Identity Crisis

American movies once enthralled the world with their exuberance and clarity. What happened in the 1990s?

Using abrupt plot turns or never-before-seen special effects to blindside the audience does produce shocks of a sort, but not shocks of recognition -- those require more of what Graham Greene called "The Human Factor." Producers have squeezed the H factor out of mass-market movies because it's unruly, unpredictable, and politically and emotionally loaded. Forms like farce or melodrama by definition resist the H factor. All that's left is what passes for plot; hence the flat-yet-contorted shape of most contemporary movies. Filmmakers may trick up their tinkertoy story lines because they're the only safe source of surprises left, but plots devoid of fecund characters or live issues inevitably hit dead ends.

So much has been written about the action-auteur "mastery" of John Woo's Face/Off it may seem perverse to point out that this movie about an identity switch between a righteous fed (John Travolta) and a heinous terrorist (Nicolas Cage) fails to satisfy what used to be a basic thriller requirement: generating suspense. The bomb ticking in the background gets short shrift. Kinetic dread propels Face/Off, and it's fueled by save-the-family sentimentality. The Nietzschean aphorism permeating adolescent adventure fantasies two decades ago (and quoted in John Milius' 1982 Conan) -- "That which does not kill me makes me stronger" -- is the ruling tenet of today's blockbuster punishment machines. (As the master chief says in G.I. Jane, "Pain is your friend.") During the two hours and 20 minutes of Face/Off, viewers have plenty of time to ponder what the next bout of torture will be: total face-and-body replacement? Or internment in a Hadean prison? When Maestro Woo plants a suggestion that in a Hitchcock or a De Palma thriller would pay off, he forgets it. For example, Travolta spends most of the movie wondering how to persuade people that he really is Travolta in a Nick Cage bio-suit. He has been warned that a vocal implant designed to make him sound just like Cage could be dislodged easily. Why doesn't he just knock it loose on purpose? The gimmick doesn't even come off as a red herring. (Well, may-be a dead red herring.) Everything gets subsumed in the audiovisual din.

Underneath the tumult lies boredom and loathing. Some people go nuts for Face/Off because, in the personality vacuum of current action films, they're relieved to see Travolta and Cage overacting away. When the movie landscape is this flat, 2-D beats 1-D. The reigning authors at the movies right now are John Grisham and Michael Crichton, creators of ultrawhite protagonists -- pipe-cleaner figures who can twist this way or that according to the turns of legal or science-"faction" plots. (The best movie made from this pop-fiction fodder is Rising Sun. It's funnier and juicier than Crichton's book partly because, unexpectedly and entertainingly, the white-bread hero turns into Wesley Snipes.)

Drawing on feisty newspapers and a thriving theater and rambunctious popular fiction, classic American films offered savory images of urban sass and country grit. In today's movies, cities become generic nightmare settings, and rural towns backdrops for tornadoes. In the '90s American films are homogenized and Muzaked to the point of being echt-suburban. Whether the action is low-key and soporific as in Contact or noisy and bombastic as in nearly everything else, the movies are designed to put audiences in a fugue state, which my dictionary describes as "a disturbed state of consciousness in which the one affected seems to perform acts in full awareness but upon recovery cannot recollect the deeds."

II. The We Generation
If kids can't lose themselves in a story, chances are they'll never be willing to sacrifice the familiar for a taste of a wider world. And if they grow up in a culture that insists on weeding out anything "beyond them" from literature or history, perhaps they'll mature into adults who still think a work of art or entertainment has to come to them.

Judging from the '90s' box office hits, that's already happened. What many of us look for in pop culture isn't stimulation or surprise, but flattery. NBC's Tim Russert once used the phrase "Ralph Kramden politics" to describe the current "What's in it for me?" climate. Well, if we've got Ralph Kramden politics, we've also got Fred Flintstone culture. The op-ed page columnists finally caught on to baby-boomer narcissism when the movie version of Leave It to Beaver came out this summer, but the pacesetter arrived three years earlier when The Flintstones became a huge hit despite wilting "buzz" and devastating reviews. The Flintstones is a nostalgia trip fitted out with the concerns of baby boomers entering middle age, complete with bonding scenes true to the American Stone Age of the '50s (Fred and Barney bowling on a team called the Water Buffaloes, Wilma and Betty gossiping over the laundry line), and crises derived from the '90s: unemployment, white-collar crime, shifts in friendships and careers. Overall, it's a paint-by-numbers picture of what baby boomers want: job security, neighborliness, technological and culinary conveniences -- with just enough raciness to remind them that the sexual revolution happened and that they're forever young.

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