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Movie-talk authors look for the hidden moral lesson in 'Blow'

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Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This is not a review; rather, it's a freewheeling, tangential discussion of art, alternative ideas, and popular culture.

Talk about the ultimate subjects for the ultimate post-film conversation. Ronald Madison is the Movie Shrink. An innovative New Jersey-based psychologist, Madison, 50, has built a unique reputation for his use of popular movies--from Lassie and Mary Poppins to Dead Man Walking and Do the Right Thing--as conversation starters, as ice-breakers, as psychological touch-stones, in his successful therapeutic work with emotionally troubled adolescents.

Corey Schmidt, 28, is a freelance writer and New York P.R. executive. The daughter of sports filmmaker Louis Schmidt, she grew up in a household where the routine watching of classic films was strictly required, where films were used as deliberate discussion topics to bridge the tricky generational gaps between parent and child.

It seems that Hollywood movies aren't merely a mind-numbing, mass-produced entertainment product designed to numb the masses and promote consumerism; according to Madison and Schmidt, movies heal.

Or can, if used properly.

To explain how, the two long-time film fans have joined forces and written Talking Pictures: A Parents' Guide to Using Movies to Discuss Ethics, Values, and Everyday Problems with Children ( Running Press, 2001, $14.95). The one-of-a-kind guide book is broken into age-appropriate sections, focusing on provocative themes such as "Fantasies and Fears" (suggested films for discussion include Peter Pan, Escape to Witch Mountain and Bambi), "Gender and Self Identity" (October Sky, Wizard of Oz, Yentl), and "Sex and Romance" (Reality Bites, Summer of 42, Kids). Reading through the book, one quickly understands what has been demonstrated for years in University town coffeehouses: even lousy movies can be good for getting people to talk.

Which brings us to Blow.

Starring Johnny Depp, the much-hyped Ted Demme film is the true story of George Jung, a Boston slacker who briefly achieved enormous wealth--if we are to believe his claims--by teaming up with Colombian drug-king Pablo Escobar to become the first person to smuggle massive quantities of cocaine into America. The real George Jung is now in prison, and the strenuously sympathetic movie--which plays more like an earnest parole request than an honest biography of a serial drug dealer--is definitely inspiring comment.

"Jesus, if I'd known drugs were that easy to score," said a young man I overheard in the movie theater, "I wouldn't have waited till college to start using."

Perhaps this film won't be appearing in future editions of Madison and Schmidt's book, which does suggest The Doors, Clean and Sober, and Basketball Diaries as movies that might jump-start useful conversations about drugs and alcohol.

"I deal a lot with kids who have drug issues," says Madison, "and as I was watching Blow, I was thinking, 'Well, this is not a movie you'd ever want a kid to see without planning to have a discussion afterwards. Blow is Basic Drugs 101. It's How to Start an Entrepreneurial Drug Selling Business 101."

"As an author of a book geared to helping parents tackle difficult issues with kids, this is probably not a film we would have selected to use," agrees Schmidt. "Not that it couldn't be used with kids, but you'd have to be very careful."

Indeed. As an anti-drug movie, Blow is about as effective an effort as Reefer Madness, and may, in fact, inspire as much new drug use as that film did in its day. But the comparison isn't really a fair one. Rising to Blow's defense, Schmidt points out that the movie obviously wasn't meant to be a cautionary tale about the dangers of drugs, so it shouldn't be criticized for not being that.

"It's a good movie. It's just not a movie about drug abuse," she insists. "It's more of a movie about addiction to material needs. It's a movie about greed."

Madison agrees that Blow is not a film about drug addiction. He pegs it as a film about stupidity. "Especially among the population of kids I work with, this film could be used to have discussions about decision making," he surmises. "You could say, 'Look at the decisions this guy is making. Look at how he doesn't see the big picture.'

"You could ask whether or not they think the guy's use of drugs had any effect on how well he made those decisions, and you could look at how his decisions affected all the people around him--his parents, his wife, his daughter. You could use blow to ask a lot of open-ended questions."

Such as?

"How about, 'What the hell was this guy thinking?'" Madison offers with a laugh. "I mean, didn't he think ahead? What do you expect when you're dealing with someone like Pablo Escobar? Didn't he realize that, in the end, it would probably all turn out in some disastrous way?"

"There are a lot of interesting things in this movie that you could talk top kids about," adds Schmidt. "You could just ask, 'Did you like this guy?' He's a pretty likable guy, I thought. So you could ask, 'Can someone be a likable person and still do something horrible?'"

"I didn't like him a bit," remarks Madison. "I thought he was a bumbling schmuck who made everyone miserable. What's likable about that?

"On the other hand, George Jung is useful to illustrate what happens when a person doesn't step back and take a look at their own behavior. Blow shows how a person, if they don't look at the consequences of their actions, can end up playing out the same kinds of mistakes made by their family or by the people they hang out with."

But is that a message kids will hear, whether inspired by a cool Johnny Depp movie or otherwise?

"Sure," says Schmidt. "They'll at least be willing to think about it."

"Kids will hear you," says Madison, "if you don't make it sound like you just came down from Mount Sinai. Kids will be more than willing think about things if you just make little observations and avoid preaching."

To illustrate this, Madison names another movie: Ordinary People.

"There are some great pieces in there," he says, "where the therapist talks to the kid, and makes these very short, to-the-point comments. 'Life is good.' 'Feeling pain is good. It says that you're alive.' And he leaves it at that.

"The good therapists do that, and the good movies do that."

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From the May 3-9, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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