J a n u a r y   2 0 0 3

Guest Writer

A place called satisfaction
Grand illusion
by Ryan Douglas

he cold sense of isolation that dominates my life is derived solely from insipid Hollywood action movies.

Someday, when they send me off to prison for my dark and heartless dispassion, I will cite my insatiable hunger for the meaningless violence extracted from contemporary American action movies as the motivation for all of my heinous and egregious deeds.

I love action. Week after week the warm glow of the ubiquitous national video-chain franchise gently coaxes me into its bosom. Its brightly lit interior offers respite from the frigid and dark outside air. Its neatly ordered rows of blockbuster action movies invite structure and equity to a chaotic world, where choice and conflict walk hand in hand and where strife and rage are reigned in at every corner of injustice.

Once inside, bereft of any tangible, "real" video choices, I am confronted by a sea of duplicate copies of poorly planned, badly executed and overproduced Hollywood movies. They invite me to watch them. Almost wistfully, they whisper to me with their supple promises of everlasting fulfillment and prolonged gratification.

I cannot help but yield to their calls. I take them home. I watch them.

Afterward, I invariably feel tremendously unsatisfied. It's an odd and somewhat indescribable sensation. It's almost like there is a spot in my body where I should feel the satisfaction welling, growing and spouting forth. But I can't feel anything there. I can't feel that part of my body at all. The only thing that I feel in that hollow, growling place is the dull numbness of vacancy.

I feel like satisfaction is a place that sank into the ocean, or was buried by a volcano. The inhabitants of satisfaction were blown up when an alien craft spat fire on them as they ran for cover. All the buildings in satisfaction melted when an asteroid came screaming down from heaven and exploded above the city in an apocalyptic blue-green hell cloud.

Watching just one bad action film puts me two hours closer to the grave, and all I have to show for it are vague recollections of unintelligible fight scenes and an empty gap where emotional fulfillment used to be. Later, I often feel a deep sense of loss for those two precious hours of my life that will never return. I can't get that time back; it's as if it was stolen from me.

Again and again, I have heard movie producers claim that they aren't in the business to educate, fulfill and enlighten the American public. They make movies only to entertain. That statement is both sad and true. I accept this is a fact. If most "mainstream" American movies were actually entertaining, I would also accept this as a philosophy.

But too often, modern movies – particularly modern action movies – lack the ability to provide their audience with any form of true entertainment.

With beautiful Hollywood stars, incredible on-location scenery and extremely high production values, many such releases look entertaining. Their trendy, upbeat soundtracks and multilayered digital audio tracks sound entertaining. Unfortunately, their weak storylines, shallow characters and general lack of coherence diminish these glimmering attributes to a weak facade, erected to hide their enormous inadequacies.

To some degree, the evolution of special effects has perverted the genre and devolved the industry to its current state. While effects have become more realistic and digital post-production work has taken the media to new visual heights, it has done so at the sacrifice of material depth and story content.

As movies get more realistic, they lose all of their artistic subtlety and, consequently, their ability to entertain. The more the visual experience of cinema mimics our own personal experience, the less power it has to take us away from ourselves.

Of course, great cinema is rarely without some form of special effects.

The technical innovation of bringing together moving pictures and sound is a marvel to the eye. The act of running film over a lens at 24 frames per second to create the illusion of motion is in and of itself a "special effect."

But until recently, cinema has never remained focused on the simple fact that it was able to present realistic, moving images. Theater has always been able to do that. The beauty of cinema has always lied in its ability to convey ideas in ways that are impossible in any other medium.

Traditionally, moviegoers have understood that they were required to suspend their disbelief in the illusions as they unfolded on the screen. Now, digital technology can create images so realistic that cinema no longer requires its viewers do anything to accept images in film as real.

The most troubling thing about this is the fact that this country was once, and is still, capable of great cinema. Not all modern films lack quality. But for some reason, the ones without entertainment value are the ones that the video stores always try to cram down our throats.

Every year, a relatively large number of excellent films are produced in America. These films rarely appear on the shelves of the national chain video stores.

A stroll down the forgotten center aisles of any fine video-renting establishment is all it takes for one to discover the art of American cinema. These shelves carry on them the shadows of the once-great American Film Industry. Here, videos are usually turned on their side so that they occupy less shelf space than their mass-marketed counterparts. Usually there is only one copy of each film.

Old movies still allow us to use our imagination. Because hyper-realistic visual detail is neither possible nor pertinent, the success of these vintage films relies heavily on the quality of the story, the skill of the actors and the vision of the director.

Independent movies usually are produced not merely to entertain, but because someone has something to say, show or convey. These films are generally created on comparably miniscule budgets without the benefit of elaborate special-effects teams and huge celebrity casts.

Whether its root lies in contemporary social mores, financial deficiency or limitations in technology, the subtleness that pervades Hollywood films of the '40s and '50s is also found in many modern independent productions. This type of modesty forces the viewer to trust his instincts and believe in the story. When a film requires this kind of investment from viewers, it is to our benefit. We become active, cognizant participants in a story instead of passive blobs, eating popcorn and waiting for something on screen to blow up.

When a filmmaker is able to free himself from the burden of creating movies that look completely realistic, he then has leeway to create something more than a display for the eye. Shifting the film's focus from hyper-realism during production opens avenues of provocative acting, streets of creative photography, and superhighways of delicious screenwriting.

Great stories are not things to merely be watched; they are things in which we may immerse ourselves. If a film does not show us each and every lurid detail, to compensate, the director must intimate at large events with small ones.

In mammoth Hollywood productions, lost are the ways in which the twist of a shadow changes the audience's sense of movement. How the sinking of the gaslight sets the mood from tranquility to terror; the way the tone of a sentence seems to fall off the edge of the world, and when it does, we somehow know that love is dead and will never return.

Sometimes images are crude things that destroy mystery and ruin the imagination.

E-mail Ryan at ryonie@hotmail.com, and see more of his work in our archives.

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