Jewish World Review Jan. 30, 2004/ 7 Shevat, 5764

Greg Crosby

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Road Thoughts, Part IV | Driving across the country is something everyone should do once in their life. I did it and I'm glad I did but I wouldn't do it again. It's not the driving itself that gets tiring, it's the living out of suitcases for weeks on end that finally wears on you — that and the schlepping of the luggage from the car to the motel rooms every night or so. But to have had the opportunity to see and experience what we did on this great adventure was overwhelming and worth whatever slight discomforts we might have endured.

Can you imagine standing on the very same spot that the shootout at the O.K. Coral took place? Walking through the famous Birdcage Saloon where Doc Holiday dealt Faro? Or seeing with your own eyes the shrine of the Alamo where Davy Crockett and 150 other brave men took a stand and lost their lives? Can you imagine staying overnight in a real antebellum plantation house overlooking the Mississippi River? Driving through the civil war graveyards in Vicksburg? Walking down the same streets Mark Twain walked as a boy? Eating lunch at a family-owned café in a small mining town in Pennsylvania that was named after the 15 miners that were saved near there after being pulled out of a mine shaft just a few years ago?

The beauty of our country is really something special — the varied landscape that is really like no other. Mountains, deserts, prairies, forests, lakes, and seaside — even the swamps, bayous and bogs have their own unique splendor. Everyone says how dull and boring the ride across Texas is, but we didn't mind it. I love wide-open spaces and I can appreciate that wonderful vast horizon going on for what seems like forever. What a country!

Our first stop was the Tucson area. Just outside of the city is Old Tucson, a movie studio western town that has seen much better days. Lots of old cowboy pictures were shot here over the years but a fire burned down about a third of the place a few yew years ago and many of the famous movie buildings were lost. The place is now nothing more than a curiosity since the movie industry has pretty much stopped making western pictures altogether. As time goes on, fewer and fewer new generations will even be able to recognize the names of the movies that were made on what's left of this dusty western street. Titles like "Arizona," "El Dorado," "Rio Lobo," and "Gunfight at the O.K. Coral" do not exactly have a high recognition factor to anyone under the age of say, thirty-five.

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The Western as a movie genre is all but forgotten all right, but then most of the traditional movie genres are gone. Period pictures save for the occasional Jane Austin attempt or an oddball Scorsese epic, are simply not being made. Musicals as a genre, "Chicago" notwithstanding, are dead. Most films today are of today, set in today, on the streets of today, and starring people that are very much of today. The variety that we once had in pictures is no more. Think of the wide range of period, eras, characterizations, and locales that stars like Tracy, Gable, Hepburn, and Davis had the opportunity of acting in compared with the limited things that the stars of today do.

Audiences lose out too. They don't get exposed to the different times and places that "golden era" audiences were treated to in the old movies. Even the elements of fantasy and escapism, which were always so important in motion pictures, are presented very differently today. Subtlety has been replaced by wizardry. The fantasy is all childlike; Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and so forth. The escapism comes out of vicariously acting out one's aggressions toward whatever or whomever one considers the establishment bad guy. Computer generated images and high-tech special effects have taken the place of solid story telling and three dimensional characters.

Movies always were a reflection of the movie going audience. Years ago everybody in America — young, old, rich, poor, fat, skinny, stupid, smart, male and female — went to the movies. The movies offered a variety of genres, stories, characters and places to keep everyone interested. A little something for everyone. The pictures had a wide variety of actors in them, too. Sure, you had the good-looking young people, but you also had funny looking characters as well as older people on screen. You had actors of all ages and types because the audience was made up of all ages and types. Because most of the movie goers today are kids and young adults, the themes, values, places, and people being portrayed on screen reflect today's teenage mentality and tastes.

Young people don't want to watch old people — they want to watch people who look like them. They don't want to see things and go to places that they are not interested in, so the locales in today's movies are limited. They don't want to think about stuff too deeply, so the writing reflects that too. They like to laugh at gross things, and the movies are accommodating them in that area as well.

So if you want to know why we have no variety in our movies anymore, why the plots and characterizations have been "dumbed down," and why genres like the Musicals and the Westerns have disappeared completely — don't ask Michael Eisner or Sherry Lansing …ask your kid.

The country we drove through this fall; the places, the people, the history, the stories, were so rich and varied that I could easily imagine a good movie coming out of almost every town or around any corner. Colonial Williamsburg, Vicksburg, Tombstone, Pittsburg, Hannibal, Springfield, Charleston, Lexington, the backwoods, the cities, the farms, the countryside. It's all there, a million stories with a multitude of locations, characters and periods. It's all there — all except for the audiences.

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JWR contributor Greg Crosby, former creative head for Walt Disney publications, has written thousands of comics, hundreds of children's books, dozens of essays, and a letter to his congressman. A freelance writer in Southern California, you may contact him by clicking here.

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© 2004 Greg Crosby