Moulin Rouge: Sue Adler
June 07, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

Audiences don’t lie about summer movies

Publicists and marketing experts are paid to create nurturing environments for the movies under their care. To promote a new release, they may organize screenings to which they invite folks in a position of influence to spread the word, or target-audience groups likely to respond favorably. Depending on their confidence in the quality of the thing, PR strategists may begin screening for critics early and often — sometimes weeks or even months ahead — hoping to ignite a buzz among professionals.

On the other hand, when they think non-critical audience appreciation may sweeten what is expected to be a sour reaction from critics, publicists like to screen mass-market-oriented, happy-junk movies for us alleged sourpusses in theaters larded with ”regular” moviegoers. (The quotes signify that regular moviegoers must actually PAY for their tickets, unlike these folks.)

But truth can sometimes bust through the seams in ways no marketing campaign can control, bonding professional and lay moviegoers alike, and when it does — as I experienced twice in the past two weeks — the results are exhilarating.

Consider ”Pearl Harbor” (as if anyone except hermits on a Himalayan mountaintop has a choice). At the huge, circus-y preview screening I and hundreds of other clamoring mortals attended, the greatest moment of shared emotion occurred not when Ben Affleck first kissed Kate Beckinsale on her ruby lips, not even when we got a bomb’s-eye view of war during the vaunted sequence depicting the Japanese sneak attack on the U.S. Navy base, but when Kate, as a beautifully groomed nurse, reunites with Ben, as a beautifully groomed pilot, after she thought her sweetheart had died.

There’s a lot she has to tell him — suffice it to say Josh Hartnett also stars as a beautifully groomed pilot — and she struggles to explain the extenuating circumstances of the movie’s lame love triangle. ”Then all this happened!” she wails, a sweep of the hand meant to sum up the inconvenient bombing death of thousands of Americans — at which point, I and hundreds of other clamoring mortals, members of the media and members of the human race alike, broke into spontaneous laughter.

At that moment, ”all this” was put in healthy perspective: In ”Pearl Harbor,” the most eye-popping simulation of battle, no matter how rock & roll the cinematic pyrotechnics, is still, at heart, a Bruckheimer – Bay handful of ”all this.” Audiences don’t lie.

I contrast this cant-busting moment with my experience at ”Moulin Rouge” last weekend, an eye-popping movie of a very different sort, and one I watched as a regular ticket-buyer on a weekend afternoon in yet another arena-sized theater. Here, too, we who filled the seats created our own bond, but of a very different sort.

After each dazzling song sequence, each extravagantly gorgeous, hyper-romantic collage of pop tunes and production values, people burst into applause. Out of sheer pleasure! Out of easy-to-please happiness at watching Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman sing with such delight! Besotted by the movie’s opulence, delighted with the mad stylistic mix, convinced that the pastiche invented by Baz Luhrmann was true to itself, in tune with the spirit of the production — we clapped.

Like I said, audiences don’t lie.

What was the mood in the room at the last movie you went to?

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