Identity Crisis

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

Americans are the western pilgrims, who are carrying along with them that great mass of arts, sciences, vigour, and industry which began long since in the east; they will finish the great circle.

— De Crevecoe

I. The Fugue State
Watching American movies in the '90s may remind you of the ad for Easy Rider: “They went looking for America … and couldn't find it anywhere.” American movies were once known for the robust portrait of this country they painted for the world; their scrambling energy and inventiveness helped the United States invade international dreams. The conventional wisdom is that the '30s and '40s — the decades of the studios' golden age — were “simpler times.” With political-economic crises at home and Hitler and Stalin threatening democracy in Europe, the times weren't simpler, but the popular art of the movies responded to that volatile climate with exuberance and clarity. The main feelings our movies give off these days are exhaustion and inertia. The comedies have rarely been so frantic and the action movies so superpowered, but they have scant ebullience or spontaneity. They're the spawn of artificial hearts and minds.

In 1967, the hero of Mike Nichols' The Graduate was told to go into “plastics.” In the '90s the movies have gone into plastics — including Nichols' The Birdcage, which turns Miami's South Beach into a gay theme park for heterosexual delectation, just as Fargo turns Minnesota into a Scandinavian-American cartoon and Sling Blade turns Arkansas into Yokelville. Most films lack even this comic-book version of local color. Big-studio crews roam across the country and return with suburban blandness.

The Big Oranging of America — the reduction of nearly every setting to undifferentiated Sun Belt sprawl — hit a pasteurized peak when Jan De Bont, the director of Speed (and then Twister and Speed 2) erased the graffiti from his real L.A. locations in order to make them look more like people's TV-bred dreams. Leaving movies like these prepares you for nothing more than a ramble down to the video arcade or the high-tech burrito outlet. The heroes and heroines of our mass-audience movies work in chic cool metallic locations and reside in cushy digs in outlying areas of Portland/Seattle/ San Francisco/ Boston/Chicago/ D.C./Greater New York/Greater Los Angeles. If they live in center city, it's in neighborhoods devoid of homeless people or racial tensions, but full of crises that culminate in men with worried expressions running away from billowing fireballs. Good and bad guys fit neatly into these locations — nary a square peg scrapes against a round hole. The men are daredevils or nebbishes or corporate schemers or psychopaths. The women are those, and devils, too. (The children are fonts of wisdom or nasty manipulators.) The adults put up with the emotional blackmail of the kids; the kids put up with the whining of twenty- and thirtysomethings and the smugness of forty- and fiftysomethings. Mostly, the characters' concerns are limited to physical or spiritual middle-aged spread (on the one hand) or growing pains (on the other). Then one day they find themselves threatened or kidnapped by terrorists, bomb freaks, disgruntled ex-cops, or hit men. Some discover that their gym work and professional maneuvering, or their youthful vigor and freshness, make them veritable swashbucklers, able to overcome the scheming of Dennis Hopper, John Malkovich, or Steve Buscemi. Some face the deep-rooted flaws — addiction or emotional dependence or cowardice — that are usually hidden by a comfy lifestyle. Those who die are escorted to heaven by guardian angels.

With few exceptions, 1997 movies have barreled into a creative cul-de-sac. In the vain attempt to conjure snob and slob appeal, filmmakers gear their narratives to function both as hyperactive dramas and self-parody. The result isn't that audiences segue from laughs to gasps, as they do at multilayered films from Scarface to Bonnie and Clyde to Devil in a Blue Dress and the new L.A. Confidential; it's that half the audience giggles and the other half, ignoring the chortling, cheers. Con Air has a particularly ridiculous premise: An honorable soldier gets a hefty prison term for defending himself against a man who'd pawed his wife and was leading a whole gang of attackers. Don't buy it? There's nothing to do but snort and go along for the ride. At one time, the desperation of that Con Air gambit would have been considered too low-rent for an A-budget picture. Not anymore. Once they get through studio committees and rewrite teams, scripts are no longer tissues of emotion and incident but adrenalin flowcharts.

In general, the stories are either as rudimentary as the people-against-the-elements plot of the movie Twister or as knotted up as the bodies in a game of Twister. The horror-movie “Gotcha!” that De Palma mastered in Carrie (1975) — giving the audience one last jolt after the action appeared over — has crept into all genres, whether it works or not. An accomplished and underrated action romance like Conspiracy Theory (by far my favorite summer movie) will loop-the-loop once or twice too often, while a comic special-effects show like Men in Black (which at least had a few laughs) careens from playfulness to arbitrary absurdity.

