Can the movies rescue America?

In a year when Mel Gibson and Michael Moore exploited our deep divisions, we needed more Incredible films to bring us together.

Published December 9, 2004 7:03PM (EST)

On one of the documentaries included in the handsome new DVD edition of "Gone With the Wind," there's a story about the movie's first super-secret sneak preview at the Fox Theater in Riverside, Calif., two hours outside of Los Angeles. It was a blisteringly hot late summer night and the theater -- "air cooled," remembers William Ericson, a boy at the time and there with his mother -- was packed. The audience had just sat through the B-feature "Hawaiian Nights" and was settling in for Gary Cooper in "Beau Geste" when a man took the stage to tell them that, instead, they had been chosen to see a major Hollywood preview. He wouldn't reveal what they were seeing but did say it was a rather long picture and if anyone wanted to call home they should because the doors of the auditorium were going to be locked.

The titles of the movies weren't finished yet so it began with one of those trailers where someone's hand turns the pages of a lavish, leather-bound book. Hal Kern, the picture's editor, who was present at the preview, remembers that when the audience saw Margaret Mitchell's name, "you never heard such a sound in your life." And that roar was surpassed when the next credit confirmed that the audience was in fact seeing "Gone With the Wind." Kern remembers that he had ordered the soundtrack turned up full blast and still the audience was drowning it out. The faces in the photos from that night tell the story. They're the faces of people beside themselves with happiness. Everyone in the country was waiting to see "Gone With the Wind," and these folks couldn't believe their luck at getting to see it before anybody.

And at the end of 2004, it hurts like hell to see them. The images of the ecstatic faces in that 1939 preview audience sting because they show us how far away their experience was from the present state of moviegoing. This year, when the two biggest success stories (if not, by the numbers, the biggest successes) catered to niche political and religious audiences, the very idea of movies as a communal experience feels like something from the irretrievable past.

The movies that have been great communal experiences -- as opposed to merely big moneymakers -- are the ones that try to reach a wide audience through a combination of instinct, smarts, showmanship and luck, the opposite of the market-researched, test-driven, focus-grouped process by which most movies are now made and sold. Today, most of the big hits feel like a triumph of marketing rather than moviemaking. It's the difference between entering into a partnership with an audience and pulling it by the ring in its collective nose.

The best popular movies, the ones that become legitimate phenomenons -- pictures like "Gone With the Wind," "From Here to Eternity," "On the Waterfront," the first two "Godfather" films, "Jaws," "E.T." and perhaps "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy -- cut across audience barriers. That may be why, in contrast to the cut-and-dried approach that leaves no meaning, no potential audience reaction to chance, the meanings of good popular movies are often contradictory, maybe even ambiguous. "The Incredibles," an example of a big popular hit that trusts in the brains of its audience, is one such paradox. A cartoon that may hold more appeal for adults than for kids, the picture was No. 1 at the box office the weekend following President Bush's reelection, even though its message -- championing the nonconformists who make the "normal" world uncomfortable -- was just what we were told the election, and especially the success of gay marriage bans, repudiated.

There's no ambiguity in the message of "Ray," an even better recent movie, though not nearly as big a success. And its existence is proof of a faith that well-done, classical mainstream moviemaking will draw a wide audience. (There's also implicit belief that there are critics who'll have the brains to see how familiar bio-film conventions are brought to life by the picture's democratizing spirit. We can dream, can't we?)

The faith didn't pay off in a pair of more modest movies that should have been hits, "13 Going on 30" and "Mr. 3000." Instead of throwaway entertainments made to capitalize on the popularity of their stars, Jennifer Garner and Bernie Mac, respectively, both of whom give sterling performances, "13 Going on 30" (directed by Gary Winick) and "Mr. 3000" (directed by the gifted Charles Stone III) were touched with the spirit that made '30s comedy so magical. Both addressed their heroes' dreams and the necessary compromises that life forces on them without once violating the light comic tone. The best American comedies of the year, they achieved effortlessly what more highly touted pictures (like the inexplicably praised "Sideways") got credit for.

