RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: The antique camera began its noisy rotation, then flickering images danced. People called them "movies." What did it matter that Mary Pickford and Rudolf Valentino were silent? The marvel was movement: The face changing, changing emotions. What mattered were Roman chariots rushing through clouds of dust. What enchanted was Charlie Chaplin's bowlegged saunter.
AL JOLSON: (singing) Mammy...
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: But even after Al Jolson broke the sound barrier, it wasn't the talking that captivated. It was movies that held us; hold us to this day. Americans went to the movies this summer in record numbers. Because we sensed ourselves in a dangerous world, we happily stood in line. Though Wall Street was in chaos, we willingly paid our nine or ten bucks, for once inside what we saw on the screen was movement: Spectacular movement-- nothing less, nothing more.
One of summer's most profitable movies this summer, "Star Wars: Episode II: Attack of the Clones," contains not a single memorable line, nor is there a character of any complexity. But there is movement: Moving, moving, moving; Busby Berkeley dancers; Peter Fonda on a motorcycle. From the start, movement on the screen rhymed with a restlessness in our American heart. John Wayne on horseback, leading us West -- to a nation intent on becoming-- on heading out rather than arrival-- here was an entertainment that seemed ours alone.
ACTOR: I'm sorry I lost it back there.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Nowadays, there are films with adult conversations and adult characters and adult conclusions coming from China and Iran and India and Mexico. But no other country quite does what Hollywood does: Filling the screen with movement so frantic, loony, so vivid, so happy, so neurotic that it seems movement for the sake of movement.
ACTOR: Come on, move kid.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: "Seen any good movies lately?" It's become almost a standard American form of address. Call me jealous. What I know as a writer is that movies became the great popular art form of the 20th century. Who cares that movies were never as dense or as full as the books from which they borrowed?
ACTOR: You are a former agent of a top secret organization that monitors extraterrestrials on earth.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: In movies, texture and nuance and character grew less important than scale. And the scale of movies-- vista- vision, cinemascope--only kept getting bigger and bigger. And as they matured, movies grew more adolescent.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Actresses complain that Hollywood does not give them roles that allow them to mature, but maturation is less the point of movies than becoming. And insofar as becoming was conventionally a male option, the male actor had the advantage. Though one notices, now, that Tom Cruise at 40 is running and jumping like Peter Pan, as if to convince audiences that we do not need a more youthful hero.
ACTOR: At least I'm happy. I just send a guilty man to prison today. Got another low-life off the street.
ACTOR: Show me a happy man, I'll show you a disaster waiting to happen.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: There were, of course, small movies this summer-- movies of limited budget with talented actors and textured screenplays. Such movies tend to take place in several rooms and are as satisfying as a good off-Broadway play. But the impatient camera seems to want to bust out of the room.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Meanwhile, blockbusters become ever bigger. Technology becomes the director and the writer, dwarfing Steven Spielberg. His summer blockbuster became the noisy sum of special effects.
ACTOR: It's Ryan! The bomb is in play!
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Watching big summer movies is like eating popcorn-- you end up bloated and empty, both. But it's not enough to say that blockbusters are kid's stuff. These monsters and car chases and intergalactic wars excite some very old part of the American dream-- our yearning for movement without end, a yearning that is the source of our immaturity as a people, but, also, our originality and our creativity. For a nation enamored of movement, Hollywood postpones any conclusion. There will be a sequel next summer.
I'm Richard Rodriguez.