What the films tell us about ourselves

The year's best-picture nominees take an 'affirmative' approach to serious problems.

Put on your Indiana Jones hats, movie fans. We're going on a dig.

Our excavation site: the Oscars. Our target: the nominees for best picture. Our objective: finding out what these movies tell us about American culture, circa 2000.

One thing seems clear - the nominated films reveal a motion-picture academy, and an audience, that likes feel-good movies. This year, Oscar voters seemed drawn to movies that deal with concerns about our everyday lives, from spiritual hunger to the aging of baby boomers.

The five nominees run the gamut of topics from a whistleblower disclosing tobacco-industry secrets ("Insider") to a boy who see ghosts ("Sixth Sense"), a prisoner on death row who heals people ("Green Mile"), a midlife-crisis tale ("American Beauty"), and an orphan deciding whether to perform abortions ("Cider House Rules").

They "seem nice and warm, don't they? They seem kind of 'aw, gee,' " says Lisa Schwarzbaum, a film critic for Entertainment Weekly in New York.

"I think all of them have a kind of affirmative quality, while admitting that there are problems out there," says movie scholar Dana Polan in Los Angeles. The hero of "The Insider" has "to keep trying to buck the system, and eventually justice will prevail." Even when addressing dark themes, the five films maintain hopeful positions.

"A lot of what we hear about in the news are kids gone bad, anything from Columbine to the six-year-old kid, the shooting up in Michigan," says Dr. Polan, a professor of critical studies in the School of Cinema-Television at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, "whereas in these films, the idea is the legacy is passed on, so kids can go good."

The happy ending imitates an appealing American attitude. "The movies, throughout the history of movies, have shown an idealized version [of America],..." Ms. Schwarzbaum says in a telephone interview. "It's the medium of dreaming for mass numbers of people." She adds later, "We tend to be an extremely optimistic society in this country."

That optimism passes from one generation to the next.

"The older generation is there to inspire a younger generation," Polan says. "In 'Cider House Rules,' the Michael Caines have to pass on, so that the Tobey Maguires can take over." Polan says this "generational thing" tries to answer the questions: "Is the baby-boom moment over? Does the baton have to be passed to a younger generation?"

In this high-speed, high-tech age, another common quality is reflected as well:

"Five out of five of these [movies] say there's something about ... wanting things simpler," Schwarzbaum says. " 'Green Mile' obviously is very saintly and has this desire for goodness represented by Michael Clarke Duncan.... 'The Insider' yearns for truth, not lies - journalism that works.... All of them have this idea of goodness, all solved in extremely different ways."

Furthermore, Schwarzbaum says she doesn't "think it's an accident that this stuff is coming out now.... The buzzwords for the 1990s [were] cocooning and downsizing,... and it's only ironic that Hollywood, which spends trillions of dollars, even they would connect to this theme."

The biggest moneymaker ($288 million in the US alone) of the five nominees was "The Sixth Sense." Michael Medved, a film critic and radio host in Seattle, says the "life after death" story "clearly touches a deep American hunger for spirituality."

That search for spirituality comes packaged along with a search for perfect leaders at a time when there's "a lot of cynicism about politics," professor Polan says. There's "a religious overtone in a number of these movies because there really is an idea that certain people are chosen ... to lead us out of whatever morass we're in."

Another means of escaping that morass is through male bonding. This happens between the young boy and Bruce Willis in "The Sixth Sense," Polan says. "All five of [the nominees] have a 'buddy film' side." This trend speaks to "the crisis of masculinity, and men wondering if they've been left out of the American dream." It's an issue addressed in Susan Faludi's recent book, "Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Male." "American Beauty" especially takes up this question of male insecurity.

The male bonding occurs, Polan says, "at the cost of bonding with women, so women have to get pushed to the side." He cites the Annette Bening role in "American Beauty." "Faludi talks about ... men fearing the advances that women have made," Polan says. "I think the films are in some ways playing into certain fantasies about men reestablishing power."

One thing is certain: Audiences will continue dreaming away their troubles in dark, cool theaters on summer evenings - even as those escapes touch on serious issues from the world outside.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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