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Identity Crisis 

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

Wednesday, Sep 24 1997
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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.

Audiences that once took chances now yearn to sentimentalize (or melodramatize) their own lives, including the times when they took chances. Former hippies can wear out their videos of Forrest Gump because it depicts the counterculture as a phase they did well to grow out of. The whole production, with its oldies soundtrack and its flip-book approach to history, is like a Big Chill aimed at the entire political spectrum. It enables everyone to feel nostalgic about something. That nostalgia has become the true political content of our movies; it's a queasy kind of homesickness, on a national scale.

In American movies (as in American political campaigns), the paranoid left (say, Oliver Stone) and the simpy left-to-middle (Rob Reiner, of The American President and A Few Good Men) only make a few noises. The amorphous middle-to-right rules. A few years ago, in True Lies, Arnold Schwarzenegger rehabilitated himself commercially both by playing a James Bond clone instead of a Terminator and by having this superagent impersonate a suburban family man, a workaholic computer salesman named Harry Tasker. But the way True Lies pans out, Arnie unites the family through his typical high-octane mayhem. With the Taskers, as with Travolta's clan in Face/Off, the family that slays together, stays together. In their own opportunistic ways, movies like True Lies and Face/Off get at the anxiety and blood-fear lurking under a gemYtlich culture's surface. Donald E. Westlake gave that subject shrewd, dispassionate treatment both in his 1987 script The Stepfather, about a serial killer who keeps hoping to marry into a perfect family (and is always disappointed), and his 1997 novel The Axe, about an unemployed middle manager who knocks off the men most likely to beat him out for a job. Recent movies merely exploit the volcanic malaise of Middle America for cheap thrills -- or, in Oliver Stone's case, avant-garde burlesque.

About The Author

Michael Sragow

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