â€¢ The Seduction of Joe Tynan
â€¢ Promises in the Dark
â€¢ Arabian Adventures
â€¢ There are several rather unpleasant assumptions underlying THE SEDUCTION OF JOE TYNAN: (1) A senator who passes welfare legislation is a generous guy, whereas one who tries to save the taxpayers' money is a skinflint. "This will create a million jobs," says Senator Joe Tynan triumphantly after he gets his employment bill passed. What he doesn't say, and is probably abysmally ignorant of, is how many jobs it will take away and how many small businesses will go bankrupt as a result of these transfer payments. That there's no such thing as a free lunch is nowhere so much as hinted. (2) Anyone who doesn't favor the policies of the dyed-in-the-wool liberal Democrat from New York is a racist, a bigot, a segregationist, a paleolithic politician, and a moral cretin.
The characters who "get the goods" on these cretins and keep one of them from being appointed to the Supreme Court don't mind stooping to lies and character assassination to achieve their goalsâ€"all in a good cause, you know. Yet they are the heroes of the film. The trouble is, the heroes are really the villains.
If you can manage to live with all that, you can still find some interesting and worthwhile things in the film, such as: (1) a fairly tight and well-written script; (2) a tremendously insightful and gratifying performance by one of the finest actresses around, Meryl Streep (heroine of The Deerhunter); (3) another fine performance by Melvyn Douglas as a senator lapsing into senilityâ€"not an impeccable character, but compared with him the other politicians have the morals of alley cats. Finally, (4) in spite of shifts from the political arena to the senator's domestic problems and back again, there is in this film a family situation depicted in some detail, which shows tellingly what happens to growing children when their parents are too busy with their careers to give time to them. One wants to plead with Joe Tynan to for heaven's sake chuck his career and his plans for the presidency and just go home to be with the family. Unfortunately, he never does.
â€¢ The theme is solemn and significant: the discovery of cancer in a teenage girl and her slow deterioration and death in the face of tremendous courage and love for life. Harrowing and inspiring at the same time, it is treated with intelligence and without mawkishness. The girl (Kathleen Beller) is bright and indefatigably curious, and the doctor (beautifully played by Marsha Mason) is frank and honest with her about every medical detail of her case. No unpleasant development is evaded, and the result is an uncompromisingly honest film about a subject that those who seek "entertainment only" will hardly wish to pursue.
The intentions are first-rate, as is much of the execution. Yet PROMISES IN THE DARK is not nearly as good as it could and should have been. There are fairly long dead spaces in which attention lags and nothing much happens; one might say that this is necessary to plot or character development, but a director more imaginative than Jerome Hellman would have filled every space with something meaningful while at the same time adding depth and momentum to the story. Though the film is long and occasionally drags, there are also details that should have been there but aren't, which would have made the spectacle of inevitable dying more fraught with felt significance for us. Part of the problem is that in the attempt to be unsentimental it became too clinical; but the main problem is that the film is not richly textured in all its parts, and many sequences are too "thin." Thus, considering that the subject is a "natural" for imaginative identification (what happens to her could happen to anyone), the film is less emotionally involving than it would have been with a really superior script and direction.
Still, no one could expect a film to answer the question that the cancer-ridden girl asks in a desperate moment when all tests have come out unfavorable: "Why me? Why me?" Because this question is so dramatically presented without any hint of an answer, some viewers leave the theater in tears, some in ill-concealed fear, and still others in open anger and frustration.
â€¢ Some years ago Professor F.L. Lucas wrote a perceptive book called The Decline and Fall of the Romantic Ideal. The romanticism of 19th-century literature and art is not dead, he said; it has just gone down into the gutter. The spirit that originally expressed itself in the works of Charlotte and Emily Bronte, Victor Hugo, and Alexander Dumas no longer is to be found in "respectable" literature and now manifests itself in cheapened form in daytime television serials and pulp novels. "La Princesse Lointain" has degenerated into "As the World Turns."
There has been great romanticism in films, tooâ€"in some of the great love stories and adventure stories of the '30s and '40s, but no less in fantasies, a delight to children and adults alike, in such early films of magic and enchantment as The Thief of Baghdad. The most recent attempt in this genre, ARABIAN ADVENTURES, shares only the outer shell of such earlier films and totally fails to communicate any of the romantic spirit of adventure and derring-do and triumph-over-difficulties that characterize its illustrious predecessors. Instead of one soaring magic carpet of The Thief of Baghdad, we now have dozens of flying carpets, but no feeling of magic. Instead of the benevolent giant imprisoned in the bottle, we have a misshapen ogre. Instead of Conrad Veidt's inimitable portrayal of the elegantly malevolent embodiment of evil, we have the tight-lipped cursings of a popinjay monarch who does nothing but invoke magic. And instead of Sabu we have a new Indian youngster who smiles emptily at the camera. Instead of one clear and highly dramatic plot line, we have a series of episodes, none of which mean much because the characters are all papier-mÃ¢chÃ©. The writing is such a stock of clichÃ©s as to lead one to believe the writers must have gotten the script out of an anthology of dead expressions. Even the music has descended from the high excitement of the earlier films to a state of seeming to be bored with itself.
Yes, the romantic idea has fallen. It's a pity that, at a time when there are few G-rated pictures any longer, those that one does see make one resolve never to see another.
John Hospers is a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California. His book Understanding the Arts will be published by Prentice-Hall this year.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Movies".