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Seeing Through Movies.

Seeing Through Movies Seeing Through Movies. Mark Crispin Miller, ed. Pantheon Books, $24.95. This collection lashes out at the corporate state, whose single-motive mentality and interlocking registry of white-bread names has, according to the theorists gathered here, straitened American film for 70 years, except during the late 1960s and the 1970s, "that chaotic interregnum between the demise of the old studio system and the onset of the new monopoly." George Lucas and Steven Spielberg receive lots of blame for ushering in the Second Dark Age. Essayist Peter Biskind sees Vietnam in every frame of their blockbusters; he even mistakes Yoda, the Samurai doll in The Empire Strikes Back, for Mao Tse-Tsung and Ho Chi Minh, and claims the title sequence of Raiders of the Lost Ark reminded him of the fall of Saigon. Stuart Kalwins opens his confused essay on colorization by comparing it to cross-burnings. "Why is it, when I hear people call the process an abonimation, that I remember my former neighbors talking about keeping the colored out?" Perhaps it's because Kalwins needs to borrow the moral glow of the civil rights movement to quiet his discomfort at finding himself on the same side as Ted Turner. The facts show, as Kalwins painfully admits at the end of his essay, that Turner was not only thr rightful owner of the films that directors and actors banged their spoons over, but that he has also been a better friend to the cause of film preservation than either said luminaries or the government. Ted Turner, in short, is a specimen of the public-spirited capitalist whose existence confounds dialectical theories of political evolution.

Still, there's no gainsaying the narrowness of vision and style that corporate control has imposed on movies. When the Pantheon critics concentrate on what they find in batches of films instead of what they think the films mean, their work shines with insight.

Mark Crispin Miller excels at detailing the pernicious effects advertising divisions have had on entertainment divisions. He cites example after example of films with feel-good cues (Ghostbusters), happy-ending revisions of familiar stories (Rocky I-V), and, most egregiously, the propagandistic display of product labels. In Coca-Cola/Columbia's Missing, for example, Jack Lemmon's heroic character "takes rare (and noticeable) solace in a bottle of Coke, where the [Chilean] army does its torturing and murdering, there stands a mammoth Pepsi machine. . . ." It's unfortunate that by the time Miller reaches film example number 238 (my unofficial count), his essay has taken on the relentless, gimmicky, hard-sell qualities he himself deplores when he finds them on the screen.

Along with the advertising mentality, the other pervasive influence on current American movies is, of course, television. Most action pictures today conform to the odd-couple buddy-cop formula. Narratives climax with the periodicity of commercial breaks. The biggest laughs and stunts are reproduced for advance viewing in television commercials, "infotainment" segments of news shows, and reviews by such odd-couple buddy-cop critics as Siskel and Ebert. Meanwhile, many cinematic techniques are vanishing because they don't suit the tube: deep focus, slow dissolves, broad tableaux with back- and side- as well as foreground movements.

A shortcoming of the Pantheon school is that no films are held up for contemplation as something other than a commodity and/or a political ideology. The critics have submerged, and in a few cases suppressed, their aesthetic sensibilities. Films win praise for opposing the dominant culture, as when Miller smiles on the "superb and antithetical Raging Bull" after grimacing over the Rocky series. But what about the music? The sense of fun? The rhetorical means, as opposed to the political resonances, of the story? Seeing Through Movies offers no illuminations on these aspects of film. Instead, as the book title suggests, the Pantheon school wants readers to look past the artifact and confront the large forces and complex ideas that movies embody.

I sympathize with this pedagogical strategem. I bring up The Wizard of Oz on the first day of class because it is one work of serious fiction all my University of Virginia students already know intimately. (From the movie I take them back to the novel, where Dorothy's slippers were silver, not ruby, and to the presidential election of 1896, for which Oz is a parable.) In an era where Spike Lee goes on "Nightline" and Michael Moore (Roger and ME) has ascended to Ralph Nader's pulpit to denounce the auto industry, we should all be doing our best to learn what--and how--the movies project about politics.

I also sympathize with specific parts of the Pantheon agenda. Pat Aufderheide, in her essay, for example, shows how American movies have never squarely represented the Vietnam War as a part of American history. She argues convincingly that Vietnam films have fixated upon the "noble grunts" (American foot soldiers), thereby slighting the U.S. leadership, the air and sea wars, and the Vietnamese. With the movie audience now also languishing on China Beach, it's no wonder that in connection with our nation's involvement in Vietnam, so few Americans care to consider the Boland Amendments, the justification for the Panama invasion, and the negotiation over Cambodia.

In the generally acknowledged "Golden Age of Movies," as Miller observes, films often ended with the stars gazing outward toward a better tomorrow. In the Pantheon School's golden era, movies ended in gloom, their idealism no longer couched in the possibility of transcendence, but in a recognition of how far short America had fallen. Today, most movies don't end at all. They can't afford to risk closure, not while their merchandising elements (e.g. cute character, production look, soundtrack, trendy topics) can live longer through sequels, series, pseudonews stories, and toys. So in lieu of "THE END," whatever threads of narrative today's movies have extended curl into a bow at the 105-minute mark. And then, for the next nine minutes, credits trudge up a black screen.

Lacking fast-forward, many theater-goers turn their backs to this procession and head home. I find perverse hope for Americans, if not the movies, in this response. The Pantheon School hasn't convinced me to budge from my favorite generalization about popular culture: good work is rare in every era, in every medium, through every mode of production. Good popular work with political significance is rarer still in America, because most Americans aren't that interested in politics.
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Author:Cornfield, Michael
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1990
Words:1056
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