Hollywood Suffers from Lack of Imagination

Article excerpt

Rather than taking a chance on original screenplays, the film industry attempts to play it safe financially by working with proven material--sequels, imitations of his movies, big-screen adaptations of TV programs, remakes, and re-releases.

MORE OFTEN THAN NOT, American films reflect rather than direct (influence) society. It is an industry, after all, interested in selling a product. This was especially true of the studio era, as movie scholar J. Dudley Andrew observed in The Major Film Theories: "A natural rapport grew up between the public which went to the movies weekly and the producers who needed to supply the people with a variant of what they liked and were used to." Or, as film historian Gerald Weales entitled his study of mainstream 1930s motion picture comedy, they sold Canned Goods as Caviar.

The philosophy of trying to give the public what it wants still is applicable today, with the old comic axiom, "In Hollywood, everything is created sequel," never having been more true. (Though, in the past, Hollywood was more creative with titles, avoiding the temptation to simply add a number to the proceedings.) For instance, 1997 was inundated with new installments of "Jurassic Park," "Batman," "Speed," "Alien," "National Lampoon's Vacation," "Free Willy," etc.

All this is not to deny that some movies can and do influence society, as the ongoing impact of the "Star Wars" trilogy demonstrated with its 1997 re-release. Indeed, my career involvement in film study as a professor and author of a dozen movie books was generated in part by one such work from my youth--1967's "Bonnie and Clyde"--which did everything from helping to popularize the mixture of graphic violence and humor now known as dark comedy to bringing back 1930s clothing fashions. It even was the catalyst for a changing of the guard among film critics. The New York Times' long-time establishment movie reviewer Bosley Crowther misread (as did several other old-line critics) the picture's significance, finding it dangerously irresponsible. Other younger reviewers, such as a then still free-lancing Pauline Kael, recognized the movie's groundbreaking nature.

Crowther went down hard, defending his position with a second panning of the film. Variety, tongue in cheek, christened this criticism free-for-all "Crowther's `Bonnie' Brook," but the Kael forces won out. While some reviewers actually recanted their original positions, Crowther soon went the retirement route. In contrast, Kael found a full-time position at The New Yorker.

Still, films with the influence of a "Bonnie and Clyde" hardly are the norm. Moreover, despite these revelations, a devil's advocate might claim the movie's producer/star Warren Beatty and director Arthur Penn stumbled onto the pulse of the public. What usually is lost in the telling is that, after the Times panning, the newspaper immediately was inundated with letters defending the film. This same grass-roots response was occurring at less high-profile publications that initially had damned the picture. Without taking anything away from the Pauline Kaels, the eventual box-office success of "Bonnie and Clyde" was not dependent upon a few insightful critics shepherding the masses to an important, but neglected, film.

Regardless of one's position on "Bonnie and Clyde," the point remains that American movies generally attempt to play it safe financially by working with proven material. Besides the aforementioned sequel route, there are five additional safety net approaches: copycatting a popular genre hit, moving a television program to the big screen, literary adaptations, remakes, and re-releases.

Most basic is the copycat or genre approach. A hit picture appears, and suddenly there is a spate of similar productions. For instance, 1996's huge commercial success "Twister" has made the disaster movie Hollywood's latest genre of choice. In 1997, it produced two volcano films, "Dante's Peak" and the more memorable "Volcano," "The Flood," and the over-budget, much-delayed epic "Titanic. …