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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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Stone wants nothing more than to crayon-in scars and a mustache on our happy-face culture. But his films are so chaotically melodramatic and weirdly sentimental that they fit comfortably onto the Hollywood fairgrounds. (The slipshod and affectless Natural Born Killers was a couple-that-slays-together-stays-together sort of movie.) Stone's oeuvre makes up the Nightmare Alley of the tattered American-movie carnival. His brain is locked into a pop-romantic '60s cosmology, with JFK as the righteous monarch and the country falling into darkness at his death, thanks to Natural Born Conspirators as different as LBJ and Nixon.

Even a supposedly forward-looking film like Robert Zemeckis' Contact (current gross: $95 million) caps the close-encounter quest of scientist Jodie Foster with the resolution of her bitter, long-held grief for her dead father, and her acquisition of a secular sort of Faith -- an interstellar Unitarianism. The White House objected to Contact director Zemeckis' alteration of President Clinton's press conferences and news clips in order to make him appear a part of the action. But in spirit this movie is more tied up with the consensus-driven Clinton presidency than either The American President or Air Force One, which present daydreams of Clinton remade as an inspiring, resolute leader. Just as Clinton has been at his most vehement when championing women's rights, Contact reserves its contempt for male authority figures: the scientific bureaucrat (Tom Skerritt) who keeps grabbing the credit for Foster's discoveries; the national security fixer (James Woods) who tries to persuade the public that she didn't reach the end of the universe, though he suspects she did. The guy who should be the villain is a New Age religious scholar who has been advising the White House on a politics of "meaning" and at one point betrays the heroine -- whom he says he loves -- because she doesn't believe in God. In real life, Tikkun Editor Michael Lerner tutored Hillary Clinton in the politics of meaning. In Contact, Zemeckis' follow-up to Forrest Gump, the role is filled by that WASP police-composite heartthrob Matthew McConaughey. Foster's an agnostic, McConaughey's a believer, but she does acquire faith in Superior Beings -- and in the Clinton era's split-the-difference spirit, that proves to be enough for the two of them to form a new coalition.

However much I can see the value of compromise in politics (even of the Clintonian sort), I hate it in art, especially when it hides fuzzy thought and bad faith the way it does in Contact. This movie is liberal agitprop: It demonizes anyone who doesn't love the heroine. Zemeckis was a spunky fellow when he was making films like I Wanna Hold Your Hand and Romancing the Stone and Who Framed Roger Rabbit; too bad in his post-Gump phase he approaches the audience as if he were a pollster. If the heart of Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind was its hallowing of home-grown UFO believers, the folks who yearn to reach out and touch an alien in Contact are overgrown collegiate types, bland (well, in one case, blind) technocrats, or the wacky group on the outskirts of the tracking base. In the climax, the alien home that's right next door to Heaven resembles one of those mall-like faux beaches so popular in Japan. All the feelings in mainstream American movies, from the mundane to the exotic, are set the way the temperature is at a shopping mall -- at the right pitch for gliding through.

III. The Mall of America
Americans' mania for "Now!" and our penchant for organizing the elements of existence like items on a shopping list have drawn attention from art and movie theorists like Anne Friedberg, author of the provocative, sophisticated Window Shopping: Cinema and the Postmodern, whose key chapter analyzes shopping malls. Friedberg describes the mall as "the ultimate extension of 19th century urban artificial environments -- parks, passageways, department stores, exhibition halls." But I respond to malls, instinctually, as a strictly suburban experience -- everything I wanted to escape from as a kid. Friedberg attempts to treat mallgoing -- and moviegoing in malls -- as modes of spectatorship that are easy to isolate and define, no matter how vast and elusive. But these days, malls mean something like the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn. -- to use Life writer Robert Sullivan's phrase, a "glass-enclosed ecosystem" containing everything except a graveyard. Friedberg writes that "the spectator-shopper" at mall movies "tries on different identities -- with limited risk and a policy of easy return." I think the movies shown in malls do nothing but confirm the suburban identities that filmgoers already have outside the multiplex.

It's no accident that the forthcoming Titanic was test-screened (successfully) at the Mall of America. Watching American movies is like living in the Mall of America -- even if you see all of them in the city. The multiplex atmosphere has wafted through what drama critics call "the fourth wall." Hollywood hasn't simply succeeded in lassoing crowds into theaters before and after they graze on fast food and do some forecast purchasing; it's succeeded in making movies a natural extension of life as it is lived in enclosed retailing complexes. All you get to see in most movies, as in most malls, are the inevitabilities of American suburbia: kids manipulating their parents into paying attention and buying them stuff; teens and young adults going on thrill rides and roaming in hordes before pairing off and chewing each other's lips off; and adults trying to go through life without getting squashed.

In American movies everyone is supposed to be middle-middle-class, from Schwarzenegger to supposedly way-out talents like Martin Lawrence or Jim Carrey -- Lawrence's ridiculously controversial concert movie, You So Crazy, includes Honeymooners-era gags about men expecting their women to cook. I once jousted with an editor who questioned treating movies "as art, not life." I replied that we could debate whether they were art, but I could guarantee they're not life. The next day, I visited a suburban housing development, and realized I was looking at a replicate of the same model that Tom Cruise had moved into in The Firm. Democracy has always bred liberty and conformity. Seen en masse, American movies are inseparable from at least one part of American life: the urge to achieve a unifying banality.

About The Author

Michael Sragow

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