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JOSEPH N. BELL

Forcing One's Tastes on Others Is Risky Undertaking

November 25, 1989|JOSEPH N. BELL

I was alone with the 11-year-old kid the other night, and I figured it was time to introduce him to the Marx Brothers.

He's accustomed to all these sappy movies about grown-ups who find themselves in the body of kids, and time machines and ghosts and talking embryos and slavering dogs. He needed some perspective on the real world as seen by Groucho, Harpo and Chico.

So we went to the video store where I hoped to find "A Night at the Opera" or "A Day at the Races." They were both out. The only Marx Brothers movie in stock was "Coconuts." I knew it was their first movie, and I had only a dim recollection of it. But if it was the Marx Brothers, it had to be good.

It wasn't. It was dreadful. It was especially dreadful because I wanted the kid to like it. He is a prisoner of the mindless entertainment offered his generation, and I wanted him to break out. But this clearly wasn't the way to do it. He watched "Coconuts" as if it were impaled on a toothpick, and he was turning it about, looking for a place to bite in.

The whole episode took me back to a night in Guam in the middle of World War II. When we weren't flying, we went to a lot of movies. Two were shown every night at our base, and one night Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in "Roberta" was one of the attractions. I cut my romantic teeth on Astaire and Rogers, saw their movies over and over when I was growing up. So I was elated and made the mistake of saying so. Several of my associates--clods without a vestige of romanticism in them--said they would go with me. I knew instinctively this was a mistake and tried to talk them out of it. But they went anyway.

Musicals--especially movie musicals of the 1930s--require a considerable suspension of belief. People don't normally break into song or tap dance in the middle of a conversation, no matter how romantic the setting. But that's irrelevant except to the most literal-minded, who shouldn't go to musicals in the first place.

So my flying friends enjoyed themselves immensely deriding the movie, and I was miserable because I was seeing it through their eyes, and the magic was gone. If the middle of a war zone seems an unlikely setting for papier-mache Hollywood musicals, it wasn't for me. But from that night on, I went to movies alone and swore never again to superimpose my tastes on anyone else.

I've followed that resolution fairly well for the last five decades, but occasionally I make an exception. And the result is usually disaster.

A few weeks ago, for example, we had dinner with some close friends and decided to go to a movie afterward. I had been wanting for some weeks to see "sex, lies and videotape," and although I sensed a lukewarm reaction from the other man, I pushed and we went. He hated it, and when you sit beside--or even in the same row with--someone who is acutely uncomfortable, the aura seeps into your pores. Especially if it was your idea. He got in his licks when we had coffee after the movie, and I told him I'd do penance at "Lethal Weapon 2" if that would help. I also renewed my resolve not to crowd people with my tastes.

I'll forget again--or circumstances will require me to. I had an elderly aunt visiting unexpectedly from the Midwest on the day I had tickets to Stephen Sondheim's "Company" so rather than miss the show, I took her along. She was alternately bored and scandalized, and I didn't enjoy it much. But given the same circumstances, I'd probably do it again--after, of course, convincing myself in advance that she would like the show, and besides, it would broaden her cultural horizons.

Taste in entertainment is such a fragile and personal thing (which is the best argument I know against censorship). I detest graphic violence--but only when it is gratuitous. I hated the final scene in "Fatal Attraction," for example, but had no problem with the violence in "Platoon." I got three people irritated with me recently because I refused to go with them to a cartoon movie just because I don't like the genre. Yet I love gauzy musicals and who-done-it mysteries.

I'm fascinated--and appalled--by the capacity of today's younger generation for movie gore. They pour money into the coffers of the cretins who produce such things as "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" and "Nightmare on Elm Street" and dozens of similar products not quite bad enough to be funny. The 11-year-old kid and his buddies can munch popcorn calmly while someone is being hacked to pieces on the screen or an unspeakably vile alien creation is masticating people. I don't understand if this is a form of catharsis for the violence taking place around us in real life or contributes to it.

Either way, it seems to me time for the 11-year-old kid to be exposed to a kinder, gentler type of entertainment. I noticed when I took "Coconuts" back that the video store has Astaire and Rogers in "Follow the Fleet." Great movie--one of Irving Berlin's best scores. I'm going to check that out along with "A Day at the Races" and screen them. Alone. Then, if they hold up, I'll show them to the 11-year-old kid. Culture has to come into his life somewhere.

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