Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Oscar Tries on Retro Styles

Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Oscar Tries on Retro Styles

Article excerpt

Dinosaurs, from a world long gone, have come back to life this Oscar season.

No, you didn't miss the latest "Jurassic Park" sequel. The dinosaurs we're talking about are three extinct film genres: the Western, the war film, the musical.

"Django Unchained," "Zero Dark Thirty" and "Les Miserables," all best-picture contenders (the Oscar broadcast is Feb. 24), are a bit like the prehistoric creatures conjured up by "Jurassic Park's" genetic engineers. Once, they roamed the earth in hordes. Now they have to be re-created, painstakingly, using the ancient DNA. And it's far from a foolproof process.

"Bottom line, Hollywood is a business," says Diane Raver, founder and CEO of the Garden State Film Festival. "The question is, are these genres viable for a new generation?"

Westerns, war films and musicals never totally died, of course. Every few years an "Unforgiven," a "Saving Private Ryan" or a "Chicago," released with great fanfare, supposedly heralds a "rebirth" of the form. But such films are one-offs. Decades ago, they were a Hollywood staple.

"One prediction ... requires no clairvoyance," wrote Richard Griffith and Arthur Mayer in their classic 1957 book "The Movies." "Fans of the future, like those of the past, will have and hold dear Westerns and comedies, melodrama and romance, spectacles and musicals."

Mass production

As a forecast of the 21st century, this turned out to be only semi-correct. But it's certainly understandable.

Westerns were once the Chevy Nova of film genres - reliable, popular, unspectacular, mass-produced in huge numbers on standing "Western" sets.

Musicals were cranked out by whole sub-departments of studio specialists (MGM's team was the most famous). War movies - not mentioned by Griffith and Mayer, though they might have been -- reached peak popularity in the 1940s and '50s, when World War II was a fresh memory, and military service was nearly universal.

"It's a product of mass production," says film historian Richard Koszarski of Teaneck. "You could give the audience the same thing, only different."

But taste changes. America changes. Westerns, war films and musicals got bigger and more bloated in the 1960s - much as, astronomers tell us, exhausted stars blow up into red giants before they flame out. By the late 1970s, they were still occasionally revived ("Apocalypse Now," "Grease," "The Shootist.") But as assembly-line formulas, they were finished.

And now? Well, Hollywood tries. Every few years, musicals, Westerns and war films are said to be "back." Invariably, these films - even the successful ones - are object lessons of how difficult it is to revive a dead form. The craft has been forgotten. The cultural assumptions have changed. …

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