Death, vulgarity seem to pass for entertainment

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Editor's note: Now that summer is ending, this column from Sunday, June 24, 1990, might provide some chuckles for our column readers.

One way to beat the summer heat is to go to the movies.

It started for me in the "old days," for lack of a better expression, when I took in the Saturday matinees at the old Rex Theatre on Main Street, where I was thrilled by the exploits of the Durango Kid (Charles Starrett), Johnny Mack Brown, Al "Lash" LaRue, "Wild Bill" Elliott (as Red Ryder) and Sunset Carson. As for the singing cowboys, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, I assigned them lesser status than the other six-gun heroes because they sang in their oaters, and that to me didn't fit the atmosphere of the old West near as much as "Lash" LaRue using his bullwhip on desperadoes or "Wild Bill" Elliott beating the tar out of various and sundry villains.

Those B westerns (along with the serials, featuring Zorro or Rocketman) were a great way for kids in my era to spend a sultry Saturday and escape to a world of action and adventure. Even though these westerns were violent (the bad guys always got their comeuppance), none would qualify for any of today's "PG" or "R" ratings that seem to be so vital to box-office success. They all clearly defined good versus evil, and good always won.

Alas, westerns are rarely featured on the silver screen these days. Instead we are treated to "action" movies in their stead, which feature the latest in Hollywood technology designed to shock and appall the moviegoer: i.e., bullets exploding into bodies with hideous realism, dismemberment, decapitation, blood, gore - the works. There is nothing left to the imagination in these contemporary flicks; indeed, realism is the sine qua non of modern movies (wait - I'm supposed to call them "films," as though they represent a higher level of cinema).

Being an ardent movie-goer, I can't resist taking in these modern flicks in the hopes that some revelation will appear on the screen, such as Orson Welles gasping out "Rosebud" as he dies in "Citizen Kane." Unfortunately, no such Great Moments in Cinema have reached out and grabbed me in the latest offerings.

Take "Total Recall," for instance, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, a muscle-bound stiff with all the acting skills of a barbell who has nevertheless shown an amazing aptitude for making profitable movies. My son warned me before I saw it that Arnold was in rare form in this one, cracking necks and other bones of an assortment of cooperative heavies. He was right; Arnold dispatched four of them, gruesomely, before I'd finished half my popcorn. After that, it was just a matter of adding to the body count, which numbered in the hundreds before Arnold had completed his mayhem. In one scene, a villain's arms are torn off in Schwarzenegger's hands during an elevator fight. Of course, there are the obligatory scenes of Uzis (the weapon of choice in action epics) shredding bodies with multiple gunshot wounds. Arnold prevails, of course, and even manages to create air fit to breathe on Mars. (Yes, the denouement of this movie occurs on the Red Planet, just to give an exotic flavor to the plot, such as it is. In the "old days," Casablanca was exotic enough).

And then there is another new offering I also witnessed, the sequel to "48 Hrs." with the appropriate title of "Another 48 Hrs." Since I happen to like Nick Nolte and believe he has some acting skills, I sat down to this vehicle for Eddie Murphy. Again, there was much gun play although the body count was far below that found in a Schwarzenegger movie. This "film" was distinguished by Murphy's interminable use of the "F" word, which Hollywood seems to feel is essential to dialogue in action movies - in other words, the more action, the more obscenities. (I can never picture in my mind such movie tough guys as James Cagney or Humphrey Bogart having to use vile language to develop the characters they portrayed. Good actors could always convey menacing hard cases without the shock value of gratuitous gutter talk).

After enough exposure, these modern action movies with their non-stop violence and filthy dialogue leave the movie-goer numbed by the sheer volume of it all. Without some subtleties, a movie degenerates into mere pictures on a screen, a flickering bad joke that becomes a parody of realism. In a good movie, less is more.

This is not to say that the old six-gunners had action down to a science. Nope, for them, it was all in fun, and the youthful audience of a simpler era knew it. Now action movies are serious business, and for four bucks you get a heavy body count and the "F" word. Some of this modern fare is about as entertaining as a root canal, and it has the staying power of a belch in a windstorm.

It's funny - I can still remember the Durango Kid coming out of a cave with his black bandanna over his face, riding his trusty horse Raider to do battle with the bad guys, but I can't for the life of me believe that the image of Arnold breaking someone's neck is going to stay in anyone's memory bank.

"Lash" LaRue, where are you when we need you the most?

Reach Hubert D. Osteen at hubert@theitem.com.