TV is the big screen for movies

Jul 15, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Did I drift away from the movies, or did the movies drift away from me? I don’t know for sure, but I do know I miss them. I miss going to the movies, I miss talking about the movies and I miss looking forward to movies. I do kinda look forward to seeing “Eight-Legged Freaks,” but that’s just because I like big scary monsters. And I probably will wait until it hits home video anyway.
Can any adult with a love of film say he or she looked forward to “Men in Black II,” or “Spider-Man,” or even the latest big-bang “Star Wars” thing? Or anything with Ben Affleck in it? Movies are made for kids now, mainly teenage boys and girls, and adults stay home and watch television. Specifically, they watch HBO.
The late and brilliant John Frankenheimer’s last HBO film, “Path to War,” was better than most theatrical movies of the past year, though of course no major studio or independent distributor would ever dream of a theatrical run for a serious, adult movie about how LBJ became immersed in the tar pit of Vietnam. Frankenheimer started in TV during the Golden Age of great drama, and he returned there, in triumph, for his final years.
A perfect `Storm’
HBO’s “Gathering Storm,” about the pre-War years of Winston Churchill, was another totally satisfying, stunningly done film, and it contained a performance by Albert Finney that really did approach perfection. But at the movies what you saw of World War II was a glitzed-up, special-effected mess called “Pearl Harbor,” a bloated simplistic clodhopper.
Of works like “Gathering Storm” and “Path to War” it used to be said, “They’re TV movies, not real movies.” It can still be said-but now it’s a compliment. The difference between TV movies and theatricals now is that the budgets are smaller but the subjects are more serious and the scripts likely to be more intelligent. There haven’t been as many rewrites nor as many money-minded chefs tossing stuff into the broth until it isn’t even broth anymore.
Big-screen films should maybe not be called movies but “movees.” Because, yes, they do move. That’s all they do. The kinetic titillation is high, the content is nil. They aren’t movies so much as one-dimensional amusement park attractions-hence the tendency of dumb-ass movie “critics” on TV to hail each new pyrotechnical display as a “thrill ride.” Joel Siegel is not looking for art. He’s there to make fey jokes and play his role in the vast promotional apparatus.
The movie generation
We baby boomers thought of ourselves as the movie generation. From the ’60s on, movies became more artful, more serious, more experimental. We joined film societies, went to midnight screenings, took film history courses. Then it all went to hell. Now, the emptier the movie, the louder the movie, the grosser the movie, the bigger the grosses. The huge impersonal contraptions squeezed out most of the meaningful films that serious moviegoers might want to see.
Movies became TV shows, really. “Star Wars” is a TV series produced on a huge scale; instead of every week, episodes appear every few years. When “The Matrix” was produced, sequels were already in preparation; the second and third episodes-or sequels-are being made at the same time.
An editor from Talk magazine (which folded earlier this year) called last year and asked me to do an introductory piece for an issue about television. The premise was to be that television had replaced the movies as the chief subject of pop culture buzz and serious consideration; kids went to movies and adults watched TV. And the premise sounded pretty good to me and I wished I’d thought it up myself. I admit I wrote the piece because I needed money-I work for a newspaper, after all, and newspapers don’t pay squat-but the more I got into it, the more sadly salient the thesis seemed.
In his book “You’re Only As Good As Your Next One,” producer and former studio executive Mike Medavoy doesn’t exactly eviscerate modern moviemaking, but even he concedes late in his book that the takeover of studios by giant conglomerates has turned movies into mere products, and products that are only cogs in a big merchandising wheel.
“Major studios no longer rely on movies to earn them money,” Medavoy writes. “There is no real profit to be made by releasing films in theaters. … Instead, the media conglomerates make their money from movies by feeding the movies into the other businesses they own-like home video, cable television, satellite broadcasting, merchandising and theme parks.
“Previously, the power of movies was that they were the convergence of an art form, a commodity on the marketplace and a recollective memory of our times. Today movies are titles in a library that can, hopefully, one day be used in new forms of media.”
In June Turner Classic Movies showed a great documentary that almost nobody wrote about (sadly, including me) and everybody should have: Martin Scorsese’s “Il Mio Viaggio in Italia” (“My Voyage to Italy”), the great director’s recollection of the most influential Italian films of his youth, starting with the neorealist movement that rose dazzlingly from the ashes of the war.
Cherished memories
Watching it, I saw excerpts from some of the most cherished films in my memory pass by on the screen: “The Bicycle Thief,” “I Vitelloni,” “La Dolce Vita,” “La Strada” and so many more. And these were just the Italian ones. It took me back to happy times in Washington’s now destroyed Circle Theater, a legendary repertory house where I discovered some of the great foreign and American films of all time, where I first saw “City Lights” and “Black Orpheus” and “Jules and Jim” and “Citizen Kane.”
And it dawned on me as I was listening to Scorsese’s reminiscences that some of these films gave me experiences that rank with the most profound emotional moments of my life, as if I had lived them and not merely watched them. And this is what the poor dumb kids for whom movies are made today will perhaps never know-this agony, this ecstasy, this thrill of a experiencing a life-altering movie. They just go for the kicks. Kicks is about it. And kicks are for kids.
The fat conglomerates that own the studios also own much of the media machinery that promotes the films. And so we get endless hype and breathless prose about how big this movie’s budget was, and we hear from the adolescent actors how they found it “fun” to work together. The components of the machinery feed on each other. It’s incest, and movies are now the progeny of inbreeding. You can’t find a real movie to save your life-or even affect it in any meaningful way.
Movies were a 20th century medium. The 21st century has moved on to something else.