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Garbage by another name

I hate recycling.

Now, before I get dozens of letters from outraged environmentalists, let me be perfectly clear: I'm not talking about putting your bottles and cans in separate trash bags. I have no animus against taking steps to fight global warming; after the scorching summer we've had in New York, there's no love lost between the chlorofluorocarbons and me.

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Besides, in New York, where even the movie stars take the subways and crosstown buses so they don't get caught in midtown traffic, buying an SUV is simply out of the question. (Can you imagine trying to park one downtown? It would probably be more efficient to sell the SUV to someone on their way uptown, and then have someone sell their SUV to you, and then to repeat as necessary.)

No, I'm talking about cultural recycling. I'm getting tired of seeing the same ideas, scenes, jokes, and sequences repeated from one movie to the next, from one television show to another. Sitcom writers have a word for them: "clams", old jokes that are guaranteed a laugh because everyone recognizes that they're supposed to be funny, even when they're not.

Let's grant, for the moment, the somewhat dubious proposition that there are no new ideas, that there are only seven basic plots in history, that Shakespeare himself stole from the Latin and Italian comedy, and so on. Even if this is true, part of the job of the creators of exciting and gripping entertainment is to make these old ideas new, either refreshing them through great writing or by having life breathed into them through masterful performances.

In the last two years, "Friends" has displayed both sides of the tendency: the concept of identical twin comedy goes back at least to the Latin playwright Plautus, and some of the episodes revolving around Phoebe and her twin Ursula last year felt about that old. This said, the love triangle – between Ross, Joey, and Rachel, in this case – has to be thousands of years older, and yet these three actors, helped immeasurably by some excellent writing, managed to make it new.

The same is true for action movies. Now, granted, you go to an action movie because you want to see certain repetitive elements: if you walked out of a James Bond movie and nothing blew up, your reaction would be: "This movie sucks."

Watching things blow up for the sake of watching things blow up is superficially amusing but ultimately unimpressive: watching things blow up as an exciting conclusion to a gripping scene just rocks.

Compare, for example, the taut action scenes in the generally unheralded "Reign of Fire" (or, for that matter, the generally heralded "Spider-Man"), to the play-it-by-the-numbers ones in big time movies like "Men in Black II" or "The Scorpion King." In the former, the action is a natural outgrowth of a specific plot; in the latter, it just seems recycled from earlier movies - in fact, earlier movies in the same series.

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Recycling in the movies is a lot like recycling in general. If it's done wisely and with care, it ends up a force for good in the world. If it's done carelessly – well, then it's just garbage by another name.