The Movies are Shrinking

Here I am, in the heart of the Las Vegas Strip, where
Hollywood has spent the last week throwing one of its biggest annual
bashes, the NATO/ ShoWest convention. (This particular NATO stands
for National Association of Theatre Owners, not North Atlantic Treaty
Organization.) Here, in the heart of a city built as a monument
to mindless consumerism, exhibitors from across the country are
wined and dined over the course of a week while the studios preview
their upcoming releases. Among the celebs on hand for the show are
Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Kevin Costner, Harrison Ford, Mel
Gibson, Jodie Foster, Tom Hanks, Demi Moore, Eddie Murphy, Warren
Beatty, Michael Douglas, Michelle Pfeiffer, Robin Williams and Billy
Crystal. To find a more impressive assemblage of movie giants you’d
have to turn up on Oscar night.

But like most curmudgeons- and let’s face it, all
critics are curmudgeons at heart- I find it necessary to look beyond
the surface glamour and find something dark beating underneath.
Not that I have to look very hard. After all, this is a show aimed
at exhibitors, and exhibitors, while very often movie buffs, are
first and foremost businessmen. Knowing this, the studios lead with 
what they expect to be their biggest boxofce bonanzas, and that
makes the trends we can expect in the next year pretty clear. To
paraphrase a famous a famous rock critic: I’ve seen the future of
motion pictures, and its name is TV. Back in the fifties, when television
was first coming into existence, the fear in the motion picture
industry was that the new medium would make movie theatres unnecessary.
Why, the logic went, would anyone venture out into the world to
be entertained by issues/05/images projected onto a big screen when the same
effect was available on a small box in the comfort of your own home?
But the movies didn’t die, and the answer to  the logical question
seemed to be quality. Movies continued to get the services of the
best writers, actors and directors, who preferred the larger and
more expressive canvas of the big screen to the accessibility of
the small box.

Now, with the imminent birth of the information superhighway,
movies are again unter threat from TV, though no one seems to think
the results will be fatal. But these days, television is threatening
to make movies irrelevant in a far more insiduous way. Up until
recently, the entertainment food chain dictated that television
devoured cinema’s leftovers; now it seems to be the other way around.
Where movies used to draw their subject matter from books and theatre,
the new generation of industry powers-that-be, who grew up on television,
are now looking to TV for source material.

So, aside from Steven Spielberg’s inevitable announcement
of Jurassic Park 2, the biggest news-makers at NATO/ShoWest
were announcements of the new Star Trek film, which will team the
original crew of the Star Trek Enterprise with the cast of Star
Trek: The Next Generation
; and Mission Impossible, starring–ugh-Tom
Cruise. Meanwhile, Universal Studios spent an entire luncheon hyping
their big summer release, The Flintstones, which seems to
be built entirely around the idea of recreating cartoon effects
in a live action film. Compared to that, Warner Bros.’ Maverick,
which stars Mel Gibson and Jodie Foster, begins to look like an
art film. Just imagine what we have to look forward to: Beverly
Hills 90210: The Movie
.

The state of the Hollywood mainstream has gotten to
the point where the most promising films previewed at NATO/ShoWest
including Wyatt Earp, starring Kevin Costner; and Love
Affair
with Warren Beatty, Annette Bening and Katherine Hepburn-
are remakes of other movies. (The Earp story’s been told several
times; Love Affair is a remake of the 1939 film of the same
name, which was previously remade with Cary Grant in 1957 as An
Affair to Remember
and recently immortalized in Sleepless
in Seattle
. At least in those cases, the source material is
interesting.

The truth is, the idea of recycling TV shows as movies,
like the idea of sequelizing hits, is the artistic equivalent of
incest, and the result- judging from recent examples like The
Addams Family
, Wayne’s World and The Coneheads
is an art form that is in danger of being inbred into idoiocy. Rather
than opening the medium up to new ideas, the TV-into-movies formula
closes it down. Audiences begin to expect the unexpected, and the
unexpected, in the form of truly ambitious films such as Robert
Altman’s Short Cuts and Peter Weir’s Fearless, tend
to slip through the cracks. Let’s face it: for every surprise art-house
hit like Jane Campion’s The Piano, there are ten adventurous
commercial failures like her previous two films, Sweetie and An Angel at My Table.

Still, the success of The Piano does teach us- and
hopefully exhibitors, too- that there is a market for intelligent
entertainment that doesn’t attempt to reduce the form to its most
basic elements. While NATO/ShoWest wasn’t a showcase for those types
of films, there are several in the pipeline that look promising.
Among them: Alan Rudolph’s (The Moderns) Mrs. Parker, which
will star Jennifer Jason Leigh as famed author and satirist Dorothy
Parker; Quentin Tarantino’s (Reservoir Dogs) film noir omnibus
Pulp Fiction; and Robert Altman’s (The Player) all-star look
at the Paris fashion industry, Pret-a-Porter. When these
and other films that promise some originality turn up at your local
theatre, see them; it’s not just a pleasure, it’s a responsibility.
In addition to enriching your own mind, you’ll be reminding Hollywood
(and our next generation of moviemakers) that there’s an audience
for movies that seek to expand, rather than reduce, the scope of
the medium. MM

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