Where Have All the Issues Gone?

John Clark is an occasional contributor to Calendar

Director John Sayles' new movie, "Lone Star," can be summed up in a line delivered by a Mexican American woman to her Anglo lover: "Forget the Alamo."

This line is both personal and political in a way that American movies seldom are these days.

"It's something that I often try to do, which is to make a story where people can expand it to social issues even if it's personal," Sayles says.

"And they can contract it to personal issues even if it's political. 'Lone Star' is very much about the burden of history and whether we can get away from it or not. Even though it's about the Texas-Mexican border, I was thinking an awful lot about Yugoslavia when I was writing it. There's a bunch of people killing each other, and a lot of the impetus for that is stuff that happened generations ago."

Sayles, who wrote and directed the socially conscious "Matewan" (1987) and "Eight Men Out" (1988), is one of the few directors with the interest--and the wherewithal--to make overtly issue-driven movies. (Oliver Stone and Spike Lee are other, more recognizable, filmmakers who come to mind.) Twenty-five years ago, this list was much longer and more mainstream.

Such filmmakers as Francis Ford Coppola (the "Godfather" films in 1972, 1974 and 1990), Martin Scorsese ("Taxi Driver" in 1976), Robert Altman ("M*A*S*H" in 1970) and Warren Beatty ("Reds" in 1981) were making movies that took hard looks at our political, economic and social institutions. Where have these kinds of filmmakers and their movies gone? Some say they've been swept away along with the cows and the trees and the farm machinery in "Twister."

"Let's face it," says screenwriter Frank Pierson, who wrote a draft of "City Hall" and won an Academy Award for "Dog Day Afternoon" (1975), "the studios' principal interest is gratifying an audience that is defined as 14- to 24-year-old males who are by their very nature the least political of animals, except if you want to take their guns away from them."

Sayles says he couldn't have made "Lone Star" for a major studio, because of the cutthroat nature of the domestic marketplace. He would have had to shoehorn in a major star and tinker with the plot to make it a more conventional thriller.

"You're talking about huge amounts of money and enormous numbers of people who want to see them and enormous competition to open a movie," Sayles says. "And so far no studio has been very successful making a $15-million to $100-million movie and doing a platform release. They've got to open wide. And to do that, you're talking about 'elements,' as they say. And the element must be some kind of genre or plot or stars that people are dying to see."

Phil Alden Robinson, who wrote and directed "Field of Dreams" and has shot documentaries about the conflict in Bosnia, says the strategists in Hollywood are making decisions based on other markets as well.

"The studios are so guided by foreign sales, it seems that domestic politics is a very tough sell today," he says. "I had this experience where I tried for four years to get a serious movie made about the civil rights movement, and I couldn't get sufficient financing. A lot of people loved the script and wanted to make it, but at a very low budget that we couldn't meet. Every studio said the same thing. There's no foreign sales for a film like this. The stuff that translates best is big action films and star-driven movies."

Of course, it's also true that such culturally bound genres as comedies and talky features have trouble traveling abroad. And it's not just the studios that are interested in keeping it simple. According to Costa-Gavras, who directed "Z," the 1969 political thriller that won the Oscar for best foreign-language film, some stars also avoid politically themed films. Luckily, he says, other stars are willing to take that risk.

"That movie with John Travolta that takes place in a society where the black people take the position of the white people," he says, referring to last year's "White Man's Burden." "I found that extremely courageous of him. He's a major star, and he did a movie with a very interesting theme."

Most observers say that all of this anxiety on the part of executives and stars is the inevitable result of the studios' primary mission: making money. This is especially true now that they've been absorbed by conglomerates that have no institutional interest in movies as an art form. Sayles, although he makes what many people consider left-leaning films, does not have a problem with this.

"Their responsibility is to make money for their stockholders," he says. "If they can do anything more useful, that's terrific, but finally I can't think of it as anything more than the entertainment business."

Pierson is much more judgmental: "The people running the studios are not political and they're not moral. All they want to do is make money. If Hitler were out there looking for a job and could prove he could write a screenplay, they'd be all over him. Not so very long ago--I'm talking 10 or 15 years ago--you still had people around who ran the studios who truly loved motion pictures and would take a chance on doing something that was personal, that made some sort of statement about the world. And very often it turned out to have some sort of political point of view. There is nobody around like that anymore. Every picture is being weighed as some sort of moneymaking vehicle."

"It's always been the case that films people think will make money get made," counters Martin Kaplan, a former speech writer for Walter Mondale, now a Walt Disney Co. executive and author of the 1992 political comedy "The Distinguished Gentleman."

