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"Sheer Pavlovian response garnered Godzilla a $50 million, 2-day haul before anybody slowed down long enough to notice that it's a lousy movie."

Op/Ed: Fear of a Hack Planet

Web posted on: Monday, June 15, 1998 3:56:49 PM

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- Am I the only one who's wondering about these "extreme sports" that they keep showing us on TV? I remember when plain-old baseball or football qualified as honorable athletic competition, but in the hard rockin' '90s, guys have to ride a surfboard on a slipstream 5,000 feet up in the air, all the while turning cocky somersaults for the camera. Eventually, a parachute billows out, they hit the ground, tumble, and break a couple of ribs. The judge gives them a 7.2, followed by an instant replay featuring an Eddie Van Halen guitar solo, just to goose everything into a state of hyper-excitement.

It occurred to me one TV-filled Saturday that this is exactly what's happened to our movies in the past 20 or so years, except that popular films were once allowed to be art, or, more specifically, a director was allowed to actually take a stab at creating art that might also pull in a some big bucks for the studio.

Nowadays, though, a great many of our filmmakers are simply ringmasters for another grotesque attempt to get us enthusiastically wetting our knickers and looking for more. Yes, there have always been big, mindless action movies, and, yes, I've actually liked a few of them in the past. But the noisy invasion that now awaits us every summer has finally come to define the term "movie" in most people's minds, and that's a real, honest-to-God shame.

It's a cliché by now, but it's true -- great art requires a great audience.

It's a cliché by now, but it's true -- great art requires a great audience. I would, however, bypass any pipe dreams about a "great" audience if the people who pile into our theaters every weekend would simply try to care a little bit. Even bad art requires an audience that cares to actively participate in the artistic process, one that'll filter the information that's being presented to them through their own psyches and come to a specific conclusion about it. That's exactly why art at the movies is becoming the wood-burning stove of our popular culture. Americans have either gotten too lazy to try, or are too embarrassed by their perceived inability to grasp anything but The Big Bam-Boom.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting that we're a nation full of imbeciles (although I'm convinced that we're liberally peppered with them), but even thoughtful, intelligent people have taken to shunning any personal input in the transaction between creator and audience. It's no accident that readers often get hugely annoyed with me when I write a negative review of a film that's raking it in at the box office. The tenor of the letters suggest that my caring enough about the form to be hugely disappointed by its current lack of content is what's annoying to people. I'm somehow failing the movie by thinking too hard about it.

"Even money-driven effects movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars can be beautifully constructed, thoughtfully conceived pieces of work."

Basic hack repertoire

Hack critics have a basic repertoire of four reviews that can be applied to any film they wish to cover: "The feel-good movie of the year," "This year's 'Rocky,'" "This year's 'Steel Magnolias,'" and, most important of all, "a non-stop roller-coaster ride." "Seat of the pants" can also be used to elaborate on the ride, just in case a simple roller-coaster isn't enticing enough.

This kind of glad-handing supports the non-critical leanings of the hack audience. The big-money, back-scratching scenario -- from studio to publicity department to so-called critic -- is designed to encourage an infantile acceptance of whatever Big Event is currently being shoved onto our plates. Sheer Pavlovian response garnered "Godzilla" a $50 million, 2-day haul before anybody slowed down long enough to notice that it's a lousy movie. I'm not surprised by the box-office take; what's incredible about "Godzilla" (or even heartening, but that'll pass before the summer is over) is that people actually started noticing its lack of quality.

However, even the reasoning behind why "Godzilla" didn't make it is disturbing. I submitted a comment about the movie to our CNN message board, and the return comments were unexpectedly enlightening. I was responding to one man's posting in which he volunteered that the movie was "mindless, poorly acted, had a bad storyline," and was not altogether original in the special effects department, but he still enjoyed it. My argument was that even money-driven effects movies can be beautifully constructed, thoughtfully conceived pieces of work, citing "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "Star Wars" as prime examples. There's certainly no honor in settling for junk.

Well, this just wouldn't do. One guy decided I "had issues" that I needed to work out; evidently my desire to experience well-crafted entertainment is something that could be overcome with the help of a good analyst. Another guy, though, hit the nail right on the head without even realizing it. His contention was that "Godzilla" is disappointing because it contains something other than a big, green foot crushing buildings. Here's what he had to say:

"The audiences (watching the movie) got people running away while their city fell to the ground. And more. And it was the "more" that people didn't enjoy."

Now, I don't know about you, but I think that's a pretty frightening thing to consider. The prevailing wisdom is that you should appreciate "Godzilla"'s lack of value because, basically, what did you expect? On the other hand, if the movie offers you something different than what you expected, it's getting too big for its britches. Depending on your point of view, the movie is either too much of an inane thing or just the right amount of an inane thing. The concepts of "good" and "bad" simply don't enter into it, never mind such highfalutin' ideas as a film being "compelling" or "enlightening."

Collective stranglehold

I really don't know what to say anymore. We're collectively strangling the life out of an art form that's supplied us with some of the most powerful, meaningful moments of fantasy that this century has offered. It wouldn't be any more shameful if great writers suddenly started cranking out nothing but comic books in lieu of passionately rendered novels and short stories, and we lined up to encourage their lack of effort.

People like to argue that they're running to see things like "Godzilla" because of a need to escape the grind of their day-to-day lives, but I've got a grind to endure, too, and I don't see how there's any less escape in pondering "The Sweet Hereafter," "L.A. Confidential," or "Eve's Bayou," three brilliant movies from last year that hardly anybody bothered to watch. Is getting involved in an intricate storyline with complex, articulate characters really more of a burden than sitting there and letting a pre-digested display of noises and lights mindlessly wash over you for two hours?

I don't know why I keep doing it, but if I'm looking for a movie, I go to the theater expecting to see one. If I want a non-stop roller-coaster ride, I go to Coney Island. How in the world did we start confusing the two experiences?

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