Has Hollywood forgotten the art of making magic on the silver screen?

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The Independent Online
A SURVEY of the nation's young people asking them to name their top five films has yielded surprising results.

A generation weaned on celluloid sex, graphic violence and special effects has listed Gone with the Wind and Casablanca as the best movies of all time. It is only after these two classics - made before the parents of some of those surveyed were alive - that today's youth picked less remarkable choices, with last year's blockbusters The Full Monty and Titanic grabbing third and fourth place. Star Wars, made in 1977 but recently re-released amid much fanfare, came in fifth.

So why is there still, among the young today, this harking back to the golden age of cinema?

The reason is simple, and stands as an indictment of today's film industry. Most contemporary movies are intended to be disposable commercial objects, quick profit-turners that are as greedily consumed and quickly forgotten as tabloid newspapers, video games or, indeed, soft drinks.

Modern films such as last year's Independence Day or the upcoming Godzilla tend to be the result of market research into cultural and economic trends rather than the brain children of inspired auteurs who will do anything to get their visions on screen. Is the Hale-Bopp comet making the news?

Then let's shoot a movie like the just-released Deep Impact, in which a giant bit of space debris flattens the Earth. As film producers target younger and younger audiences, their products become increasingly wedded to the here-and-now, the point of sale and the impulse buy.

The notion that these films will have a shelf-life longer than the new All Saints CD rarely enters the minds of the people making them. It is no coincidence that three of the biggest box office stars in the business - Schwarzenegger, Stallone and Willis - are able to use the exact same skills displayed in their movies to create a chain of hamburger restaurants.

The result of this obsessive topicality should be a generation of moviegoers who have little time for films from a more grown-up past.

Today's teenage ticket-buyer is wholly a creature of the present-day marketplace. He probably had his first childhood cinema experience watching a film that sprang from the corporate imagination of Disney's doodling salesmen. The content of these first offerings differed little from what was available on home television or computer screens. Product spin-offs clogged the aisles of the toy shop and a video cassette purchase was nearly inevitable.

These initial childhood experiences were followed by early teen movies that were exactly like what could be seen on television, only more so, offering increasingly explicit doses of profanity, violence and nudity.

It would be reasonable to assume that for these kids, Gone with the Wind would hold about as much excitement as three hours in front of a prehistoric cave drawing.

And this process of indoctrination into a world without a movie past doesn't stop with puberty, but continues right through the 18-year-old watershed. Films that supposedly deal with "adult" themes, such as Basic Instinct, are in fact just as superficial as those first childhood flicks.

You just get to see more blood and naughty bits. Even "serious" films these days tend to sacrifice depth for topicality. The forthcoming Primary Colors, for instance, directed by the venerable Mike Nichols and starring an in-form John Travolta as a promiscuous but popular US President, derives its meaning and purpose from no other source than the current sensationalist headlines detailing Bill Clinton's sexual peccadilloes. Take away that news buzz and the film has little reason to exist.

It is a far cry from Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, which eschewed identification with any contemporary scandal to create a story of political intrigue far more memorable than Nichol's glitzy effort.

So, by the time he reaches the 16 to 25 age group covered by the recent survey, the young moviegoer should have been stripped of any feeling for the importance of old films. Whatever blockbuster last crossed his field of vision should, in theory, top his list. And yet he still feels compelled to pull two classics out of the hat.

Despite the market surveys, slick style and titillating content, the kid in the fourth row feels that something is missing from the modern screen. Even if he hasn't actually even seen Gone with the Wind or Casablanca, he knows enough to realise they are a repository for a magic currently being denied his generation.

Perhaps today's young moviegoer harbours a small, simmering resentment of the blatant exploitativeness of modern movies, a sense that he knows that motion pictures used to be serious spectacles rather than fleeting roller-coaster rides into various corners of the collective id, conducted by beefed-up stars and cynical directors who command nothing more than five quid and a couple hours of your time.

The choice of Gone with the Wind and Casablanca also suggests that young moviegoers hunger for a different sort of escapism than the intergalactic morphing currently masquerading as screen magic.

The impossibly elegant stars and plausibly exotic locales of those two films suggest an fantasy world which can still manage to be grown-up.

For a young person to watch Bogart and Bergman or Gable and Leigh is to experience a sort of idealised personal future that is the stuff of true cinematic dreams.

To watch Bruce Willis, Madonna or even Titanic's Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio - who speak and act like a couple of modern mall rats - is to surf through a hyped-up present that provides little resonance once the lights go up.

It will be interesting to see the results of a similar survey taken five years from now. I would bet the price of a couple cinema tickets that those top two choices will remain the same, while the following three will have rolled-over to whatever were the must-see films of 2002.

To paraphrase Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, maybe it isn't the kids who are getting smaller, but the movies they are being sold.