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. [page]

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. [page]

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. [page]

IV. Hollywood's Two Ages of Man
In American movies — as in malls — kids rule. In the “All the world's a stage” speech from As You Like It, Shakespeare posited seven ages of man. Hollywood sticks to two: man in his youth, and in his fighting prime. (As a result, 30-ish stars will play male ingenues, and 50-ish stars will play action heroes.) That's due both to our culture's obsession with youth and to our longtime national identity crisis. Legions of movies besides Face/Off have depicted people who get confused about who they are, ranging from last year's Oscar winner The English Patient (the hero forgot he helped the Nazis) to a number of comedies, such as the Steve Martin-Goldie Hawn vehicle HouseSitter, the Dana Carvey vehicle Clean Slate, and the Michael Keaton vehicle Multiplicity. A hero or heroine flailing around for a code of values and core emotions has become a dominant Hollywood motif, reflecting everything from overwork, stress, and proactive drugs to the deterioration of institutions (church, school, family) that used to help the self define itself. Of the farces, only the hit Groundhog Day proved rounded and satisfying; Bill Murray used the curse of continuously reliving the title holiday to fill in the intangibles of his personality. Of the dramas, only the little-seen indie Suture confronted the conundrum of humanhood head-on. The S.F.-based writer/producer/directors, Scott McGehee and David Siegel, a pair of deadpan wiseacres, cast Dennis Haysbert, a solidly built African-American, as a man who is constantly said to look exactly like his half-brother — played by Michael Harris, a svelte Caucasian. When Harris rigs an accident that results in Haysbert taking on his identity, the casting becomes an avant-garde ploy with punch. It pivots on questions of what constitutes identity — the internal stuff of life or the external components of race, wealth, and status. By contrast, the campy identity catastrophes in Face/Off amount to Cage/Travolta leering at Travolta/Cage's daughter and bedding down with his wife.

Since Hollywood moviemakers can't imagine what normality means to an individual man or woman, they're completely lost when it comes to concocting plausible scenarios for love and marriage. At the climax of the most acclaimed American comedy of 1996, the saccharine Jerry Maguire, Tom Cruise barges into his estranged wife's house and spouts off a speech that's supposed to show he's changed his life — and she says, “You had me at hello.” You had me at hello? That's a line an executive gives a writer at the end of a successful pitch meeting, not one that a wife gives her spouse at their moment of rapprochement.

It's commonplace to say that the sexual revolution killed movie romance. And it's true that to cook up a specific kind of erotic souffle, sex must be delayed for a span that goes beyond contemporary expectations; the art-house success of the uniformly mediocre Jane Austen adaptations depends on their delayed-gratification plots. But the history of film is studded with movies that manage to be frank and funny and swoony, from Trouble in Paradise to Shampoo to Henry & June. Contemporary filmmakers should be figuring out how to create new kinds of comedy from the ways coupling, courtship, and commitment get all mixed up (the way Ron Shelton does in Bull Durham and Tin Cup); instead, they go traditional and end up tying themselves into knots. Last year's likable fizzle One Fine Day tried so hard to express the tensions of single working mothers and every-other-weekend dads (even those who look like Michelle Pfeiffer and George Clooney) that frenzy overtook amorous feeling. When Julia Roberts attempts to undermine a rival by e-mail in My Best Friend's Wedding, or Jennifer Aniston concocts an entire false history (that comes true) in Picture Perfect, the filmmakers spend their time delaying gratification — sometimes indefinitely. Their movies are all interruptus, no coitus.

While filmmakers celebrate family life, they remain transparently ambivalent about it. Building a home in the movies these days involves some form of emotional extortion, especially in the post-Home Alone kids movies that focus on prepubescents taking charge of their world. You'd think nothing could be more universal than Shakespeare's babe “mewling and puking in the nurse's arms,” but in recent family fare infants don't mewl or puke.

Moviemakers are afraid to put anyone aged 6 months to 21 — including Shakespeare's “whining schoolboy, with his satchel and shining morning face, creeping like snail unwillingly to school” — in the position of having to learn anything. In a whole string of '90s teacher films — Renaissance Man (Danny DeVito vs. raw Army recruits), Dangerous Minds (Michelle Pfeiffer vs. raw Bay Area kids), 187 (Samuel L. Jackson vs. raw New York and L.A. kids), even the disreputable and entertaining The Substitute (Tom Berenger vs. raw Miami kids) — students can be moved or inspired or, in extreme cases, warred on, but never taught the essentials of mental discipline or critical thinking.

