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VERY FIRST PERSON

{The End Game}

A Lot of Movies Stink. A Lot close with Cinematic Group Hugs. Coincidence?

September 10, 2000|JIM ZARROLI | National Public Radio correspondent Jim Zarroli is based in New York. This is his first story for the magazine

When I was 13, I persuaded my mother to let me see "The Last Picture Show," the Peter Bogdanovich movie about a dead-end Texas town in the 1950s. It was rated R, so she had to accompany me to the box office and tell the ticket-taker that I could go in by myself, something she couldn't have been too happy about, but I begged and pleaded until she agreed. I don't remember why I wanted to see it--maybe I'd heard it had plenty of sex--but I do know the experience helped start me on a lifetime of movie watching. With its grown-up themes of loss and betrayal, its black-and-white cinematography (something by then unusual in a feature film) and its ironic use of country music, it clearly aspired to more than the movies and TV programs I was used to, even if I didn't understand exactly what it was.

And there was the final scene, taken from the Larry McMurtry book that the movie was based on, in which Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) goes back to see his married lover Ruth (Cloris Leachman), whom he had dropped for someone younger and prettier. Ruth is shy and polite at first, but she has taken the breakup hard and her anger quickly overwhelms her. Suddenly she's throwing a coffee pot against the wall and venting her fury at him in a way she's probably never done with anyone. Then, her anger spent, she notices the misery in his face, and a wave of compassion washes back over her. "Never you mind, honey," she says, touching his collar. "Never you mind."

Even at 13, I appreciated how different that ending was. It doesn't wrap up the characters' lives neatly. Sonny doesn't strike oil or get a scholarship to college. He doesn't triumph over Ruth's abusive husband in a climactic rodeo scene. Nor is there any suggestion that Sonny and Ruth will have a life together--after all, what future was possible between a small-town teenager and a coach's wife who was decades his senior? Still, there's tenderness and affection between them, and in the bleak terrain where they live that means a lot.

It was the kind of emotionally complex ending Hollywood has never liked much, one that says much but leaves a lot unresolved, and so I wasn't really surprised when Bogdanovich told me recently that it was less than completely popular. I had called him to discuss RKO Pictures' infamous mauling of the last third of Orson Welles' "The Magnificent Ambersons," something he'd written about, and Hollywood's abiding belief in the happy ending. Bogdanovich told me that one of the producers of "The Last Picture Show" had argued for deleting the last scene.

"He said, 'Do you have to have that last scene?' He thought it was too sad. I said, 'Geez, I made that movie because of the last scene.' " I can almost hear Bogdanovich shudder over the phone line. "It was a horrifying thought."

*

FOR SOMEONE LIKE ME, WHO STARTED GOING TO THE MOVIES in the early 1970s, the past three decades have been a gradual process of disillusionment with Hollywood. I simply don't go to mainstream movies as much as I used to. Sometimes I think about it--some nights I even go so far as to check out what's playing--but I can almost always find something better to do.

Understand, I'm a person who used to see just about every film that came out. I loved movies. For me, going to theaters as often as I liked was one of the rewards of adulthood. I even saw movies when the reviews were bad and no one would go with me. I saw "Speed 2" and "Hook." I went to Woody Allen movies that not even the French could stand. I knew that an honest stinker might have a redeeming moment or two, and I wanted to be there for it.

Over time, though, the excitement I felt when I walked into a theater began to wane. Why did that happen?

Perhaps movies are a young person's medium. Once you hit middle age, you start to think about spending your time more prudently, which means it no longer seems very wise to throw away two hours on "Runaway Bride." I've been around long enough to know that Hollywood produces no more than two or three really memorable movies in any given year, and that the latest over-hyped Tom Cruise action thriller isn't likely to be one of them. What once seemed fresh and exciting about the movies seems stale and derivative. I've seen the tricks in the magician's bag, and I'm no longer impressed.

But maybe something else has happened, too. Perhaps the movies themselves have changed.

As a fan, I can't help but feel that mainstream American movies are at some low ebb, and so much of the product Hollywood turns out is as empty and formulaic as it has been in years. I am not saying all Hollywood movies stink. I recognize that lots of people are out there trying to do work that's personal and different, and sometimes they succeed. But their voices are lost in a din of mediocrity. American movies seem as calculated and pretty as an ad campaign for the Jamaican Tourism Board, with just as much emotion. Too often these days I walk out of the theater feeling manipulated and bored.

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