For, Friday, May 1, 2015

EDITOR’S NOTE: Twas ever thus. Yet another column, this one from Oct. 27, 1996, with the headline “Film excesses often detract instead of enhance,” suggesting that just because movies can show anything and everything doesn’t mean they should.

OK, it's true — I'm always complaining about Hollywood being far afield from the average moviegoer in terms of sensitivity. All the swearing, sex, vulgarity and violence we see in movies — and, for that matter, on television — these days has escalated to a ludicrous degree that is nowhere near reality for most of us.

Of course, movies aren't real. And maybe that's what Hollywood fails to grasp.

Ask filmmakers why they so often go over the top in terms of offensive content and they will say it's because they feel compelled to reflect modern society. Yeah, right.

Here are some of the arguments I've heard from producers and directors over the years:

—Children hear cuss words in the schoolyard every day, so to make entertainment that kids can identify with, movies must have a certain amount of profanity.

-—Morality isn't what it used to be and teenagers are clued into sexuality much more than we were at their age, so casual sex — and cavalier discussions of sex — are necessary.

-—Violence is a part of our everyday lives. Even if we don't personally experience a violent act, most of us will in some way be touched by violence, whether it's a relative or neighbor — or even if it's just someone in a newspaper article — who is the actual victim.

—In older movies, when someone was shot, the bullet didn't even make a bullet hole, much less cause bleeding. Gory, bloody violence is essential to show that gunplay is painful, traumatizing and/or deadly.

—Movies are an art form, and movie directors are artists — and an artist must express himself in whatever way he feels best suits the material.

To Hollywood, these are all sound arguments, justifiable reasons for the excesses that lace so many movies today.


But to most moviegoers, they are more representative of the "but" or "in-spite-of" factor.

In the olden days (say, the '40s, '50s and '60s), moviegoers used to express to friends that they liked a movie and then perhaps add why they liked it.

But these days, people say they liked a movie, and then add something like, "but it was pretty raunchy," or "in spite of the excessive violence," or "but it didn't need to have so much profanity."

Movies, by the very nature of what they are, can't really be realistic. They may have realistic — or universal — elements that help the audience identify with the story or certain characters. But they aren't realistic.

In fact, when there is constant profanity or over-the-top gore or graphic sex or lingering nudity, one could argue that it is a flaw in the film, because it jolts the audience out of the experience. As a result, we begin thinking about the shocking or startling image we've just seen, which disengages us from the story.

Movies are at their best when they sweep us away — not when they assault us.

Julia Roberts has said that she doesn't do nude scenes because once she takes off her clothes, the movie is no longer about the character she's playing — instead, it becomes a documentary about Julia Roberts disrobing.

In a way, that applies to all cinematic excesses. They often ruin the experience instead of enhancing it.

And that brings us to the final point. Sometimes movies are an art form. But it's hard to pinpoint the artist.

There is the argument that some movie directors — Hitchcock, Truffaut, Ford, Spielberg, Kurosawa, Campion, etc. — exert so much control over their pictures that each film is obviously guided by their vision. And that's true.


But it's not a one-man or one-woman show. Movies are very much a collaborative medium, and even the best directors — or filmmakers — are at sea without the expert assistance of top-flight screenwriters, cinematographers, actors, musicians, editors, etc.

In the end, what we're talking about is creativity vs. laziness. It's the easy way out to use special-effects-enhanced violence, redundant profanity, sophomoric sex jokes or to have actors simply remove their clothing to get a reaction from the audience.

Say what you will about old black-and-white movies from Hollywood's so-called "Golden Age" — and I won't argue about the fact that often the acting was stagey, the special effects were primitive, the editing was sloppy and other technical aspects were weak — but those movies knew how to tell stories and how to create characters the audience cared about.

True, they couldn't include the excesses discussed here, but as a result, they came up with wonderfully creative ways of getting the point across.

And more importantly, they had heart.

Today, the movie that emphasizes story and character over razzle-dazzle elements is the exception, not the rule.

And the rare film with heart is quickly embraced by those who are starved for something that will carry them away, instead of kicking them in the teeth.