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Have no fear — at least, not at the movies

Studios are more worried about money than making political statements. By Michael Ventre

In the 1950s, paranoia was widespread in American culture. Citizens were worried about the atomic bomb, the threat of Communism intensified by the Cold War and a rapid increase in the influence of technology.

It is no surprise then that the ’50s are known as the golden age of science fiction movies. A torrent of titles reflecting the mood of that era held audiences in rapt attention. Pictures like “The Thing From Another World,” “The Day The Earth Stood Still,” “Invaders from Mars” and “Them!” among others represented the populace’s fear of forces beyond its control.

But that wasn’t the only segment of American history during which Hollywood took society’s temperature and translated it to celluloid. Pessimism and cynicism were dominant themes in many of the great post World War II film noirs like “The Postman Always Rings Twice” and “Touch of Evil.”

After the rampant permissiveness of the 1920s, the Motion Picture Association of America instituted the Production Code, or Hays Code, to make sure movies were morally acceptable.  The result was a spate of pictures in the ’30s that labored to sneak around the guidelines, such as screwball comedies that relied upon euphemism and double entendre to convey sexual situations.

And the years that spanned the late 1960s and early 1970s may have produced some of the most memorable works of cinema that ever held a mirror to a culture, partly because of the independence filmmakers felt after the end of the studio system, and also because the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement and Watergate combined to radically alter attitudes and perceptions.

Leading characteristic: greedThis all begs the raging question: Just what do movies today tell us about the current mood of our society?

The answer, in one word: Nothing.

Check that. While there isn’t one forceful undercurrent in films today that addresses the primary concerns of national and global audiences, there is a common thread. That would be money.

Today’s studios are run mostly by suits with MBAs, who have watered down the product into a tepid pool of muck in order to please the corporate parent and the stockholders. The unfortunate by-product of that rampant and unabashed greed is a lack of freedom by filmmakers to make the kind of pictures, consciously or subconsciously, that would provide commentary on the hot button topics of the day.

This is not to suggest that directors in years past were able to work free of any constraints. But producers and studio bosses did a better job in previous eras of taking the pulse of society and determining what might resonate with customers. Those days apparently are over.

Nowadays studio executives think they’re more adept at determining what people want to see than their predecessors because they have sophisticated market research techniques at their disposal. Most of the movies that are greenlit today are done so because decision-makers believe they are “pre-sold,” that they already have a built-in audience and therefore are less risky than projects with completely original characters and storylines. These include movies based on comic books, old TV series or old movies.   

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Tom Cruise

They may have enjoyed a false sense of security with that approach for a while, but the customers are just now starting to turn away from a steady diet of inferior pictures, as evidenced by a continued box office slump that has reached 19 consecutive weeks and counting. (There are other factors in that slide as well, such as high ticket prices, an aversion by audiences to sitting through commercials before a feature film and the popularity of home video. But an uninspired product remains the No. 1 culprit.)

The mistake made by the current caretakers of Hollywood is failing to realize that the most successful movie making is the result of good instincts. And it’s difficult for budding executives to develop those instincts in business school, or by perusing the box office charts and then buying or commissioning screenplays that are knockoffs of current hits. If there’s an original thought left in Hollywood, it’s not getting through the screeners, who are insecure about their ability to spin gold from straw and therefore fall back on what they consider low-risk projects in order to keep their jobs.

Pure escapismThis brings the discussion back to the topic of how movies reflect society, or in our case today, how they don’t. Part of the problem is the growth of television. In the ’50s, television began to take off, and it grew exponentially in subsequent decades. Yet movies continued to reflect their times in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, as they did before television.

If there is a theme in vogue in television today that echoes society, it’s in the overwhelming number of reality shows whereby contestants try to cut each other’s throats. Greed is an indelible element of popular culture at any time in American history, but judging by “Survivor” and “The Apprentice” and their ever multiplying cousins, the situation has reached epidemic proportions on the small box, at the exclusion of anything else.

As far as movies are concerned, though, probably the most important threat to our way of life is terrorism, and yet there is not a corresponding torrent of films being released by the major studios that addresses this either directly or indirectly. One can make the argument that “War of the Worlds” contains some of these elements, but it’s not really a prime example, since the source material was a novel first published in 1898 and it was made into a motion picture once before in 1953. It is not exactly an original expression of the current state of the world.

Most people in the United States, and indeed the entire globe, have at the least a deep concern, and at the most a paralyzing fear, that terrorism will have some effect on their lives. Yet if you check back in 25 years, you probably won’t see that condition present in the movies produced today.

You may in the future, however, see “Bewitched II,” a title that went straight to DVD because an MBA crunched the numbers and saw a profit.