April 7, 2015


I'm very nostalgic for those stray movies between about 1979 and 1983 that gave hip audiences a sense of ownership of those movies—a smaller version of what hit college audiences in the late 1960s with Antonioni and Altman and Mike Nichols. By 1979 we had already been slugged by the space-serial blockbusters and mugged by the calculated emotions of Kramer vs. Kramer and On Golden Pond. But these other movies—like Peter Yates's Breaking Away and the Bill Forsyth movies Gregory's Girl and Local Hero and Fred Schepisi's Barbarosa and Iceman—made us college students feel like an intelligent, respected film audience with minds and good taste in stories and dialogue. I was at U.C. Santa Barbara when Local Hero and Peter Weir's The Year of Living Dangerously opened, and the university audience at the old theater in Isla Vista just ate them up. You were hit with a palpable sensation of satisfaction, and you thought, "Movies can be good."

But whatever it was, it was evanescent and got swallowed up, again, in crummy commercialism and emotional banality—junk like those really awful John Hughes movies and Top Gun and Flashdance. My heart sinks just thinking about how the huge mass of teen crud in the 1980s pushed out what little bits of potential appeared, magically, every so often in the American commercial film.

Almost thirty years later, American movies are a cross-fertilized art of hyperactive cutting and visceral sensations—arcade games and theme park thrill rides. Movies are designed for the enormous resolutions and nanosecond refresh rates. Those who find the current experience breathtaking must be having the time of their lives.

Generation gap. The Godfather (1972)
Before HDTV and home theater systems, people were better off going to the theaters to see not only movies with impressive visual dimensions (Citizen Kane, 1900, La Ronde) but also movies whose intended effects relied on communal audience involvement—not just sidesplitting comedies but melodramas like Now, Voyager that seemed stronger when people around you laughed or gasped when you did on first seeing the slimmed-down, self-actualized Charlotte Vale on the ship's gangway. When we opt to stay home to watch, I think we forgo the communalism of an audience of strangers who are reacting just like us. In many cases, moviegoing really is a shared experience—like a neighborhood's banding together in the face of adversity.

Not so much these days, but there were times when I went to see an old movie (Genevieve, for example, or Panic in Needle Park) at a revival theater essentially to experience the audience reaction to my favorite parts. I wanted to see these strangers respond like me, because their responses made them seem momentarily closer than actual friends. After a good movie—an immersive, great narrative experience like The Godfather Part 2, for example—I loved walking back up the aisle in the dim light with the rest of the audience, and I just knew that everyone was dazedly thinking the same thing, and the god of movies had bestowed a rare gift.