THE UNTOLD STORY With little on screen to cheer, have movies lost the art of payoff?

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Is popular movie-making a lost art? Have we forgotten how to make good movies?

Those questions might seem inconceivable in a movie summer where the product is going through the roof. But consider that of the big hits this summer, only one has enjoyed a near-unanimous endorsement of the critics and that was clearly the most old-fashioned one: "In the Line of Fire." It boasted what might be called '50s values: plodding, methodical storytelling, careful character-building, and action that was derived from character as opposed to being imposed on character. My sense is that it's the film people seem to feel most passionate about. But generally, there's little to love on screen in today's big, sleek money machines.

Amid the big things that movies do well, there are small things they have forgotten to do at all. One of the tiny storytelling tricks Hollywood all but ignores now is the business of "the payoff." One of those old-pro Hollywood things that gave the studio product its intense sense of pleasure, modern filmmakers seem unable to handle it anymore.

Take the monster hit "Jurassic Park," which may become the most successful film of all time. It's admired for its technical brilliance, yet is not particularly loved by anyone, except a few boards of directors. "Jurassic Park" will never be a cult item, a treasured icon in the way, say, "Casablanca" has become. Nobody will quote it when drunk at a party.

The same is true of "The Firm," which is driven not only by Tom Cruise's sexy presence but by the amazing popularity of the book on which it is based. But . . . does anybody love "The Firm" in the way people used to love "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" or "The Charge of the Light Brigade"?

Today's movies may be astonishing, unforgettable, shocking and vivid, but they sure aren't lovable. And I've heard from literally hundreds of people over the years expressing the same sentiment, which leads to one of those fascinating questions: Why are old movies more satisfying than new ones?

Of course, there's no one big answer but many small ones: New movies are too self-referential, they're written to recipes provided by screen-writing gurus, they're too expensive, they're too sophisticated, and they're too driven by marketing departments as opposed to artists.

Yes, and ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ.

What they're missing isn't necessarily a climax. Modern climaxes are more staggering, more technologically mind-blowing, more unforgettable. No, what's missing is a subtler kind of emotional interchange within the context of the story, a sub-story, if you will, that a good filmmaker will evoke, play through the line of narrative, and at some moment bring to closure, give you a little goose of emotion, a sense of completion before you move on to more serious business.

Think of an old movie as a main story that encompasses within its text a dozen short stories. The filmmaker's art demands balance and superb timing to bring them to climax in a completely satisfying crescendo of payoffs.

And that's why, so often, you leave a modern movie thinking, "Huh?" Like, it was good and all, but somehow there was a little something missing that got in the way of your pleasure centers. You want to love it but you just can't.

"Casablanca," generally regarded as the most perfectly realized studio film of all time, is a festival of payoffs. Let's just look at a little of its business under the famous main thrust. Bogart's Rick is asked by a beautiful young French exile whom we have seen with her adoring lover if it would be all right if she did something really bad for something really good.

We understand that she means to sleep with Claude Raines' smarmy Captain Renault in order to secure exit papers for her and her lover to go to America. Rick appears uninterested. Later, he sees her hanging with the sleazy captain in the casino. Rick leans over and tells her to bet on red. We see his eyes flash toward the croupier. Red comes up. She wins. She gets money. She doesn't have to sleep with Renault. She gets to go to America.

Sense of closure

Terrific stuff! Economic, freighted with information, expressing the sardonic Rick's true romanticism and idealism, his sense of gamesmanship as he one-ups Renault, all done with a minimum of fuss and bother. And, most impressive, brought to a completely satisfying moment of closure. It's over. You feel good. The movie can continue.

Possibly it's coincidence, but in three recent or future movies that sense of closure is completely missing in the smaller moments of the film. Perhaps it's an unusual run of sloppiness, but it's beginning to feel institutionalized. Hollywood may have forgotten how to pay off.

* In "Rising Sun," Wesley Snipes, in his apartment with his mother and his child, looks out the window and sees several carloads of Japanese gangsters pull up. Quickly, he reaches under the bed and pulls out a box. He opens the box to reveal a very hot-looking pistol -- it's got a triple-compensator and an electronic dot sight. You think: Oh, he's bad. We're going to Gunfight City. Look out, world, here we come.

Indeed, that's a Hollywood tradition: Invoke an exotic weapon that is held to give the hero an edge over multiple antagonists and watch him go. Dirty Harry with his .44 magnum, the Terminator with that laser-aimed .45. And here's what happens with Snipes' electronic dot gun: nothing.

Director's lapse

You don't even see it again. It's as if director Philip Kaufman forgot it or changed his mind. And you're left there thinking not "Wow!" but "Huh?"

* Then there's some extremely strange business in "Another Stakeout." Three cops -- Richard Dreyfuss, Emilio Estevez and Rosie O'Donnell -- masquerade as a family in a fancy house. Owing to strange shenanigans in the plot, they invite the couple next door over for dinner and put on a horror show of a social engagement that utterly befuddles the couple -- Dennis Farina and Marla Strassman. In fact, that's the comic high point of the movie.

And when the movie's finally over, you want the money shot, the closure of the deal. You want to see the payoff, the moment when Farina and Strassman, through whose eyes you have glimpsed the madness, finally get it: These are cops. You want to see the slow, embarrassed spread of humiliation, the satiny red creep of a blush across their faces. You want them to close the transaction.

Here's what you get of these major characters who have dominated the film for an hour: nothing. Did director John Badham forget them? What's going on?

* Then, the case of "The Firm." Cruise, as most will know by this time, is a clever young Harvard grad recruited by a mysterious Memphis law firm operated by syrupy-smooth old boys. They're sleek, dapper, purring, dripping with Southern charm and bonhomie and smarts, as represented by Hal Holbrook. Of course it's all a sham. The firm is actually a front for the Mafia, and Cruise, to survive, has to bring it all down. And he does.

But where's the payoff? We yearn to see smug, unflappable Holbrook look about his mahogany offices and realize he's sinking in this particular Titanic. Panic, anxiety, despair should flicker through those dry old eyes -- his punishment and the completion of the very bargain that melodrama creates.

But you never see Holbrook again.

It's like the second shoe in the apartment above that goes undropped. It's like incomplete parallelism in a story that leaves you aware that some extra bit of care hasn't been exercised.

You walk out with that vague sense of not having quite gotten your money's worth. You pay for entertainment, you get dissatisfaction. Where have all the storytellers gone?

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