"I think when execs choose movies, they don't choose them because they're a socially worthy thing to do," he says. "It's because they think they can make a lot of money. If there's a sense in the executive suites that a hard-driving critical look at something topical or political would make money, then 10 people would be making it. I think there's an inherent bias against political movies until there isn't. When one of them is a big hit, then there's not a bias."

But according to Beatty, the system precludes executives from ever getting this sense. That decision making, he says, is now based almost entirely on market research, which is more sophisticated than it used to be. At the same time, he says, it's calibrated to give only certain kinds of answers.

"The more the marketplace is understood, the more it will have something to say," he says.

Some people believe that Hollywood would actually prefer to make political films. Among them is Milos Forman, who directed best picture Oscar winners "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (1975) and "Amadeus" (1984) and is finishing up "The People vs. Larry Flynt."

"If they work," he says, "they bring not only box-office results but also a certain kind of prestige. The problem is that very few work. It's like films about sports. It's much more exciting to watch a sport live than to see a fictionalized version. If the audience will not get from the screen more knowledge than they are getting every day from the newspaper and the television, they just don't give a damn."

Producer Sean Daniel, a former head of production at Universal Pictures, agrees: "Nuts-and-bolts, day-in and day-out political battles as played out on the news are so much a part of people's daily life that it's a difficult dramatic problem to capture something that they get so much exposure to and sometimes feel surrounded by," he says. "Movies about present-day electoral campaigns are the narrowest and not the right definition of political movies."

By his definition, "political" could apply to such upcoming films as "Courage Under Fire," "Michael Collins," "The People vs. Larry Flynt," "The Crucible," "Evita" and Rob Reiner's untitled Mississippi project about slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers. Daniel also cites such recent movies as "Dead Man Walking" and "Braveheart."

"When people speak about politics, they think parties, they think right/left, Republican/Democrat," Costa-Gavras says. "This is part of politics, but not all of it. Politics is every action we do in our societies. Our relationship with other people is a political relationship. The movies are a huge relationship between director and audience. We deal with millions of people sometimes."

If routine personal relationships are political, so is the relationship between filmmakers and audiences. Movie makers are "great naive anthropologists," says Robert B. Ray, a professor of English at the University of Florida. They don't realize the political implications of what they're doing, he says. According to some observers, what they're doing is skewed toward the right, because that's what the public wants.

"Films are almost always tending toward the right wing because the right wing is very much in favor of the status quo," says Krin Gabbard, a professor of comparative literature at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. "Filmmakers are very nervous about undermining the status quo. They want people to walk out of theaters feeling as if their lives are OK. And that usually has to do with families, with a capitalist economy that is benevolent."

In this reading, even action movies in which the establishment is the enemy are right wing. According to Harvey Greenberg, a professor of clinical psychiatry at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University in the Bronx, and author of several books about movies, "If you look at 'Mission: Impossible,' the government is your enemy. You may look at that as a left-wing scenario, but it plays out . . . as a vaguely rightish scenario that needs a Schwarzenegger to take over and make everything all right with a couple of rifle blasts."

However, neither Kaplan nor Pierson nor Sayles sees this impulse as "political" in the usual sense of the word.

"A kind of general mistrust of power and authority and structures and institutions, which includes government, is a pervasive strand in American life," Kaplan says. "There will always be a market for movies that show big, powerful institutions covering up conspiracies. But that's different than left/right. Left/right is not a particularly useful spectrum if you're coming up with movies or creative ideas. I think the energy for that kind of fight is depleted right now."

In fact, many think that the problem is not so much with the studios as it is with the public. As Pierson puts it: "It's not like in the '30s and '40s, when there was a general feeling that political life was a part of everyone's life."

Says Costa-Gavras: "People are disappointed with politicians, with their religions. The ethics have changed completely."

"We're in a period where a lot of social innovation is dormant, brought on by this permission to be greedy, this worship of the market, which began in the '80s," Beatty says. "But I have no doubt that there will be a resurgence of social activism. And there will be a way to get some laughs out of it."

Gabbard is not so sure. He thinks that this lack of faith is embedded in the country's psyche. "Americans are made uncomfortable by politics," he says. "They like to think of themselves as outside or above politics. That's why it's very easy for a politician to play up his outsidedness."

The ultimate outsider, at least for the time being, is Sayles, who sees things in a larger context.

"I wish the public was more interested in politics and what's going on around them in the world," he says. "The movies are secondary to that."

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