Insta-tainment: the decline of modern cinema

By Roxanne Sadovsky

The other day, some friends and I rented the 1973 classic “American Graffiti.” As I recall, this film was a favorite among youth who pondered various existential crises upon crossing the finish line of adolescence. For the rest, it was an opportunity to commiserate with one’s neighbor about “youth in America.”

While the details escape me, the gist is that a gaggle of high school graduates are struggling with what “to do next,” in between cruising the big Ford around the hamburger stand and getting their hearts and dreams broken. The cool thing is that it was among the handful of movies that addressed some of the genuine psychological problems of the time – and even cooler – it took its time in the telling.

Having been a movie buff since birth, it still puzzles me how I missed this one growing up in the seventies – only blocks away from the yellow brick road to Hollywood. I lived on Holmby Avenue – just a monologue away from Avenue of the Stars. Really. Like most apathetic “youts” in L.A. I hid behind Century City’s Starplex, watching the classics (and not so classics) over and over: “Star Wars.” “Foul Play.” “Ordinary People.” “Arthur.” “The Outsiders.” Those were the days.

Unfortunately, movies have evolved into insta-tainment, chock full of hyper plot and the quick fix to contrived, shallow problems with no ideal solution – no matter how happy the ending. From the movie Goonie du jour to the latest filme de fart, the issue is that this amalgam of Tinseltown imagery is rarely more than a ghost town of truth.

While many of our movies may depict the unfortunate crumbling of our world, their false sense of “substance” only contributes to an ongoing swap meet of solutions, a consummation between the suburbs and Hollywood that will forever spawn the golden child of “us” and “them.” This is the same notion that tells us some of us are successful, while others of us are not.

Admittedly, it was difficult getting used to George Lucas’ 1960s take on small-town USA, starring Ron Howard, Harrison Ford and a gaggle of almost-has-beens in the prime of their boyflesh. I wasn’t sure where “American Graffiti’s” slow pace and seemingly plotless story about kids driving around and eating junk food was headed. However, when I got lost in it and stopped waiting for someone to slit his wrist, fart or betray a best friend with a big weapon, I enjoyed it.

The point I am making is that most contemporary movies rush the thrill in order to sacrifice the substance. The reason I am making the point is not because I am a conservative czar of censorship; I am simply critical of what the masses deem “good” because I don’t want moviemakers to stop producing the slower stuff.

Clearly, it is no longer satisfying enough to go to the movies and watch individuals take their time working through the pain life inevitably brings, or conversely, the joy of celebration. We now crave some kind of supernatural reason or miracle explanation. We expect answers to fall from the sky, no matter what the forecast. Unfortunately, we might still feel empty, sad or addicted to something or someone, regardless of what we take, what we own or how white we get our teeth.

Once in a while, movies still take their time in addressing our shared basic needs and struggles. Even in 1999, we knew why Nicholas Cage was leaving Las Vegas. We empathized with his failed marriage and could understand his motivation for drowning himself in alcohol instead of dealing in a world where instant gratification whirls around the neon halo we call “fun.”

Sometimes in movies we even see couples take their time in getting to know each other and talking about their fears. But not enough. I could go on and on about Star Wars, the original series contrasted with the new-fangled trilogy, but I imagine that galaxy has already been covered (which would leave us to argue whether or not the old “retro” droids look cooler than the new ones).

I have nothing against entertainment and I love a good sci-fi flick. I just prefer when they incorporate some of the ideas that make us human, rather than pandering to our fascination with being super human. I’m talking Altman. I’m talking mid-eighties Woody Allen. I’m talking “Glen Gary/Glen Ross.” I’m talking Henry Jaglom. By God, I’m even talking John Hughes (“Breakfast Club”; “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles”). I’m even talking Stephen King – who doesn’t cry at the end of “Stand by Me”?

I admit it could just be that I am feeling nostalgic for the time when a conversation after “The Crying Game” would go on for hours and my friends and I would take turns revealing things (no, not those things) about ourselves. Discussing a movie these days inspires little more than comparing which parts were best when we were high, how cool it would be to have one of those robot things around the house or in which flick Tom Cruise’s ass looked the hottest.

While that certainly has its place, I think selfishly, this has a lot more to do with running out of substantial things to talk or care about. I wouldn’t have an issue with those topics of conversation without reason. The problem isn’t about the content of the conversation but that those conversations seldom last. It is easier to talk quickly about the what than grapple all night long over the why.

On the other hand, maybe I’ve just seen too many reruns of Happy Days. Perhaps I just need to get off of The Love Boat and realize today’s ship is sailing an entirely different tide. It is entirely possible that not owning at TV for three years has hardened me; perhaps I am missing something.

Still, how does this explain my tendency to fall apart every time Harry tells Sally why he loves her? Or why does that scene in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” where Scout looks up from her ham costume and says in her little southern voice, “Hi, Boo,” unfailingly make me cry tears of sorrow and joy.

I guess it’s because somehow we know that in those moments – without the flashy lights and big music – the silver screen captures something both human and profound – poignant truths that sometimes, in the sound and fury of our everyday lives, we forget.

Roxanne Sadovsky’s column appears alternate weeks. She welcomes comments at [email protected]. Send letters to the editor to [email protected]