No Hoorays for Hollywood

Way back in our younger days we used to take the same rooting interest in the Oscar contests as we did in the American League’s eastern division pennant races, but these days we don’t even know who or what the nominees are. There are still great movies being made from to time, we  assume, but it no longer seems worth the effort to sort through all the dreck to find them. One of Wichita’s premier musicians was giving a final jazz concert at Kirby’s Beer Store on Sunday night before heading off to Poland, of all places, so that’s what we did instead of watching the interminable Academy Awards ceremony on television.
Which is sad, as we always have and still truly do love the cinematic arts. We’re the perfect age for a movie buff, having grown up in the ’60s and ’70s when the still elegant movie houses were showing some very memorably innovative films, and all three channels on pre-cable television were broadcasting the best of the ’30s and ’40s Golden Age of Hollywood during the afternoon and late night hours that the networks didn’t fill, and as teenagers we frequented the art houses and university theaters where the arty and international and silent-era stuff was showing, so by now we’re admittedly hard to impress. Even so, and being as generous to the youngsters as we can muster, we have to say the movies these days seem to reflect the same civilizational decline as the rest of American culture.
So far as we can tell from our occasional perusals most of the movies these days are non-stop computer generated fight-scene action adventure flicks featuring mostly comic book super heroes, deliberately rude comedies starring former “Saturday Night Live” performers, and what have come to be called “chicks flicks.” Friends of ours have highly recommended much of it, with some of our geekier friends insisting that the comic superheroes have something serious to say about modern society, other low-brow types talking about how funny some of those supposedly anti-establishment comedies are, and some man-bashing women we know endorsing those “chick flicks.” As much as we like these friends, we think they’re too young and easily-impressed to know what they’re talking about. At this point in our grumpy middle age, we think the same about the Academy of Motion of Picture Arts and Sciences and its gaudy awards show.
One of the “best picture” nominees this year was a comic book superhero flick called “The Black Panther,” and it got such rave reviews from some of our friends and several of the supposedly more serious movie critics that that we gave it a try when it showed up on Netflix. It had some interesting ideas about a spiritual African culture possessed of highly advanced Western scientific knowledge, but it was mostly improbably buff actors and actresses staging prolonged fight scenes with help from computer generated images, and we quit watching about halfway through. We’ve nothing against action-adventure flicks, and can readily name “The Professionals” and “The Great Escape” and the silent-era “Thief of Baghdad”and the Sean Connery era of the James Bonds movies and countless other as masterpieces of the genre, but all those computer generated images can’t quite compensate for the characters and dialogue and plots and often valid points about the human condition that those movies had.
Some of those rude comedies with the “Saturday Night Live” performers do get a few much-appreciated laughs out of us, but we’ve seen “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World,” and enough of the Preston Sturges and Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder and W.C. Fields and Marx Brothers and Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton movies for that to satisfy our comedic tastes. We’ve also read Twain and Swift Perelman Jerome, and know all the most fatalistic jokes, and we’ve come to expect more than occasional laughs.
Back in the ’30s and ’40s Hollywood used to make what was called “women’s pictures,” and when we watched them with our Mom during the afternoon hours of our summer vacation we shared her love of the genre. Some of the of the “women’s pictures” were “screwball comedies,” about dynamic women wooing handsome yet innocent men, and they were the stuff of our earliest romantic fantasies. Other pictures of the genre featured aggressively heroic newspaperwomen and aviatrixes and businesswomen and nurses and nuns, which was also pretty fantastic to our formative selves. Most of the “women’s pictures” were melodramatic dramas about women making selfless sacrifices for themselves and the men and the children they loved, which now renders them politically incorrect, but we still find them more heroic than anything that today’s computer generated images can come up with. We’ll long remember Barbara Stanwyck as the working class single mother watching her daughter marry a nice rich guy from behind the window on a cold and snowy street in “Stella Dallas,” or that ending in “Imitation of Life” where Mahalia Jackson sings the funeral song for the selfless mother whose mixed-race daughter had abounded her selfish reasons, and we defy anyone to watch either flick without teary eyes.
Today’s “chick flicks” — and the term’s undeniably sexist devolution from “women’s picture” should offend our newfangled feminist friends as much as it does old-fashioned selves — seem mostly about women empowering themselves to abandon such inconvenient obligations of the human condition. We’re in no position to judge how any woman should handle the admittedly difficult situations we all find ourselves in our human condition, but we must admit a certain nostalgia for the days when “Casablanca” and other Hollywood movies celebrated both Bogie and Baccall’s selflessness in an even more troubled time in human history.
We stayed up late enough to read that “The Green Book” had won the “best picture” Oscar from the Academy, and as we have’t yet seen it we’ll offer no opinion about that. The entertainment press we still occasionally peruse tell us it’s about a working class white guy driving a talented black musician through the segregation-era south, sort of of the reverse of the the Academy-loved ’80s-era “Driving Miss Daisy,” about a working class black guy driving some rich old white woman around the same area of the human condition at the same time, and as far we can tell both are still controversial in these contentious times of political correctness. We’ll take a look when “The Green Book” eventually shows up on Netflix, but until then we’ll happily have nothing to with Hollywood’s race problems, and regret that Wichita’s most talented black musician is suddenly heading to Poland, and hope for the best for American popular culture.

— Bud Norman

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