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2001’s glum pic output a sign of the times

DO PEOPLE WHO WORK in the film business actually see what their industry puts out? Does anyone, aside from teenagers and beleaguered critics, know first-hand what an execrable year it’s been thus far? Have the studios entirely given up even pretending to try to make pictures of respectable quality for the mass audience?

From the evidence from the first four months of 2001, the answers are no, no and yes. Everyone is likely familiar with the titles of the dismal youth-targeted films that have mostly hit the ground like elephant droppings of late: “Saving Silverman,” “Monkeybone,” “Say It Isn’t So,” “Tomcats,” “Joe Dirt,” “Josie and the Pussycats” and, making the biggest splat of all, “Freddy Got Fingered,” a film saved from total cultural disreputability by a very strange semi-rave in the New York Times.

Somehow, I seriously doubt whether Hollywood professionals ever saw for themselves how Godawful these pictures are, and can therefore remain blissfully unaware of the mind-numbing punishment the industry is inflicting upon the citizens of the world who willingly allow themselves to be lured by the promise of the latest grossout.

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But there have always been lousy movies, and critics love to write pieces about how things are worse than ever — how never in the history of the cinema has there been a year worse than this one, whatever year it may be. What’s striking is that, after a pretty strong final stretch last year, the first third of 2001 has been almost entirely absent of anything that aspires to quality even in the filmmakers’ most deluded dreams.

As of this time last year, I had already seen three major films of awards caliber: “Wonder Boys,” “Erin Brockovich” and “Gladiator.” Strictly among Hollywood studio fare, there had also been a decent popcorn picture, “U-571”; the niche audience favorite “High Fidelity”; and the fascinating “Time Code.”

The new year has scarcely produced any artistically ambitious pictures at all, and the handful of big hits — “Hannibal,” “Save the Last Dance,” “Spy Kids” and “Bridget Jones’s Diary” — have proved more adept at supplying the right commercial ingredients to attract their intended audiences than in providing anything fresh or unusual.

ON THE MIDDLE LEVEL in between the big pictures and the junk, however, there have been alarming signs that producers and directors seem increasingly incapable of turning out competent genre pictures, well-made, modest-ambition films with solid carpentry in all departments. The two would-be romances released thus far, “Sweet November,” with Keanu Reeves and Charlize Theron, and “Someone Like You,” with Ashley Judd, were painfully bland and predictable, without an ounce of spontaneity; crime pictures such as “3000 Miles to Graceland,” “Exit Wounds,” “Along Came a Spider” and the starry “The Mexican” were all conspicuously routine, patched together from recycled elements; the war film “Enemy at the Gates” was glum and poorly written; kidpics like “Recess: School’s Out” and “Pokemon 3” proved all but unbearable to anyone but Saturday morning TV fans; the new actioner “Driven” is replete with all the cliches and superficiality of nearly every car racing film ever made; and the long-awaited “Town & Country” reinvestigates the anxiety of infidelity familiar from numerous other Warren Beatty starrers, but largely without its predecessors’ elan.

The only film so far this year that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed and admired is “The Tailor of Panama,” John Boorman’s sardonic visit to Graham Greene territory courtesy of John Le Carre. While the picture may not rank among the director’s very best, it nonetheless brandishes a nasty wit and mature confidence in short supply at the moment and — rare among Boorman’s films — it’s also ideally cast and acted.

Aside from “Tailor,” Sean Penn’s grimly deterministic “The Pledge” and Christopher Nolan’s “Memento,” which I found as irritating as it is obviously brimming with talented, what nearly all of the rest of this year’s films share is timidity, a lack of risk-taking, a determination to play it safe — all to diminished returns.

Ridley Scott lavished a sort of sickly decadence on “Hannibal,” and Thomas Carter admirably maximized the potential of (and resisted mannered musicvid stylistics in) “Save the Last Dance.” The direction of the other films was entirely anonymous, quite without personal signatures either stylistic or thematic.

On this score alone, one can actually give the abysmally made and written “Freddy Got Fingered” a couple of points, in that it at least feels like an eruption of a genuinely anarchic spirit, not just a cynical commercial calculation.

If there was any lesson to be learned from the surprise $100 million-plus successes of last year’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Traffic,” it’s that the mainstream American audience can easily adjust to films that are “different” and possess what reason-to-say-no-seeking executives might term commercial liabilities. Even kids who can’t read have been going to the subtitled, Chinese-language “Tiger” and more or less getting it, while conventional industry wise men didn’t predict that “Traffic” would do half of what it’s grossed even after the reviews and awards started rolling in.

THE FACT IS THAT it’s the straight commercial titles — the teen-aimed comedies, the grossouts, the tired romances and actioners — that have underperformed, not the ambitious “risky” pictures that are so much harder to make but can be so much more gratifying when they work.

In this light, one can look forward to “Shrek” and “Moulin Rouge,” Cannes entries that, from all reports, have imagination to burn. In the meantime, we can continue to be grateful for “The Sopranos” — I haven’t missed a minute of it this season, as it’s far better written and acted and full of narrative surprises than anything that’s turned up on the bigscreen.

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