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Published: Saturday, 11/1/2008

At the movies: Should we laugh or should we cry?

Laugh. Cry. Smile. Wince.

Hollywood has never really been sure how to deal with fragile economic times. Should movies entertain (1939 s Wizard of Oz), or should they be empathetic (1940 s The Grapes of Wrath)?

The 1941 classic satire, Sullivan s Travels, did both, telling the story of an earnest director John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) who aspires to make a socially relevant film about the Great Depression, and in the process learns that audiences really just want to laugh and forget: There s a lot to be said for making people laugh, Sullivan says in his moment of epiphany. Did you know that s all some people have? It isn t much, but it s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.

Hollywood actually prefers to make people smile; there s more money to be made entertaining audiences than making them cry, The Titanic being a notable exception.

One of the reasons people go to see [movies] is to be entertained, said Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. That shouldn t be understated.

In the 1970s, as U.S. families were plagued first with the energy crisis and later with out-of-control inflation, audiences clearly wanted to be entertained, as evidenced by the birth of the modern blockbuster: The Godfather, The Exorcist, The Sting, Jaws, and Star Wars.

But Hollywood didn t ignore the nation s economic plight completely. 1976 s Rocky is set in lower-income Philadelphia, giving the protagonist an everyman quality with an appealing message of financial hope.

If you keep the faith and ... keep continuing in the good, scrappy American way, you will be able to claw your way to the top, Thompson said. It s all metaphor.

As the economy worsened, however, Hollywood chose to get more literal with its message of empathy: 1980 s How to Beat the High Cost of Living, followed two years later by Cheech and Chong s Things are Tough All Over. And by the late 1980s, Hollywood was incorporating the socioeconomics of the day into high-action plot lines, including Baby Boom and Wall Street.

If the economy continues its downward spiral, Thompson says cinematic history will inevitably repeat itself.

How to Beat the High Cost of Living was about women trying to respond to contemporary issues, and that s going to happen again if this economic downturn is as long as everybody says it will be, he said. I think we ll see more of that.

Kirk Baird

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