A Welcome Critique of Mass American Culture

AS everyone knows these days, movies, television, and advertising increasingly determine our perceptions, our values, our wants, the way we think and vote - even the way we feel. Given television, newspaper, and magazine coverage devoted to entertainment (most of it gossip and puffery) as well as the onslaught of celebrity biographies, it's also clear that millions of Americans want to consume information about entertainment. This - alas! - is not in order to understand how entertainment affects their lives; it is apparently simply to be entertained.

Given this state of affairs, it's reason for rejoicing that Pantheon Books has just issued another volume in its valuable ``Guide to Popular Culture'' series. This one, ``Seeing Through Movies,'' offers six essays. They're written by members of a band of trenchant media critics, whose observations and insights awe a reader while at the same time making him pant with delight.

This is a wonderful book. All high school and college students, the main consumers of movies, should be forbidden to read it - as a ploy, naturally, to entice them into it. (For other readers, a mere recommendation may suffice.) With all the junk being written and broadcast about entertainment, it is refreshing to read these clearsighted, sensible reports.

In the lead essay, Todd Gitlin, editor of Pantheon's ``Watching Television'' series, discusses moviemakers' adjustment to TV. First, they ignored it; then they attacked it. Now, Gitlin writes, the movies ``have settled for glamour and popular culture's funky equivalent of prestige.'' Movie people have joined television, Gitlin argues, ``all the while hoarding their status, sneering and imitating by turns, insisting on how special they still are.''

In its sad accommodation of television, Gitlin says, movies have decided to join what they could not beat. As a result, they look more and more like TV.

Mark Crispin Miller, editor of this volume, examines the specifics of this accommodation in the advertising area. He shows that while television breaks its programming for commercial messages, the movies now plug products in a nonstop advertising bombardment of the movies' captive audiences.

While Gitlin notes that movies increasingly resemble television, Miller goes farther. He suggests that movies increasingly look like TV ads. More and more they tell stories that sell the upbeat, upscale, you-can-have-it-all, instant-gratification lifestyle so familiar from TV commercials.

In his essay on the colorizing controversy, Stuart Klawans likens the color conversion of black-and-white films to the color conversion of urban neighborhoods. He finds similarities between the panic of white-flight and the reactions of moviemakers to colorization. He says that those opposing colorization were chasing bogymen. They might have better used the issue to secure real gains, he suggests, gains such as more preservation of black-and-white films and a clearer, more broadly based understanding of what ``intellectual property'' is.

Peter Biskind looks at the cultural climate that produced the George Lucas/Steven Spielberg parade of blockbusters (``Close Encounters,'' the ``Star Wars'' and ``Indiana Jones'' series) - and the cultural climate they importantly influenced. It is not a reassuring assessment.

``By attacking irony, critical thinking, self-consciousness,'' Biskind writes, ``by pitting heart against head, [Lucas's and Spielberg's films] did their share in helping to reduce an entire culture to childishness.''

Pat Aufderheide writes about the movies' treatment of the Vietnam War. It's a report of cautious corporations seeking to market visions of Vietnam that will turn a profit. To do this, these visions must strike responsive chords with the public. By the late '80s, Aufderheide suggests, audiences embraced identification with the ``noble grunt.'' And for very personal reasons. They were also, Aufderheide writes, ``confronted with a chaotic and uncooperative world, terrorized by large consequences of individual responsibility, and terrifyingly lonely.''

Douglas Gomery writes about the movies' delivery systems. His essay about theaters, ``If You've Seen One, You've Seen the Mall,'' charts the passage from nickelodeons through 5,000-seat movie palaces and drive-ins to the late show, cable TV, and cineplexes. Along the way he considers location and fantasy, the theater owner's two key considerations; the role of candy and popcorn; and the stripping away of fantasy (Egyptian, Oriental, and Chinese theaters) until ``going to the movies had been reduced to the equivalent of standing in line at the K-Mart.''

Readers will probably not agree with all the arguments in these essays. Once these media critics warm to their themes, they often get carried away. Sometimes they're too clever by half; occasionally the flood of insights is overwhelming.

But mass American culture needs a probing, analytical critique just now. And that is exactly what ``Seeing Through Movies'' offers.

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