Increasingly, though, the movies that treat the old Hollywood impulse to reach a mass audience as something to aspire to, rather than something to condescend to, have come from abroad. Take for example Zhang Yimou's "Hero" from China (No. 1 at the box office for two weeks at the end of summer; it probably would have been a much bigger hit if Miramax hadn't sat on it for two years, driving much of the audience anxious to see it to get import DVDs) and his rapturous new "House of Flying Daggers." Consider also the terrific cop thriller "Infernal Affairs" (a huge hit in Hong Kong, it barely raised a blip here, another casualty of Miramax's determination to kill the Asian films they purchase), the knockout 1995 Bollywood musical "Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge" (still playing first-run in Bombay nine years after its release), and the plush and plummy espionage farce "Bon Voyage" from France. With the exception of the two Zhang Yimou films, most Americans won't even hear about these movies and there's no guarantee they'd go to see them if they did. But like them or not, mainstream moviegoers might at least recognize in them a glimmer of what it is they go to the movies for: genuine entertainment that brings lasting delight rather than wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am spectacle.

Much has been written about how Hollywood has suffered as the old moguls who headed the studios were replaced by young MBAs with no sense of showmanship or pride in their product. The moguls not only had that kind of pride, they also encouraged it in the directors who worked for them: That's why directors like Howard Hawks and George Cukor were prized. Nowadays, mainstream directors who have the instincts that the studio heads used to welcome are considered out of touch with what the audience wants. If the studios prize the cinematic illiteracy of a hack like Michael Bay ("Armageddon"), then there's precious little respect for the type of moviemaking that depends on the nuts and bolts of good storytelling, on star charisma, on a director who keeps the material moving along and knows how to bring out the best in actors.

For some years now, the type of movies that once would have been huge popular hits -- movies like "The Fabulous Baker Boys," "What's Love Got to Do With It?," "Tequila Sunrise," "Devil in a Blue Dress," "The Russia House," "Jackie Brown," "The Insider," "Charlotte Gray," "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" -- have failed to find an audience. The same fate would likely meet some of the big hits of the late '60s and early '70s -- "Bonnie and Clyde," "In the Heat of the Night," "The Wild Bunch," "M*A*S*H," "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice," "Cabaret" -- were they released today. If "Chinatown" came out now, not only would it bomb but the studio moneymen would surely complain that audiences had rejected it because it was too complicated.

The promise of movies as an experience that sweeps an audience up into a cohesive whole, at least for the time they are sitting together in the dark, is subsumed this year by the enormous success of "The Passion of the Christ" ($370 million domestic gross) and "Fahrenheit 9/11" ($119 million domestic gross). Long before the 51/48 split of the election sent pundits and talking heads off on their divided-country riffs, the success of these movies showed the fracture the election would confirm.

Despite how much has been written about these films as the opposite of each other, it needs to be understood how remarkably similar they are.

Like the most rancorous arguments, Gibson's and Moore's movies left people who came down on opposite sides of them feeling like each other's enemies. (Several of the Jewish critics who panned Gibson's film even received death threats. ) And the arguments they touched off rarely had anything to do with the quality of the films themselves. These were movies by and for true believers. (A defender of the Moore movie even told me that it spoke to "a higher truth.") In political terms, these movies knew how to play to their base.

The refrain of the "South Park" episode "The Passion of the Jew," that those who love "The Passion of the Christ" claim that to reject the movie is to reject Jesus Christ, was no joke. Similarly, to reject "Fahrenheit 9/11" was, to an awful lot of the film's supporters, the equivalent of supporting George W. Bush. And that's how it went: Call Gibson's movie an S/M splatter-fest and you were rejecting the Son of God; call Moore's a slew of unproven assertions, dubious stunts and undisguised condescension and you were embracing the Son of Satan.

Each picture had the same things going for it. Both had topics that aroused tempers. Both were made by master manipulators who know how to work an audience into a lather. Both benefited from the myth that Hollywood had tried to suppress them. (Especially "Fahrenheit 9/11." Disney head Michael Eisner told Moore and Miramax he would not distribute "Fahrenheit" a year before its release. Moore conveniently publicized that fact a week or so before the film won the Cannes Film Festival, thus successfully making it look like a prisoner of the Hollywood gulag. Eisner never attempted to prevent its eventual sale to Lion's Gate Films.) Both had cadres of advance men exhorting the faithful to turn out (evangelists for Gibson, left-wing journalists and activists for Moore). And both gave their audience the comfort of having someone to hate -- Jews for one group, Bushies for the other. (Lenny Bruce said finding someone to hate was essential to being elected, and that the perennial Socialist candidate for president, Norman Thomas, might successfully run on the slogan "Smack a Midget for Norm.")

