Is Hollywood capable of 'thinking' movies?

Two veteran critics discuss box-office numbers, subtitled films, and some bright spots.

Have the movies lost their magic, as some critics claim? It seems that way sometimes. Pundits regularly announce the death of artistic filmmaking and the hopeless vulgarity of media entertainment. The loudest case in the other direction comes from consumer-guide reviewers who hoist enthusiastic thumbs over multiplex blockbusters that are all but forgotten a few weeks later.

Few commentators take thoughtfully balanced looks at today's movies, and two of the best have recently published important new books that encapsulate their views.

Critics love to disagree, and these two have differing views on many films and issues they've written about over the years Â- Jonathan Rosenbaum for the Chicago Reader, a weekly newspaper, and Stuart Klawans for The Nation, a national magazine.

What's more striking are the ideas they have in common, supported by long experience and a shared desire to help the movie world realize its possibilities.

One area of agreement is a conviction that Hollywood's bloated advertising budgets have a degree of power way out of proportion to the products they peddle.

"By and large," Klawans told me in a recent interview, "Hollywood controls everyone's viewing agenda," making even mediocre productions into "event pictures" while elbowing most independent and international releases off the screen.

"We hear a lot about the Internet and other new communication tools," Rosenbaum said in a separate conversation. "But the money spent on publicity by the major [film] companies counteracts everything else, at least for casual audiences."

This explains the large box-office take of a movie like "Star Wars: Episode One Â- The Phantom Menace" (1999), which Rosenbaum cites as an example of Hollywood marketing at its most manipulative. Klawans also sees it as Exhibit A, describing it in his book as the kind of picture "that everybody knows about and nobody enjoys."

The unrivaled power of studio advertising lies behind one of Rosenbaum's greatest concerns: that audiences would embrace a wide range of international movies, and learn more about our complicated world, if Hollywood's tunnel- vision mentality didn't crowd them out of consciousness most of the time.

"I'm sometimes criticized for writing about films that nobody's heard about," Klawans says. "But this just means the films don't have big advertising budgets Â- and when I do write about hard-to-get films, I get lots of e-mails from people who want to know more about them."

Rosenbaum is also irked about limitations Hollywood places on itself as a result of test marketing and unexamined biases.

"They say audiences don't like subtitles," he complains. "But most [young] people haven't seen subtitles, so how can they dislike something they haven't seen? And what about 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,' which was a hit with subtitles? I guess people don't like subtitles Â- except when they do!"

This doesn't mean the studio system can't produce fascinating pictures anymore. Rosenbaum says his favorite movie of last year was "A.I. Artificial Intelligence," directed by Hollywood prodigy Steven Spielberg from a project developed by American expatriate Stanley Kubrick before his death in 1999.

Klawans also cites "A.I." as evidence that Hollywood can still produce movies with "complex and problematic" personalities.

"What an astonishing picture that was to foist on the public," he says with a smile. "There's so much terrific filmmaking and real talent at work, even if it doesn't all hold together...."

A key theme in much of Klawans's writing is a sense that good movies take account of the real world we actually live in. They often blur strict boundaries between fiction and documentary, allowing viewers "to coexist with them, as you live with buses and parks and friends," he writes.

This explains his affection for this year's Oscar-winning hit "A Beautiful Mind," which he admires while acknowledging its radical departures from the actual life of John Forbes Nash, the unconventional economist it portrays.

"The movie does impressive things," Klawans says. "The storytelling strategy of beginning within his delusions and then leading the audience to almost demand that the delusions be real Â- 'The agents are about to get him, save the poor man!' Â- is very daring and clever.

"It's also remarkable that at the climax, they show you a really smart man working his way through a problem," he continues. "That doesn't sound like it should be very unusual or difficult, until you realize how hard it is to do in a movie. Usually you just see action or talk. You rarely get to see someone actually thinking, actually figuring things out."

Despite this enthusiasm for "A Beautiful Mind," Klawans agrees with many reviewers that Hollywood has undergone "a remarkable falling-off of quality" in recent years. Still, he continues to find worthwhile fare, some of it in unlikely places. Others may sneer at scruffy farces by the Farrelly brothers, but Klawans found "Shallow Hal" to be one of last year's bright spots.

"Even the remake of 'The Time Machine' had a couple of moments of real beauty," he adds. "There were moments of unexpected intelligence that you could use to think about things outside the movie itself."

Rosenbaum shares Klawans's respect for movies that illuminate issues in the wider world. But he's more aggressive in accusing today's Hollywood of retreating to an artificial world of its own manufacture, controlled more by committees and computers than by respect for viewers' intelligence.

Gone is the time when audacious movies plunged into the social and political issues of their day, he feels Â- the culture-critiquing comedies of Frank Tashlin ("Son of Paleface" "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter," "Artists and Models"), for instance, and the domestic melodramas of Nicholas Ray ("Johnny Guitar," "King of Kings," "55 Days at Peking") and Douglas Sirk ("Magnificent Obsession," "Written on the Wind," "Imitation of Life") in the 1950s. Today, most studios would consult their test-marketing teams and scratch such productions from their schedules.

"Nobody has a worse opinion of the US public than Hollywood," Rosenbaum laments.

Ironically, both critics think hope for the future lies partly in cinema's most formidable rival: television, where lower financial stakes and quicker production schedules sometimes allow more creative freedom. "Nowadays, movies about what really happens in life tend to go to TV," claims Rosenbaum, citing Christopher Mé¼nch's personal film "Sleepy Time Gal" and the racially charged drama "The Believer" as current examples.

"If you're looking for the reliable, well-made, absorbing entertainment that can make you think a little bit, you'll get it much more on television," Klawans says, pointing to "West Wing" and "ER" as cases in point. "The good products of the studio system have migrated there, because the swollen economics of major motion- picture production mean you can't break through in theatrical films unless you're a Spielberg or a Ron Howard....

"A few decades ago, everyone went to the movies all the time. They didn't ask what was playing or when the show started; they'd just put on their hats and go! TV serves that purpose now, and this is an important change. The big question is Â- can it live up to its responsibility?"

• 'Left in the Dark: Film Reviews and Essays 1988-2001,' by Stuart Klawans, is published by Thunder's Mouth/Nation Books, 340 pp., $15.95. 'Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Conspire to Limit What Films We Can See,' by Jonathan Rosenbaum, is published by A Cappella, 234 pp., $24.

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