Optimism and old-fashioned values are back in style

After finishing her first movie, Claudia Weill traveled to Hollywood. On arriving, she phoned a "friend of a friend of a friend" who happened to be a producer.

"You've made a film? How nice, dear!" said the producer who also happened to be a woman. "Does it have a happy ending"?

Miss Weill replied that it wasn't reallym happy, though it wasn't exactly sad, either.

"That's too bad, dear," said the producer. "It's gonna cost you a lot of money!"

It is to Miss Weill's credit that the endings of her films -- "Girl friends" and the current "It's My Turn" -- are hard to pin down with simple phrases. Yet in her own dollar-happy way, that "friend of a friend" was pointing up an important trend in today's movies: Optimism is back in style. And it's a bandwagon Miss Weill is happy to jump on, despite her liking for bittersweet finales.

The present trend doesn't mean there's joy to be found in "Raging Bull," or that "The Awakening" brims with cheer. In fact, "Stardust Memories" could be the sourest comedy ever, and "The First Deadly Sin" is morose to the point of absurdity.

Still, some of today's more intelligent and individualistic pictures are taking a stand in favor of positive values. Old fashioned commodities like "family," "romance," and "just plain folks" are having a comeback and they are being celebrated, not satirized.

For proof, see the finale of "Private Benjamin," a major hit that features Goldie Hawn slowly and surely fighting free of second-class personhood. On a different level, "The Elephant Man" finds hope and transcendence in the end, while even the grueling "Ordinary People" finishes on a somewhat upbeat note. And check the ending of "Gloria," wherein John Cassavettes follows his optimistic instincts beyond the bounds of logic, into the realm of pure trust. "People worry that the last part doesn't make sense," he told me recently. "That shows how much they know. Little miracles happen all the time, and we're just showing one of them!"

As a particularly pleasing case of the new optimism, consider the budding career of Jonathan Demme, who directed the current Melvin and Howard. His last picture was a minor thriller called "Last Embrace," but before that he made "Handle With Care" (also known as "Citizen's Band"), which impressed many critics with its concern for family, friendship, and community. The same values are an integral part of "Melvin and Howard," about an average man who stumbles into the generosity of billionaire Howard Hughes, with mixed results.

I recently asked Demme about the life-affirming attitudes of his new picture. "I can't become interested in a script," he said, "unless it articulates the difficulty of human relationships. And I need to see the characters taking a positive approach to those relations. On some level I hope that will be true for every film I make, because I'm very keen on it."

Demme is one of the most talented members of the younger filmmaking generation, so his views are important. He speaks of "the ties that bind" without apology, though he smiles at his own cliche. He is fascinated with probing the ongoing kinds of human relationship -- not florid romance or sexual attraction so much as a biding friendship and family life.

This separates Demme from many of his contemporaries. They dwell on the heightened forms of experience that movies have traditionally been obsessed with. For Demme a milder approach is a more realistic approach.

"It's tremendously difficult for people to get on from day to day," says the director, "and to maintain a community. But do you know what I marvel at? That we've worked it all out! Sure, you can pick up a cheap newspaper and see the incidents of terrifying violence that occur. But think about all the crime that doesn'tm happen. This is one of the great credits to our species of animal."

There's nothing rosy or naive about Demme's view. "A person can get stabbed on the street," he says, "and that's disgusting and hideous. But let's not forget the millionsm of people who interact every day. We know where to get a ride, and some of us feed the other ones, and some of us give the others something to read, and fix each other's bathrooms. . . . And it doesn't fall apart! This is marvelous, and something we can all be proud of. It's just good we don't realize too often how difficult it all is. . . ."

At the center of it all, in Demme's opinion, are basic relationships between individuals. "It's nice if you make a movie," says the director, "and the movie is a reminder that human relations have beneficial outcomes. Films don't zero in on this much, unless it's in an exaggerated sense, like people teaming up to hunt a killer or catch a shark. So if a script comes my way that doesm deal with the basics, it's gonna set my pulse thumping."

That's what happened with "Melvin and Howard" which appealed to Demme because "it takes an ordinary life and makes it extraordinary, in spite of itself." On the surface it's the tale of a man in circumstances that are almost desperately commonplace: To him and his ilk, an appearance on a TV quiz show is literally the experience of a lifetime. Below the surface, though, the film is a poetic and lyrical examination of the decency that Mr. Demme considers an essential part of American life, notwithstanding the occasional squalor and vulgarity that are also touched on in the picture."

And "Melvin and Howard" is a lot of fun to watch, which is also important to Demme. "I'm very anxious for people to enjoy my movies," he says. "One of the disappointing things about 'Last Embrace' is that more people didn't find it fulfilling. In other words, a certain number of people sat and stared for two hours, and wished they hadn't. And I'm sort of to blame.

"And I'm sorry about that, because there's nothing more thrilling than to watch a movie you made, and hear people laugh. That's a great joy. Then if someone comes up and says a scene was very moving -- wow! that's what it's all about! There's something so primarym about hearing laughter, and seeing happy faces coming out through those exits. . . ."

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