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Where will tomorrow's good films come from?

By David Sterritt / July 23, 1981

Are movies facing an apocalypse, now? The box office is up this season, boosted by the smash success of "Superman II" and "Raiders of the Losk Ark." Sundry other films, from "The Cannonball Run" to "The Great Mupper Caper," are also performing well.

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Yet discontent rumbles in the background. Critics complain that the new hits are mindless. Filmmakers give up on older viewers, devoting themselves entirely to the teen- age trade, or flee the Hollywood establishment altogether. Nobody knows when the summer films will fade, returning us to teh doldrums of last spring -- when nearly every screen was filled with a reissue, a second-rate sequel, or a piece of "shoxploitation" trash.

In the June issue of American Film, critic David Thomson gives a preview of his new book about "the crisis in American filmmaking." Much seems gobbledygook to me, peppered with half- thought-out theories and strangely worded assertions. Still, the article embodies a feeling that's current among many observers of the movie scene -- a sense that things can'tm continue this way much longer.

More than one factor accounts for this gloomy attitude. In the golden age of Hollywood, plenty of garbage was churned out, but it could be largely overlooked in the sheer volume of movies produced. Today, with more and more resources poured into fewer and fewer films, it's hard to hide from their general lack of quality. There's also less excusem for that poor quality. Technically at least, cinema is out of its infancy. A modicum of maturity seems a reasonable thing to ask.

Between peculiar pronouncements on the nature of film and video, critic Thomson puts his finger on a couple of further problems in his Americam Film article.He is right that Hollywood has taken a tremendous risk in hitching its wagon to an audience as fickle as it is young. And he's right to worry about what will happen when that audience wanes: The distribution companies, largely owned by conglomerates, will cheerfully transfer their money and energy to the home-video market, leaving the great tradition of moviegoing in the lurch.

There's a good case that we don't needm moviegoing if it means nothing but sleazy junt like "Stripes" and "History of the World Part I." But even today, there's hope for the beleaguered film lover.

That hope is based on the usually forgotten fact that you don't havem to spend of the Secaucus 7" for about $60,000. It ran nearly two hours, as Thomson notes , and it looked pretty good. Most important, it was seen by plenty of people in plenty of theaters -- that is, it was no labor of monastic devotion, but a real movie with a real audience.

With varying results, similar stunts have been pulled off by Claudia Weill in "Girl Friends," Jeff Kanew in "Natural Enemies," and David Lynch in "Eraserhead, " which is still drawing crowds on the midnight circuit. Like countless other "regional" films made across the United States, these are home-grown productions that made it to commercial distribution.

There's even a chance that the mavericks will reinherit Hollywood from the buffoons and epicmongers. After the dark "Eraserhead," after all, David Lynch won Oscar nominations for "The Elephant Man." After the feminist "Girl Friends," Claudia Weill made a splash with "It's My Turn." After the personal "Hot Tomorrows," young Martin Brest directed three venerable stars in "Going in Style."

We needn't look only to the hinterlands, though, to find signs of hope for the cinematic future. Today's growing discontent is shaking up some thinkers within the establishment itself, and leading some of the most gifted -- the most brilliant, even -- to pull up stakes and search for something more meaningful. In fact, the current rage among the wealthy Wunderkinderm is to set up their own moviemaking shops outside the purview of the studio moguls. In such ideal surroundings, it is hoped, a brave new filmic world will come to pass.