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Deep focus

I HAVE LONG HELD TO THE THEORY that people’s favorite period in the history of movies generally coincides with the era in which they grew up, or at least with when they fell in love with films. My parents’ generation stands by the 1930s (they might be right), and friends who came of age during World War II still prefer pictures from the 1940s.

The 1950s pose something of a problem, since American films of the period were so despised and undervalued by the prevailing critical establishment that they still haven’t entirely recovered. This is true despite the opinions of many younger observers who agree with critic Andrew Sarris that the 1950s represented the richest period for personal expression in the history of American films.

These issues can be debated at length, but the question has come to mind because, at times over the past couple of weeks, I’ve felt as if I were a kid again seeing movies back in 1961.

Without doubt, two of my personal faves in those days were “Journey to the Center of the Earth” and “The Lost World.” I went to each one three times and, without having seen either since, can still vividly remember the striking black Icelandic volcano, chilling Bernard Herrmann score and vivid colors from the former, and the fantastic dinosaurs and sense of isolation from the world in the latter.

I willingly put myself back in this child’s-eye mindset when I went to “Jurassic Park,” and knew at once that the film would surpass those earlier monster mashes simply because the dinosaurs are so great. Granted, Sam Neill and Laura Dern are not quite as absurd as Pat Boone and Arlene Dahl in “Journey” and Michael Rennie and Jill St. John in “The Lost World.” But the point is that the humans don’t matter, except as food for the monsters.

I STILL CAN’T BELIEVE that Spielberg blew so much suspense by showing the first dinosaurs in full view just a half-hour into the film, rather than building fear through a mixture of threatening sounds and partial sightings prior to revealing the beasts in all their glory, as even the most forgettable B movies of old had the smarts to do. The killing of the fat villain was also flubbed, and there could have been many entertainingly gruesome sequences had the original vast number of park employees been kept on the island rather than swept away when convenient. But it doesn’t really matter.

Mixed in with seeing “Jurassic Park” and the kid-oriented “Last Action Hero” and “Dennis the Menace” (recycled 1960s TV), last week I indulged myself by experiencing — also for the fourth time — the 1961 epic “El Cid” at the AFI/L.A. Fest’s opening night. Unlike dinosaur films, giant historical/religious/action pageants on the scale of “El Cid” and other Charlton Heston starrers aren’t being refashioned in new versions for modern audiences, so enterprising distributors are now taking to “restoring,” in one way or another, the actual old films and sending them out as major theatrical events.

As far as I’m concerned, this is great news, since the epic was the genre that first got me interested in movies. What got me even more interested were films from the precise opposite end of the spectrum — the small, intimate, highly personal works from France and Italy from the late 1950s on.

BUT THERE IS NO SWEETER film nostalgia I know than to sink deeply into a theater seat for three hours or more and be swept back into ancient times courtesy of resplendent 70mm widescreen Technicolor images — a trip that, of course, constitutes a visit back to my innocent youth, when movies (and history) were a world of wonder. This nostalgia for childhood, I believe, lies at the heart of why certain genres — Westerns, dinosaur pictures and restored epics, just for starters — are currently undergoing such a resurgence.

Many of the key filmmakers involved in setting these trends — Spielberg, Costner, Kasdan — are of an age that would have made them most impressionable to films in the late 1950s-early 1960s, and the same goes for the baby boomer producers and executives who are making the go-ahead decisions.

Having lived without oater/dino/epic films for so long through the 1970s and 1980s, there is something deeply appealing and reassuring to baby boomers about resurrecting these genres now, about reenacting the heroic actions, enduring myths and grand images of our youth. In our 20s and early 30s, we were too hip to confess to an affection for these square spectacles, in which the dialogue was often stilted, the decor garish, the drama predictable, the acting wooden.

When a couple of friends with no predisposition to the genre reacted coldly to “El Cid” last week, I realized that full appreciation of the form partly requires an acquired taste akin to that for opera, in that there are certain conventions that need to be accepted. Unlike Westerns and other genres, epics never really had a revisionist period of anti-epics, since they were just too expensive — they just became extinct, like dinosaurs.

After war films had been utterly unfashionable through the 1970s, a sufficient distance from Vietnam made them the rage again for several years. Since historical films are at least as much about the times they are made in as the times they’re about, it’s likely that the new Westerns will, to at least a certain degree, be used to discuss revised thinking on multiculturalism, contemporary violence and the way the United States was settled.

Just the same, “The Magnificent Seven” in 1960 may have partly been about imperial America’s ideas about policing the Third World, and Westerns like “The Wild Bunch” and “Little Big Man” were about Vietnam.

The epic film boom of the 1950s resulted initially from a desire to lure audiences from their televisions by giving them something on a big screen that they couldn’t see at home. It also served to reassert conventional Judeo-Christian values to the masses during an outwardly conformist decade.

My sociological crystal ball does not reveal what circumstances would motivate the resumed production of new epics (cost should not necessarily be an impediment, given the existence of technology such as Introvision and the studios’ willingness to spend upwards of $ 60 million on many pictures). But the widespread advance telephone booking for “Jurassic Park” is the closest thing we’ve had to the old hard-ticket policy in a long time, and the need for “event” pictures and the possibly subconscious desires of our baby boomer filmmakers will, most likely, lead to some genuine epic films in the near future.