Amidst Endless Options and Distractions, Are Serious Films An Endangered Species?

Serious dramas may be less entertaining in the moment, but often end up shedding valuable perspective on the human condition -- insight you won't find in your average spine-tingler or farce.
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I don't get out enough. But when I do, I most always learn something.

Attending a party last week, I saw something new: Between the bar area and dance floor was a connecting room, and passing through it, I noticed many party-goers lining the walls, each in isolation, checking emails and IMing on their Blackberries.

Checking emails- in the middle of a party?

Before wireless portable devices, when you went to a social event, you had to jump in and give yourself over to the experience. In this now quaint scenario of forced socialization, very often you actually met someone new and perhaps pursued some unplanned adventure.

Now, if people at a party look unfamiliar or uninteresting, you don't really need to engage. You can simply step out, check your email, and see if you can't find a more reassuring, recognizable face to hook up with across town.

You have to wonder, does this new behavior fulfill the promise of the digital world by opening up channels of communication, or is does it close them down?

And just what is the long-term price to be paid for technology that reduces our focus, patience, and attention spans?

Let's consider this in relation to film. Regardless of technology's impact, it seems the public will always pay to see anything that transports them away from reality. Regardless of quality, fantasies, comedies, action films, and comic book adaptations are here to stay, because for the most part, they hold our attention and go down easy.

But what about serious drama -- by which I mean realistic, unflinching dramas about regular people facing authentic life challenges, both big and small? These pictures may be less entertaining in the moment, but often end up shedding valuable perspective on the human condition -- insight you won't find in your average spine-tingler or farce.

Will the prospect of venturing into uncomfortable, unfamiliar cinematic territory increasingly make us retreat to check our I-Phones at the popcorn stand, or worse, prevent us from buying a ticket in the first place?

Based purely on box office results, it would appear serious drama is not taken seriously, or to be more precise, not taken much at all.

While larger-than-life escapist hit franchises (Lord Of The Rings, Harry Potter, James Bond, Pirates Of the Caribbean, Indiana Jones, Batman, Spiderman, and A Night At The Museum) routinely gross between $500 million and one billion dollars, just consider the scale of difference in revenues for these critically acclaimed serious dramas:

The Reader- $67 MM Gross
Milk- $51
Doubt- $46
Capote- $42
Into The Wild- $22
Little Children- $15
The Savages- $ 8
Frozen River- $ 2.5

Understanding the sizable differences in distribution and marketing might placed behind these distinct types of movies, the fact remains that though most of the features listed turned a profit, the degree of payback to the studios was dwarfed by these blockbusters.

It's also a matter of exposure and eyeballs: If even Oscar winners "Milk" or "The Reader" are drawing only a fraction of the audience commanded by "A Night At The Museum", you can believe either variation on the following theme: a) many people simply aren't moved to see a potentially "difficult" film, or b) studio executives decide in advance they won't be, and so don't make the movie easily accessible to them.

Tying back to the Blackberry phenomenon, a subtle but disturbing cycle emerges, whereby easily distracted consumers get fed what will still command their diminishing concentrations and tolerance, while movies that demand more but offer more in return become, like that stranger you never meet at the party, a lost opportunity.

Mind you, even before the advent of the Palm Pilot, movies whose chief aim was diversion and entertainment always attracted the biggest audiences. The issue comes down to balance and degree: Looking back over the top-ten box-office titles of the now distant past, you can find a few serious films sprinkled in among the comedies and epic adventures, with titles like Gone With The Wind, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, The Best Years Of Our Lives, The Bridge On The River Kwai, and The Graduate.

But in the ensuing forty years leading up to the present, no films of this type have ever broken the top ten at the box-office. Suffice it to say, I wish one would.

Here then are five serious, human-scale domestic films that deserve a wider audience:

You Can Count On Me ('00)- Scarred by the loss of their parents years before, siblings Sammy and Terry Prescott (Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo) have pursued different paths in life. She's settled into domestic life as a single mother, while he leads a troubled existence on the road. After a two-year absence, Terry visits and asks to borrow money, then sticks around as he bonds with Sammy's 8-year-old son, Rudy (Rory Culkin). This fascinating film examines how two very different siblings cope with a single, life-changing tragedy, and how this event affects their own interactions. Thanks to a sharp script and assured direction, this complex relationship is portrayed with a nuanced mix of humor and heartbreak. Linney received an Oscar nod for her portrayal of Sammy.

In The Bedroom ('01)- When their college-age son Frank brings home his new girlfriend, Nathalie (Marisa Tomei), parents Matt (Tom Wilkinson) and Ruth (Sissy Spacek) are apprehensive, since Nathalie is a mother of two whose volatile ex won't let go of her emotionally. Neither of them wants to believe that Frank's life is in danger, or can imagine how they'll respond when and if the worst happens. Todd Field's impressive directorial debut maps the consequences of inconsolable grief and corrosive ill will on a Maine couple. By turns tense, shocking, and devastating, "Bedroom" showcases gut-wrenching, exquisite performances from veterans Wilkinson and Spacek, whose emotional turmoil feels frighteningly real.

Tape ('01)- In a seedy motel in Lansing, Michigan, bright, under-achieving drug-dealer Vince (Ethan Hawke) is reunited with high-school friend Jon (Robert Sean Leonard), now a film-maker. Vince launches a gradual attack against his self-satisfied pal, accusing Jon of date-raping Vince's former girlfriend Amy years before. To make matters more interesting, Amy (Uma Thurman) happens to live nearby, and Vince has invited her to join them. This makes for a most unconventional high-school reunion. Director Richard Linklater dares to sustain a drama on a single dingy set, and thanks to a biting script and superb performances, succeeds. Though Thurman expertly plays the pivotal role of Amy, less a victim than a detached female looking on with bemusement at two ranting males, the show is Hawke's and Leonard's, as their characters wage a savage battle of wits, with life-changing implications. Taut and clever, "Tape" is immensely satisfying fare.

Away From Her ('06)- Soul-mates Fiona (Julie Christie) and Grant (Gordon Pinsent) have led a long, happy married life together in the rural comfort of Canada's northern climes. But when Fiona's memory begins to slip, and she becomes alarmingly disoriented, they seek out a facility to handle her care. Then a turn of events spurs Grant's guilt and conflict over past indiscretions. Director Sarah Polley's "Away From Her" observes with elegiac warmth and delicacy the emotional turbulence visited upon a couple in their silver years by the onset of Alzheimer's. In her directorial debut, Polley (best known as an actor) coaxes exemplary turns from her talented cast- especially from the still-radiant Christie, whose mounting fears and erratic behavior prompt her move to a nursing home, where she begins to forget the man she's spent most of her years with. Plaintive yet defiant, "Away From Her" is a touching study of marriage which even Ingmar Bergman would be proud of.

Half Nelson ('06)- Seeking to impart real ideas instead of dry facts, eighth-grade history teacher Dan (Ryan Gosling) likes to engage his inner-city students in meaningful conversations, and has established a good rapport with most, especially Drey (Shareeka Epps), a bright student whom he also coaches on the girls basketball team. But Dan's personal life is clouded by heavy drug use, a secret Drey soon discovers, purely by chance. Gosling gives a fearless performance as the idealistic young educator who has a confident manner in the classroom, but whose addiction problem is starting to affect both his job performance and his friendship with Drey, played with a mix of sheepish charm and street-hardened intensity by Epps. Smart and stridently unsentimental, "Half Nelson" will get its grip on you.

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