The enormous success of either movie is not likely to be repeated anytime soon. Mel Gibson is claiming that his next project will be the story of the Maccabees, but that material doesn't allow the sick, bloody excitement that the Crucifixion allows a shrewd exploitation filmmaker like Gibson to whip up. And though political documentaries proliferated in the fall, that was a response to an election that had the air of an emergency -- not a sudden attempt to cash in on Michael Moore's success.

It's not unimaginable that some filmmaker or producer with a difficult or controversial project on his or her hands will take inspiration from the way "The Passion" and "Fahrenheit" turned controversy to their advantages, playing right to their base, figuring that the people who care about the subject will turn out.

A movie like Ang Lee's upcoming gay western "Brokeback Mountain," for instance, could potentially use the polarization about gay rights to lure an audience. And no doubt Moore will continue his tricks with his announced projects about the state of healthcare in America and a follow-up to "Fahrenheit" that will chronicle the next four years of the Bush regime.

Therein lies the problem. Most controversial movies are made without the star power that Mel Gibson and Michael Moore bring to a project. Most will not have the resources that Newmarket and Lions' Gate Films, respectively, used to publicize "The Passion" and "Fahrenheit" and get them into theaters. (It's a fair bet that a good number of the theaters that booked Moore's movie had never played a documentary before.)

And, let's be honest, both "The Passion" and "Fahrenheit" went for the audience's gut as ruthlessly and manipulatively as any action blockbuster. The other political documentaries, pictures that included "Control Room," "The Hunting of the President," "Outfoxed," "Going Upriver," all aimed at the same audience as "Fahrenheit," didn't attract anything near its business. ("Control Room" made a respectable $2,698,919. None of the others broke a million.) For one thing, they didn't have the same distribution.

What if those documentaries had enjoyed the same visibility? Moviegoers taken in by Moore's P.T. Barnum tactics might well view a sober, straightforward documentary like "Unconstitutional," about the shredding of the Constitution under Ashcroft's Justice Department, as a hole in the screen. It doesn't demonize anyone to make its point. Hell, it even lets the audience hear from conservatives (like former congressman Bob Barr) who were bothered by the PATRIOT Act. "Unconstitutional" may benefit from the current political divide, attracting audiences scared of the threat to civil liberties under Bush, but it doesn't exploit that divide.

And in our present state, is the success of "The Passion of the Christ" and "Fahrenheit 9/11" really something to aspire to? I'm not saying that the thoroughly insincere (from both sides) talk about healing needs to play itself out in our movies. I'm not saying that strong voices need to be less strong or "tempered." But the idea that attempting to reach a broad audience necessarily entails compromise, i.e., bland meaninglessness -- an idea as prevalent in the arts as it is in politics -- is a false one.

"Ray" proves just how false an idea it is. The movie understands that when Ray Charles began singing country western and show tunes and Beatles songs in the '60s he wasn't selling out but laying claim to as much of American music as he could, saying, in effect, "I belong here, too. As an American, that's my right." Before his "Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music" how many R&B fans thought they'd ever hear country music as cousin to the blues, how many C&W fans thought they'd ever hear the ache of country in the growl of R&B?

There's much more than our current national political division for movies to overcome if they are to realize the once and future dream of an enthused (as opposed to presold), diverse and united mass audience. The single most powerful and insidious thing preventing movies from having the chance to build an audience (and preventing any substantial political discussion in our media) is the here-today, gone-tomorrow effects of marketing in the 24-hour-everything cycle. In this system, all, from the latest summer blockbuster to Abu Ghraib, is disposable.

There is no hope for movies as a communal experience and a popular art form if we can't even talk to one another, if liberals no less than conservatives treat "the other" as having no place in their separate notions of America. I've heard it said that the strong public reaction to "The Passion of the Christ" and "Fahrenheit 9/11" should at least encourage us that movies still have the ability to make an impact. I think there's a good chance that something like "The Incredibles," which doesn't appear to be addressing any issue (while stirring up lots of conflicting emotions), will affect audiences more deeply and prove more lastingly the power of movies to get under people's skins.

There's a wonderful irony in the fact that "Gone With the Wind," a romanticization of the bloodiest divide in our nation's history, made hash of that divide by creating an audience all over the country that was dying to see it. One of the great things about movies is that they can, at least for a few hours, make the damnedest companions. It's time for the red states and the blue states to get up the nerve to ask each other, Maybe we're not ready to go steady, but would a movie be out of the question?

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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