It looks as if this will be a good summer for films aimed at wide audiences - and at young people in particular. That's good news, but it doesn't mean ''family films'' have made a comeback in the old sense of the term.
In fact, those innocent words ''family film'' have lost a lot of their meaning. With relentless monotony, even today's milder movies usually have some element -- a few vulgar words, maybe, or a burst of violence - to nudge them into the PG category. And many producers prefer things this way, fearing that a G rating might brand a picture as bland or childish.
Of course, the G rating doesn't have to mean any such thing. Films like '' 2001: A Space Odyssey'' and ''My Brilliant Career'' have appealed to countless adults without sacrificing family suitability. But we have come a long way from the days when a Hollywood ''production code'' assured that most movies could be viewed without a qualm by ticket buyers of all ages.
The G rating has become the exception, and PG can mean anything from a single muttered vulgarity to a near-orgy teetering on the R-rated brink. So the critic who uses the old ''family film'' label had better make it clear just what that signifies.
Hollywood's suspicion of the G tag is illustrated by recent events at Walt Disney Productions, where an effort has been under way to draw older and more sophisticated viewers -- teenagers and adults who won't sit still for rehashes of ''Dumbo'' and ''The Absent-Minded Professor.'' Early moves in this direction, such as ''The Black Hole'' and ''Night Crossing,'' have not been promising.
But a new ''creative team'' has now taken control at Disney, and fresh ideas have started to flow. One result is a ''hard PG'' picture called ''Tex,'' due for release in early August. Based on a novel by S. E. Hinton, it takes a realistic look at a teenager with family troubles. The story touches on drugs and tentatively on sex. There is some violence, and at times the language is mildly profane.
It hardly sounds like Disney fare. Yet it's all in a good cause - presenting an accurate portrayal of a believable character, whose very flaws and weaknesses enhance the triumph of compassion, decency, and maturity which caps the movie. The treatment is a turnaround for the Disney organization, all right. But the new team is to be congratulated for giving director Tim Hunter the opportunity to tackle adolescence head on, confronting real problems with real solutions, not evading hard issues or wishing them away with moralistic formulas.
''Tex'' may turn out to be a controversial item, but it certainly doesn't condescend to its intended audience of teens and older viewers. It's quite possibly the best Disney picture ever made, excluding cartoons, and certainly the most mature in the best sense of the word. Humorous film from Scotland
On the current scene another film likely to attract teenagers and young adults is Gregory's Girl, made in Scotland by director Bill Forsyth. There are a few libidinous moments, and this time humor is the main goal, with insight coming in second. But the characters are basically innocent, despite their occasional lapses of taste, and the film celebrates their youthful high spirits with no ulterior motive.
The hero is a gangly young man named Gregory, whose good nature is both a curse and a blessing. He's the nicest guy in town, but the girl of his dreams -- the star of the school soccer team -- lacks the patience for his easy charm and lackadaisical habits. Fortunately there's a conspiracy afoot to snag Gregory for another classmate, a doe-eyed lass who describes him as ''slow and awkward,'' as if those were the most endearing qualities under the sun. The ending is inconclusive, just like every other part of the picture. But we know things will work out fine.
It's a slight movie, full of loose ends and casual connections. But it's fun to watch, and has some very good laughs. Significantly, though it arrived just recently in the United States, it has garnered a great deal of attention - perhaps indicating a real hunger for fare that elevates romance over rowdiness and raunchiness. Spielberg films
Another youth-targeted movie, and likely to be one of the biggest hits of the year, is E. T. The Extra-Terrestrial by Steven Spielberg. Here there's less excuse for the lapses from G-rated taste. The vulgarities of the screenplay are good for nothing but a few cheap laughs, and are sure to offend some viewers who would otherwise applaud this merry movie. Even if they were absent, though, the PG tag might be merited by the film's sci-fi medical sequence, which casts a technological chill before giving way to a ''Peter Pan''-style happy ending.
Such dubious flourishes aside, however, children are the natural audience for ''E. T.,'' which establishes Spielberg as the most amiably childlike director on the current scene. More than any other moviemaker, he understands what makes kids tick, and uses his savvy in scene after scene.
For proof, go to a daytime show and listen to pre-teens howl with glee when the friendly spaceman hides from an earthbound mother by masquerading as a stuffed animal. The glee comes partly from the harmless ruse and partly from the audience's delighted recognition of a mom -- just like a real one! -- who's too preoccupied with grownup affairs to keep track of her children's toys.As the story unfolds, her obliviousness to the existence of E. T. becomes one of the movie's funniest themes. But typically for a Spielberg film, the ribbing is always good-natured, and stops before it has time to become grating or snide.
