakes, reboots and sequels/prequels that infest those many mega-plexes. A couple of those financial jackpot releases were very creative and imaginative, in spite of their clear derivative sources. All of them, to one degree or another, however, rely pretty much on good old tension-release button-pushing, cliffhanging, death defying implausible nonsense. Pure escapism.

There are only so many movie screens at those multi-plexes (several thousand in the U.S.) and when yet another Avengers, Star Wars, Fast and Furious (seven of them, really? Really!?), or Star Trek, among other (in my opinion) low-grade, mass consumption, cinematic sausage product comes out, they dominate the screens. These escapist movies are the hot dogs of the cinematic sausage-making studios, including  those supernatural stories too. Apparently evil dolls, cars, houses and little children are a must see. Disaster movies are making a comeback, too, thanks, seemingly, to one Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson. Skyscraper, San Andreas among his recent releases.

Okay. Again, we live in a voracious, capitalistic system. Profit is the bottom line, literally and figuratively, no matter the business. I think those many franchise movies that are seemingly guaranteed to make their studios bundles of moolah (rich enough to absorb an occasional mega-bomb now and then) cater to the masses seeking to escape reality for a couple hours. Fine. But it would be refreshing to see a few more thoughtful, insightful, adult films. Without having to trek to far flung outposts of higher grade product. For instance, while Star Wars still gluts the screening rooms, after being released a month ago, one of the more sober, enlightening and disturbingly real films addressing an important issue, entitled Dark Waters, given virtually unanimous high marks by the aggregate review sites, has come and gone in the blink of an eye. It deserved a bigger audience. A wider release.  Meanwhile, what is supposed to be serious adult offerings such as Knives Out or Bombshell reek of Oscar-bait efforts with star-studded casting, a la the past couple of years with uber hyped “sausage” such as La La Land, and the umpteenth remake of A Star is Born. Am I just a cynic or too picky? Maybe. But I stand by my somewhat above-average informed opinion, having studied media/film and taught the subject for many years in higher education. Film is an art form. What typically fills the theater screens is not art, it’s commerce. I occasionally run into movies on some broadcast sub-channel, films such as Chinatown, The Sweet Smell of Success, Valdez is Coming, Manhattan, Night Moves, The Conversation, Badlands, The Manchurian Candidate (1960 version) or even brainy, clever comedies/ such as My Cousin Vinny, or satires the likes of Office Space, Election, or Dr. Strangelove…

And I think: they don’t make many films like those anymore. Some of them actually have AMBIGUOUS endings! The viewer has to draw a conclusion of his or her own.

I also have a fairly well researched knowledge of how film can shape attitude, opinions and even behavior (for better or worse). Movies like Avengers, X-Men or other superhero fare are pure escapist claptrap whose target audience is about 14 or so years old and likely a boy. Or those with severe arrested development. Empty calorie, low grade cinematic sausage.  Hot dogs. Deep thinking not needed. No danger of being at all challenged to figure anything out on your own. Just sit back with the tub of popcorn and a 32 oz. soda and let it come at you. Then 2hrs 25 minutes later it’s over and it’s back to reality again. No lingering, no prodding of the psyche as a side effect. I am not a Joker in this regard.

Wait, did I mention Dr.Strangelove? up there? How about Fail-Safe? There’s two movies that, while made decades ago are so relevant right now, as in this very moment. They both address, one dramatically, one satirically, the threat of nuclear annihilation, a potential worldly endgame that will always be with us. Each is high quality cinematic sausage, not the floor scrapings filling those mega-plex screens. And if you haven’t seen one or both, now may be the perfect time.

If you have no idea of what I am alluding to, I would say I’m not that surprised–or disturbed. After all, it’s all about the Benjamins, not engaging our brains as far as cinema-making goes. But really, if you haven’t seen them, try and find them on DVD. Maybe you’ll appreciate what higher grade sausage can offer in the way of actually making you think, stone cold soberly, or even if you are laughing at the same time.

Then again, what am I even thinking here? Watch a movie to engage our brains? It’s not what the masses want, as evidenced by those top-grossing efforts of the present and recent past. We’ve become dumbed-down. Our pop culture landscape is blandly homogenized. Expectations are so low now it’s simply a superficial popularity contest as to what’s deemed notable. Awards are given to assembly-line efforts. Garbage in, garbage out.

If that’s what satifies the public-at-large the public gets it. After all, who wants to leave a movie-going experience feeling as though you have just been given something very important to chew on, emotionally or intellectually? Ugh. No thanks. Can’t wait for Fast and Furious 8!

Okay, then escape. You may not, however, have much longer to indulge that desire.

And I am not alluding to climate collapse (an important issue addressed in such an easily digested formula as The Day After Tomorrow). It made half-a-billion dollars worldwide in 2004. It’s climate collapse endgame apparently was entertaining enough, just not thought provoking enough to make a difference in our environmental policies over the past 15 years. Hell, An Inconvenient Truth, a documentary on the environment actually won an Oscar. Big deal, I guess. Where are we on that front as we enter 2020?

Getting nuked? No laughing matter, but if you want to go out with a smile on your face, check out Strangelove. I think the current incarnation of the title character of that satire currently holds high public office. However, I do not believe this person has seen either Fail-Safe or Strangelove.

Hmm. Or maybe he has but cleary missed each’s point.

About jharrin4

mass communication/speech instructor at College of DuPage and Triton College in suburban Chicago. Army veteran of the Viet Nam era.
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1 Response to At the Flicks; Not to Worry, Escapism Rules

  1. Ah, the movies. The last refuge before climate collapse — and even it is failing!


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