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FIRST-PERSON: Should film critics placate readers?

KANSAS CITY, Kan. (BP)–Recently I received an e-mail from a reader who disagreed with my overall negative assessment of “The Prince of Persia.” He felt I was out of touch with the younger of the movie-going public, and though I don’t think the guy was trying to “dis” my work, he made it clear that I should “raise the bar” by being more open-minded to what a rising generation requires from movies. He further suggested that I add a much younger reviewer to my staff. Well, first off, there is no staff. I’m the staff.

Normally, I let my work defend itself, but I’d like to comment on that recent critical communiqué because I think those of us of a certain age are finding that not only does everything change, but in this the era of Twitter, change has become incessant and unfeeling. This gives birth to the question, “Is all change progress?” The dispiriting condition of our present culture would suggest otherwise.

Along with this merciless age of change, we also see the youth of our species catered to, the rest of us designated to the background of life, much like extras in a bad movie. I understand the business sense of this trend. We old guys already know what toothpaste we’re going to use, so advertisers aim their commercials at those they consider ripe prospects. Same goes for movies. If you blow something up, studio heads are assured of a faithful adolescent audience.

I’ve seen 5,000 movies and have been reviewing films for more than 20 years, but at the end of the day, my view of a movie’s worth is just opinion. How could it be more? We are, after all, dealing with personal observation when evaluating the technical, artistic and aesthetic craft of filmmaking. (Hard to equate something like “Get him to the Greek” with the words “aesthetic craft,” but there you have it.)

Opinion aside, movies are an art form and the art of storytelling in movies is most effective not just when it shows who we are, but when it suggests what we can become. If that art form is to better the culture and the society, it needs to aim up, not just placate our baser instincts. This is one reason for film reporters, for we bring intimate films to the awareness of those pied-pipered by an industry that only seems to want to satisfy the latest batch of 14-year-olds.

I won’t say movies are at their best when they make you think. Sometimes, the reason we go to movies is so we won’t have to think. That said, it’s getting harder to find films that stimulate more than testosterone levels, and it’s even more difficult finding something original. Summer after summer we are deluged by action thrillers with II or III or IV numbered behind the familiar title.

What’s troubling for me in this decade of CGI (computer-generated imagery) is that moviemakers pander to youth with things that go boom, rather than demonstrate a love for the true special effects: story, character, dialogue and performance. Once we know how a special effect works, or we’ve seen it several times, the “wow” factor wears off. But rather than return to the true magical effects, those elements that touch the intellect or the heart, studio heads remain strident in their mantra: “Make it bigger and louder, and blow up more stuff!”

Though movies and television are an escape from daily pressures, excess in the forms of cynicism, crudeness and lewdness have infested the mediums of entertainment. Along with the mayhem of this summer’s actioneers, look at what has changed in this area of film humor.

Contemporaries Jack Black, Will Ferrell, Seth Rogan, Mike Myers, Ben Stiller, and Jason Segal, along with their comic clones, insist on spending much of their screen time in the sewer. And there are a great many people willing to sludge around in these cesspools of sophomoric stench, somehow believing this is the genesis for all things funny.

So I ask, do we film historians attempt to placate our more callow readers, allowing a future generation to think that all humor stems from scatological functions? Do we as filmgoers just forget that other forms of farce come from human conditions (“City Lights”), from satire (“Dr. Strangelove”) from witty use of dialogue (“The Court Jester”), and from life observations (“Bill Cosby, Himself”)?

This summer, young moviegoers have digested nothing but the cinematic equivalent of headcheese, having never been offered filet mignon. (Definition: Headcheese is a dish made of portions of the head, or head and feet, of swine, cut up fine, seasoned, and pressed into a cheese-like mass.)

Sticking with the food analogy, the critic is a sort of waiter, who, along with his other duties, guides the patron around the entertainment menu, suggesting a more balanced movie meal.

Sadly, despite the aid of the video store’s Classics section, and TV’s best channel, TCM, I don’t see a resurgence of sophistication or droll wit anywhere in Hollywood’s future. Still, I can’t compliment the indecent or be content with the insipid in order to attempt relevancy. Teens and adolescents are being shortchanged by movie execs who make a whole lot of jack. It is my duty, and yours, to cultivate the tastes of our nation’s youth, not merely allow them to remain cocooned in their disconnected presumption.

That may sound high-minded, even pompous, but the alternative is to acquiesce in order to relate. The Scriptures instruct us to not conform to the world, but to be set apart. We are to be the salt of the Earth and a light to the lost, not a copycat in order to be accepted.

I’ve used this analogy before, but it seems to fit with this column’s direction. If you place a frog in boiling water, he’ll jump out. If you place him in room-temperature liquid, slowly raising the heat level, he’ll remain until he, ahem, croaks. Over the past several decades, the media has simmered society in a stew of moral ambiguity, excusing their offenses with “Hey, it’s only a movie.” And like that poor frog, we Christians have adjusted ourselves to the same numbing content as everyone else.

In my appreciation for movies, I’ve adopted the new word “preservatism.” My goal is to direct the next generation toward new and old movies that adhere to biblical principles. Yes, I will attempt to stay appreciative of changing tastes, but when it comes to analyzing films, I shall continue to yell, “headcheese,” whenever headcheese is served.
Phil Boatwright reviews films from a Christian perspective and is the author of “Movies: The Good, The Bad, and the Really, Really Bad.” Visit moviereporter.com, which has been revamped, for his reviews.

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  • Phil Boatwright