Spielberg knows how to kid the kids, too. Witness the priceless moment when a boy tries to con his little sister with a fib about the alien -- claiming that ''only little children can see him'' -- and her reply is a sweetly drawled ''Gimme a break.'' Or an episode when the alien needs help making a quick escape to his spaceship. ''Can't he just beam up?'' asks a neighborhood boy. To which the hero responds, ''No, this is reality!''
True, the movie works variations on old Hollywood formulas, such as making the young hero a stronger character than his older brother. But almost every aspect of the movie (apart from its climax, which is overdone) reflects a canny understanding of children as both characters and spectators. If you love kids, you won't see a more moving scene all year than young Elliott gently showing the spaceman his bedroom, explaining what a soft drink is, and giving the names of all his toys. Add to this the movie's lack of violence and its witty visual puns , and you have a summer entertainment that should please nearly everyone.
For the young-adult groupSpielberg's other hit of the season, Poltergeist, clearly goes for an older crowd than ''E. T.'' does, aiming many of its effects at the teen and young-adult crowd that turned his ''Raiders of the Lost Ark'' into last year's biggest hit. After a slow and deliberate buildup, ''Poltergeist'' erupts in supernatural mayhem at a haunted housing tract that closely recalls the frantic finale of ''Raiders,'' though with a less-exotic background. ''Night of the Living Real Estate,'' you might call it.
As it happens, Spielberg is credited as producer of ''Poltergeist,'' with the directing credit going to Tobe Hooper, a technically talented filmmaker whose best-known work is the notorious ''Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Yet the energetic Spielberg appears to have provided the basic vision of the film: By his own account, he served as a ''strong, David O. Selznick-type'' producer, and was active on the set every day. And sure enough, there's a sense of family warmth and security running through ''Poltergeist'' that takes a lot of the edge off the explosive scenes. It's also interesting to note that not a single character is killed or even harmed in the course of the plot, despite a lot of harrowingly close calls. That's the Spielberg touch at work.
Thus, while ''Poltergeist'' wanders far from ''family film'' territory, it's still more restrained than most adventure-fantasies of recent years and more rooted in everyday reality -- so much that it's hard to swallow at times, as when the ultimate symbol of American safety and sanity turns out to be a Holiday Inn!
Watching goodness and normality triumph over the forces of darkness and disarray, it's natural to recall that Spielberg had his origins as a filmmaker when he was still at a fairy-tale age. He made his first movie as a child growing up in Arizona. At that time he was in love with his Lionel electric-train set, and used it to stage enormous train wrecks. When his exasperated parents warned that they wouldn't repair any more locomotives or replace any more boxcars, young Steven borrowed his father's eight-mm camera and filmed his next wreck ''to prolong it.'' The result almost overwhelmed him. ''I didn't loom over the train,'' he says now, remembering his first viewing of the movie. ''The train loomed over mem on a big screen. I watched it over and over.''
Spielberg has traveled a long road since then, becoming one of the world's most successful and respected directors. But that little boy is still lurking inside him, looking at the world--and the movies--with childlike awe. Sometimes he shares his happiest dreams, like ''E. T.,'' and sometimes he unleashes his darkest nightmares, like ''Poltergeist.''
He always remembers that it's all make-believe, though, and like the Brothers Grimm, he makes sure that the bad guys get it in the end, no matter how threatening they may have appeared. Influential filmmaker
The late Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who passed on in Munich recently, was considered by many to be the most important filmmaker of his generation. Critics , directors, and international audiences responded to his dark vision of a world dominated by power structures, in which even the words ''I love you'' were more likely a bid for control than an expression of affection.
Fassbinder turned out films at a prodigious pace, completing about three a year during the peak of his career. It was said he could write a screenplay in the space of an airplane trip. In addition to directing his own scripts, he occasionally starred in them, as well as acting for other directors and producing films for his proteges.
His best movie was also his most popular with American viewers: ''The Marriage of Maria Braun,'' the story of a young woman who drags herself up the ladder of success in postwar West Germany. Especially in its first half, it blends more delicately than any other Fassbinder film the three elements that preoccupied him throughout his career -- melodrama, irony, and real emotion. But his legacy is based mostly on the quick, purposefully inexpensive pictures that made his reputation during the 1970s--a body of work that has often been praised indiscriminately, but stands nonetheless as one of the major achievements of the new German cinema (Das Neue Kino) that has produced such other talented figures as Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders.