Saturday, March 04, 2006

Fearful Cinema - Be afraid, be very afraid...of the movies!

Newsweek magazine features an article on the fearful tone of films this Oscar season.

Syriana and Good Night and Good Luck both feature George Clooney and echo the tradition of films like Fail Safe and Dr. Strangelove: films that reflected the Cold War fears of the 1960s.

The article focuses on Clooney, the reasons that motivated him to be in such controversial films, and why these two films reflect the fearful nature of our current time.

My question is, when have the movies NOT been fearful?

Even during the supposed happy days of the 1950s, cinema unleashed paranoid science fiction, from Invasion of the Body Snatchers to Invaders From Mars, as thinly veiled attempts to tap the paranoia of the Cold War.

Today we think of these films as drive-in classics from the era of poodle skirts and cars with tailfins, but they share that time with backyard bomb shelters and the Hollywood blacklist.

Audiences then and today can laugh these films off as cheesy science fiction, but the helplessness of a boy who sees trusted adults turned into glassy-eyed martian servants, or a man shrieking "YOU'RE NEXT!" in the middle of street can still make people feel a slight shudder.

In my memories of the 1980s (a decade now filtered through VH1 specials as nothing but Rubik's cubes, John Hughes films, and spiky-haired pop stars), there were many sleepless nights brought on by nuclear war movies like The Day After, and the much meaner and grittier Threads. The fear of nuclear war seems quaint today when compared to many of our current troubles, yet the threat still hovers over us.

Could the current trend of political and "fearful" movies be connected to moviemakers' desire to attract more adult ticket buyers? There could be more at work here than George Clooney or particular political point of view.

It could be just business sense at work: the realization that movies need to serve a purpose other than being a celluloid fun house.

Back in the 1970s, movie makers aimed for the youth market with like Star Wars and Jaws. That continued through to the 1980s with films like E.T. and Batman. The kids were the ones to aim for because they bought tickets...and they also bought lunch boxes and action figures.

Now the kids have Playstations, webcomics, and MySpace. If I were a teen today, why would I want to pay ten bucks to sit still for two hours in the dark when I can blow stuff up, chat with friends in my own cyberspace clubhouse, or watch DVDs on my parents' plasma screen home theater?

Cinema used to be the place to see amazing images and action that blocky video games could not deliver. Pac-Man was no match for 70mm Dolby Stereo.

Now video games have the action and splendor of blockbuster movies, which a commentator for Wired expressed while reviewing Star Wars: Empire At War.

The demands of the action film audience are higher than ever. Back in the 1970s, the slimy creature from Alien was scary. People have thicker skins now. After watching gross-out reality shows and seeing disasters both man-made and natural on video, it is a more daunting task to shake us up. The trailer for yet another rapid-fire action film, hurling flaming car parts at the camera, now provokes eye-rolls and jeers from cinema audiences the same way an untended ringing cell phone does.

Yet some moviemakers are looking to polish up the old thrill ride, taking on the challenge of jaded audiences.

Take a look at the trailer for Posideon. What reason exists to remake The Posideon Adventure? Wolfgang Petersen is directing, and the CGI and stunt artists have more tricks in their bag, but it is still the same Irwin Allen movie at heart.

Movies like this can be fun, but we know that this is just two hours of highly-paid actors running around expensive sets, with the danger to be green-screened in behind them later. We can walk away from them afterwards and focus on getting dinner. A film like Syriana tends to linger in your mind for a while, like the after image of a flash bulb on a retina.

After thirty years of special effects, epilespy-inducing editing, and thundering music...perhaps we are ready to start watching movies about serious topics again.

The old movie formulas are showing their age. Moviegoers can spot the plot twists minutes after the lights dim, or even finish the characters' sentences of cliched dialogue.

Perhaps moviemakers can focus on our brains instead of trying tweak our already overstimulated nerve endings?

I am not scared of that.

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