In 30 years, what movies will define life today?

Commentary: Possibilities are few and far between

Plastics. It's well-nigh impossible to hear the word without conjuring the picture. That's how much "The Graduate" has during the past 40 years become one of those defining creations, one that captured the zeitgeist of the late 1960s.

That and a half dozen other such pics no doubt are what inspired the board of the American Film Institute to honor director Mike Nichols last week with its annual Life Achievement Award. Many of the good and great turned out for the celebration on the now Sony-owned soundstage where Judy Garland frolicked. The evening included a surprise performance of "Mrs. Robinson," by Simon and Garfunkel, another piece of the same movie that also brings back the era every time we hear that song. As the program notes suggested, folks still debate (what movies nowadays encourage debating?) whether the pic is a mockery of or an ode to the counterculture.

I guess such an event is a success when guests file out wondering how the AFI will top itself the next go-round. Nichols is the 38th recipient -- his mentor, Billy Wilder, got the nod in 1986 -- and his trenchant oeuvre includes several other key milestones including "Carnal Knowledge," "Silkwood," "Working Girl" and "Angels in America."

There was some joke from the stage en passant about the point at which Miley Cyrus will be given the award, and that's when I started to think just how much mainstream moviemaking has morphed during the past 20 years or so.

The types of movies that, looking back, we think defined a decade or the spiritus loci or were the touchstones of our youth sure are different today. Then, they were much more literary, and certainly, in the case of Nichols, much more literate and actorly in backbone. Not for nothing the helmer moved easily between film and the theater.

Thirty years from now, what movies will we think defined life today, or at least eloquently commented upon it?

"Avatar" in so many ways transcends the times, though perhaps as years pass -- and natural disasters and the erosion of cultures accelerate? -- we'll think of it as eerily prescient in its subject matter as well as groundbreaking in its technology. Another might be Jason Reitman's "Up in the Air," which surely resonates in these recessionary times, as likely, from a different perspective, will Oliver Stone's upcoming "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps." Then there's "The Hurt Locker"; the longer U.S. soldiers are mired in Iraq and Afghanistan, the more the afflictions dramatized in Kathryn Bigelow's pic might ring iconic and universal.

As for what we can look forward to this winter, there are efforts from Clint Eastwood, Danny Boyle and Paul Haggis among others to look forward to. These just seem few and far between.

Perhaps it's because we're in the middle of the silly summer season of sequels and revamps, all seemingly targeting those 14-year-old males, that I say this, but clearly Hollywood studios have moved away from spending time, effort and money on one-off literate fare. Even if Elaine May and Nora Ephron got most of the laughs from the podium during the AFI dinner Thursday, it's got to be hard even for such clever writers as these to get their projects greenlighted.

Given the craw of the global boxoffice beast, the tastes and predilections of the guys and gals running the studios inevitably take a back seat to the need to predictably fill seats in theaters and subsequently oil ever-more thinly diced ancillaries.

I'm not saying they're wrong, just that the studios have found a particularly rich vein, as in comic book adaptations; and a recipe, as in brand extension by franchising; and a new technology, as in 3D; that they intend to exploit as long as there's no, well, major spill with which to contend.

The tilt is toward reducing risk as opposed to taking chances, which is why such amazing one-off books as "A Confederacy of Dunces" and "Atlas Shrugged" have had such a hard time getting off the ground; they'll need a Kevin Spacey or an Angelina Jolie, respectively, to champion them before anything happens. Or why no studio probably ever will touch a beautiful period piece like "Dance to the Music of Time," despite it being highly serializable.

Boxoffice receipts right now might not be quite where the studios hoped or expected, which makes executives even more nervous, but then, last year we had "Avatar" to swell the coffers at year's end, so comparisons might be a little unfair.

Judging from the ever-increasing numbers of fanboys who set off for San Diego each July for Comic-Con and how much of a trend-setter or influencer that promotional circus is, it's hard to fault Hollywood for riding the bandwagon.

Its not that sequelitis is anything new -- remember the "Rockys" and the "Raiders"? -- but it has become such an automatic reflex that soon we will be treated to another installment of, wait for it ... "Cats and Dogs!" What television used to be reamed for -- cookie-cutting the life out of content -- film now is doing in spades. These movies increasingly have less of a beginning, more of a middle (often muddled at that), and an end that is not so much a conclusion as a tease to start all over again.

Not surprisingly, there's a growing -- even, shall I say, bulging -- phalanx of filmgoers out there who are underserved, as in aging baby boomers, especially women, who are not combing the Web for tidbits about the umpteenth "X-Men" or "Transformers." Nor, despite the outfits, can they automatically be bought off with a hastily thrown-together, clumsily thought-out "Sex and the City 2." (On the other hand, women well might have a taste for "Salt," but that's as much because it has an androgynous Jolie in the title role as for the action sequences per se.)

Mostly though, a lot of folks just sit at home Saturday nights with an old movie from Netflix or a newer one from Redbox and Sunday night they switch on HBO or Showtime or AMC or Lifetime for their entertainment.

Cable gets it. Especially in the summer.
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