Are Hollywood movies being dumbed down?

Talk with film-conscious people about current movies, and here are some issues likely to arise in the first minute: Do the kid-oriented fantasies, comedies, and sequels coming this summer indicate a complete lack of thoughtfulness in Hollywood today? Or are studios simply giving audiences the kind of slick, sleek entertainments they want?

Do rambunctious hits like "Pearl Harbor" serve up clever artistic twists on popular storytelling formulas? Or do their hard-hitting camera maneuvers and high-tech visual effects represent further steps in film's escalating sensationalism?

In short, are we living in a lively age of motion-picture pleasures - or are we witnessing what some critics call the dumbing down of American cinema?

These and similar questions were eagerly debated at the just-concluded Lake Placid (N.Y.) Film Forum, which focused on a timely theme: Do filmmakers have social responsibility? And if so, how does this fit with the commercial agenda of a money-driven industry?

Only two years old but growing by leaps and bounds, the Lake Placid forum is a film festival with a difference. In addition to movie premieres and audience discussions with directors and screenwriters, it invites contributions from the many authors and novelists who have given this portion of upstate New York its reputation as a major writers' colony.

Among this year's participants were John Irving, who wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay of "The Cider House Rules" as well as novels like "The World According to Garp"; William Kennedy, who has peppered his novel-writing career with films like "Ironweed" and "The Cotton Club"; and Russell Banks, whose novels have inspired excellent movies like "Affliction" and "The Sweet Hereafter."

It's hard to generalize about their views, but they agreed that movies can contribute a great deal to the moral and ethical dialogues of our day. Even the essayist Phillip Lopate, who led a discussion on whether movies are being dumbed down, acknowledged that Hollywood is still capable of creating smart, thoughtful pictures - like "The Sixth Sense" and "A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries," among others he mentioned - alongside the run-of-the-mill dross that fills most multiplex screens.

Michael Barker, a chief of Sony Pictures Classics, supported this when he cited thoughtful comments made by teenage children after seeing "The Matrix" on video. But he also pointed out that "social responsibility" is often in the eye of the beholder. Movies seen by some as cautionary fables - like "Crumb" and "In the Company of Men" - strike others as cynical and unethical, he noted. This was borne out at the forum by widely varying remarks about the 2000 Oscar-winning hit "American Beauty," which ranged from serious praise to contemptuous dismissal.

Not surprisingly, sex and violence got much discussion here. One often-quoted opinion was novelist Irving's view that the crux of the problem is not the excesses on the screen, but the unthinking way audiences take these in.

Other observers were more astringently critical of big-screen entertainment. Writer-director William Greaves has spent decades making non-Hollywood productions like the documentary "Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey," shown recently on PBS, and the experimental "Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One," due on the Sundance Channel this summer.

"Awful things can happen," he told me in a conversation about Hollywood sensationalism, "when you combine corporate greed with the worst [emotional] impulses we human beings have."

Even if dumbing-down has hit much of Hollywood, an enormous number of independent filmmakers bring intelligence and responsibility to their work, and some of the best came here to discuss their approaches. Alan Berliner has carved out a distinguished career making personal films about his life and family, like "Intimate Stranger" and "Nobody's Business."

Whit Stillman has brought a funny, literate touch to fiction films like "Metropolitan" and "The Last Days of Disco," which explore social attitudes through sharply drawn characters. Calling for more attention to language and dialogue in movies, he noted that the visual bias of most Hollywood pictures - especially in our age of elaborate special effects - makes us forget that you learn more about people by listening to them than by looking at them.

Stillman also decried Hollywood's habit of dodging current social issues. Studios are willing to make movies attacking racism and prejudice, he told me, but this is only because it's popular to do so. Films rarely had the courage to send such messages in the '40s and '50s, when racism wasn't so widely deplored. By the same token, today's movies rarely explore issues that divide and disturb today's society. Instead they take on easily deplored demons - like the Holocaust in "Schindler's List" and "Life Is Beautiful" - that are safely buried in the past.

Could there be a sea change in American filmmaking, in which new ideas caught hold? The struggle for socially responsible cinema will be a long, hard one. But the discussions here demonstrate that many are eager to engage in this effort.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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