Shakespeare's soldier, “jealous in honor and quick in guard,” resonates intermittently today. If in the Reagan-Bush era mainstream film culture was largely about combat heroism, in the Clinton era moviemakers aren't so sure. True Lies adopted the Gulf War strategy — massive firepower, limited target — but tried to put a hip spin on it when Jamie Lee Curtis said of Schwarzenegger, “I married Rambo.” Courage Under Fire, a teary-eyed 1996 movie about the Gulf War, derives its occasional moments of power from an up-close, non-CNN view of the ground war and a critique of military justice and protocol. By and large, soldiers “full of strange oaths and bearded” have disappeared. The most popular espionage hero appears to be either Harrison Ford's version of Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan in Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, or Harrison Ford's version of the president in Air Force One. His look of WASP angst seals his image as an all-American paterfamilias — but it doesn't prevent him from pulling off more preposterous derring-do than Rambo. [page]

The main attitude toward the military in the Clinton movie era could be characterized as grudging respect. In Renaissance Man, for example, Danny DeVito's one-time peacenik grows to see the use and beauty of military fitness. Proving one's manhood by rising through the ranks of the nation's military or police forces is still a prerequisite for superstardom — proving one's womanhood, too, if G.I. Jane starts a trend. Of course, in G.I. Jane, Demi Moore seems determined to prove that womanhood is indistinguishable from manhood; the rabble-rousing line comes when she screams at her homicidally sadistic drillmaster, “Suck my dick!”

As for older adults — those who in Shakespeare wear “spectacles on nose and pouch on side” before entering “second childishness and mere oblivion/ sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything” — well, in American movies you don't see many older adults. That is, unless they're played by Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau as septuagenarian adolescents successfully wooing younger beauties like Ann-Margret or Sophia Loren or Dyan Cannon.

The most incomprehensible aspect of Hollywood's Ages of Man is that there are no links between them. One stage doesn't grow out of or into another; you rarely see how the dewy-eyed juvenile evolves into the can-do veteran. That's why the quirky, vulnerable Forrest Gump, with his 75 IQ and superb athletic talent, is the hero of our time — he's simultaneously a good child and good soldier. Tom Hanks is one of the few non-action box office draws who can launch a movie with the clout of a Harrison Ford. But in Forrest Gump, the quintessential '90s movie, he is a sort of action hero — a speedster who wins a Medal of Honor. He even goes through an obligatory action scene, running with a look of anguish on his face as fireballs go off behind him — just like Keanu Reeves in Chain Reaction. Gump epitomizes the fantasy image of an American as an innately right being. He's racially color blind, non-sexist, and courtly: His true love is also his best friend, Jennie (Robin Wright). Even his military heroism is non-threatening — he saves men in his unit from American napalm as well as the Viet Cong.

In Winston Groom's much-maligned but refreshingly ungroomed novel, Forrest is a runaway character whose odd assortment of capabilities — including an idiot savant's grasp of mathematical formulas, and facilities for harmonica-playing, pingpong, and chess — lands him everywhere from the All-America football team to a remake of Creature From the Black Lagoon. The moviemakers whittle down these larger-than-life attributes to swiftness and strength. In the process, they transform Groom's novel from a satiric celebration of good ole American eclecticism — the tall tale of a Huck Finn with a space-age hard-on — into an all-too-poignant plea for righteous behavior and Zemeckis' weepy brand of closure.

At the start, the filmmakers take an evenhanded parodic stance toward Forrest's mentally semichallenged standing — what makes him a first-class soldier is his dependence on his mother's hand-me-down wisdom and easily understandable rules. After he lands in Vietnam, the filmmakers begin to accentuate the patriotic and put Forrest on a pedestal. In the book, Gump scores with student protesters when he calls the war “a bunch of shit,” but in the movie, a loudspeaker snafu silences him. Zemeckis depicts the counterculture as a behavioral sink, and the American masses as an indistinguishable herd — a point driven home when Gump, down in the dumps, starts running, and inadvertently touches off the jogging craze. Gump may be a democratic character, but he's locked into the center of an anti-democratic movie. Much of the way through Tom Hanks, a master of eccentric timing, conjures a steady stream of tragicomic flourishes. But when Gump's adventures halt, Forrest becomes a caricature of the bland American doggedness '40s film critic Robert Warshow brilliantly described: “The 'affirmation' of practical people who have accepted the burdens of their lives, however narrowly they may conceive them, and expecting no final victory or full satisfaction, are still unable to believe in the possibility of defeat, if only because a certain stupidity makes them incapable of imagining a threat to their inner selves.”

