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Fall Movies: Embracing or Escaping Reality?


By Kat Murphy
Special to MSN Movies

Used to be that hidden in the dark of a movie theater full of anonymous fellow travelers, we could get lost in dreams and nightmares, sometimes wildly fantastic, sometimes as real as right now. Watching bigger-than-life realities up there on the movie screen made us vicarious participants: We could submerge ourselves in cinematic fictions, hungry for transformation and enlightenment, without fear of drowning.

But these days, the flickers, so promiscuously accessible in portable frames and big-screen rec rooms, have lost a good deal of that private, privileged magic. Like Aldous Huxley's soma, cinema's served up to everyone anytime anywhere. Often, the stuff it's made of tastes more like sugary escapism than spicy significance. Ironically, breaking news -- planes flying into skyscrapers, a real-life orange-haired Joker -- has come to look like figments from the fertile imagination of Michael Bay or Christopher Nolan.

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So does the Hollywood Dream Factory aim to help us embrace or escape our everyday lives? Do current movies mirror our deepest fears and hopes? Or is our multiplex entertainment designed to distract us from discomfiting reality?

Remember back in 2009, when Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" turned the silver screen into a fiery weapon of vengeance against primal evil? In QT's rich imagination, the movies are powerful enough to rewrite history. Yet, recently one studio felt compelled to change the title of its forthcoming comedy "Neighborhood Watch" to guard against potential ticket buyers being reminded of the George Zimmerman-Trayvon Martin shooting.

Even more recently, during a screening of the latest -- and bleakest -- chapter of Nolan's Batman trilogy, a man began firing nonstop into a Colorado movie audience. Coincidentally, that same evening a preview was running for another soon-to-be-released film, "Gangster Squad," featuring a shootout in a crowded theater. The entire ending had to be excised and reshot so as not to disturb presumably traumatized moviegoers. As a poet once opined, "Humankind cannot bear very much reality."

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The ticklish tension between screen visions and voyeuristic dreamers, between movie-made fictions and crazy offscreen plots, has long intrigued great directors, from Buster Keaton to Alfred Hitchcock to David Cronenberg to the previously mentioned Tarantino. Probably not a smart idea -- in service of good art or mental health -- to doctor our movies so that they look better than life, scoured of any images that conjure actual unpleasant events. Especially when news coverage of such events repeats the same pictures over and over and over, until all emotional impact is leeched away.

Maybe we're afraid Tarantino was right: Maybe movies are so dangerous, they even make madness. Better to censor and euphemize references to brutal reality, anesthetize ourselves in feel-good comedy, inane rom-coms and big-budget superheroes-save-the-world shows. It's no secret that horror movies generally tap into a society's buried fears and anxieties. (That's why "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" gets reimagined every couple of decades.)  Makes you wonder why two fall horror flicks -- "Sinister" and "V/H/S" -- are all about the fatal fallout from movie watching.

On the other hand, escapist filmmaking saves lives in "Argo," Ben Affleck's fall dramedy: Under the cover of shooting a schlock sci-fi flick, Hollywood and the CIA join forces to rescue Americans hiding in Iraq during 1979's hostage crisis. Now there's a real intersection between out-of-this-world and down-to-earth filmmaking!

Nowadays, according to smarter-than-thou politicians, pundits and philosophers, America's fairly riddled with anxiety. We're warned that if we make the wrong decision in November, the country will self-destruct, collapse into chaos. Wall Street greed thrives while poverty and unemployment spread. Hordes of old people devour entitlements and overflow every safety net. Women lack the IQ or ethics to realize that zygotes come first. Alternately too hot or too cold, the weather blows up a storm of controversy, the possibility of another ice age. We're running out of frakkin' juice to run our machines, our flesh is being eaten by bacteria and nutcases keep picking up guns and mowing down bystanders.

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Is it any wonder we were avid for last summer's super-avengers, Greek gods and marvelous mutants? At least they promised to save the world.

But where are films that tackle these anxiety-producing issues head-on or even sideways? How about a sci-fi -- or horror -- movie depicting a presidential campaign as pure, unadulterated entertainment, a miniseries reality show starring handsome, handsomer androids, each provided with a life-script fattened with the best fictions money can buy? Couldn't Michael Bay come up with a brand-new take on "Soylent Green," a "Transformers" sequel in which shrinking entitlements could be saved by creating a new food source? Where's a present-day version of "The Handmaid's Tale" (1990), that bleak dystopian fantasy about women forced into breeding by a religious-right government? At least next year will bring the return of George Miller's once and future "Mad Max," post-apocalyptic hero in a wasteland where gas is gold.

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