V. Myths, Soap, and Prozac
Just as malls are designed to propel shoppers around an array of stores en route to their entrance or exit, Hollywood has devised strategies that make audiences think they're sharing new experiences while they're being led right back to where they started. You can divide studio movies into four basic types:

Prozac Movies (The Lost World, Con Air):
Flimsy back story
Frenzied motion
Ad hoc relationships
No emotion
Flat characters.

Myth Movies (Disney cartoons, Contact):
Way back story
Ritual motion
Predetermined relationships
Static emotion
Circular characters.

Biodegradable Soap Operas (Forrest Gump, New Age romantic comedies):
Continuing story
Treadmill motion
Poignant relationships
Ersatz emotion
Recurring characters.

Sugarcoated Serials (Batman & Robin):
Repeated story
Going-through motions
Installment-plan relationships
Big-star emotion
Identical characters.

In 1989, before doctors routinely talked of drugs as character-building devices, I first heard of Prozac at a dinner in Beverly Hills. Every movie person at the table was on it. At the time I chalked it up to their need to stay on the psychopharmacological new frontier. But I wonder. The movie business runs on anxiety, but usually it's been alloyed with something else, whether counterculture chic, wretched excess, or good old-fashioned glamour-lust. In the '90s, the anxiety is naked and upfront. Creating blockbusters both inspires anxiety and relieves it. Nervous execs reduce everything to sentimentality and adrenalin, and viewers conditioned to accept that mixture lap it up. Post-Speed action movies operate on a mass audience much like Prozac (and shopping malls) does on some individuals: They provide a feeling of mastery over a tense existence. [page]

Because of the subsequent success of De Bont's Twister and the flop of his Speed 2, Speed is often treated as a paradigm of action moviemaking. Looking back on it, what's astonishing is how completely De Bont eliminates not just “back story” but emotion, individuality, and even morality from his story line and characters. In Listening to Prozac the drug's Boswell, Peter D. Kramer, reports that a couple of patients experienced “the numbing of moral sensibility” — a malady that also afflicts Speed and movies like it. Speed's makers are sure to establish good and evil in monolithic terms — the audience never doubts whom to root for. Still, every now and then the movie's ethical control mechanism goes bonkers. In the final climax, Reeves and his right-hand gal, Sandra Bullock, are hellbent for oblivion on a runaway subway. His colleagues warn him that he and Bullock are heading toward the unfinished end of the line — but that message doesn't reach the construction workers who, minutes later, must scurry out of the way. Great action directors thrive on the dramatic possibilities of moral complications. Compared to Speed, Jaws, the father of summer action blockbusters, is like Moby Dick and All the President's Men rolled into one. Part of what gave Spielberg's sea adventure its sense of jeopardy was the political cover-up back on land. Today's action experts ruthlessly seek the escalating motion of a three-stage rocket. (A movie like Air Force One splits into three acts with raw calculation.) If viewers can't wait to be steamrollered by films like Speed and Air Force One, if the market seems able to bear one more robotic thrill-ride after another, it's because the rides have no aftereffect. When the ride is over, it's over — to repeat the dose, you either buy another ticket or find another whirligig.

VI. The False Hope of Indie-Land
Of course, “independent” film companies have done such a sterling PR job that many art-minded consumers consider them a burgeoning alternative to the studios. Unfortunately, the hottest “indies” are in reality attached to the studios. The most notorious example is Miramax, an autonomous subsidiary of Disney that has begun to act like Disney — dumping iffy commercial propositions (like Charles Burnett's The Glass Shield) in favor of sure things, building empires with its own “genre” subsidiary (Dimension Films) and publishing imprint (Miramax Books), achieving market domination through force of numbers. In addition, Miramax has become an aesthetic fat farm for Hollywood stars, rescuing John Travolta from oblivion in Pulp Fiction, helping Bruce Willis retain his credibility in the same film, and, with the pedestrian Cop Land, manufacturing a “comeback” for Sylvester Stallone by having him gain weight and play a lonesome, woebegone sheriff — a cross between Gary Cooper in High Noon and Ernest Borgnine in Marty.

In cities like New York and San Francisco, Miramax specials like Shall We Dance? win enormous coverage and review space, get adopted by the chattering classes, and settle in for long runs. But in the rest of America, including Eastern cities like Hartford or Philadelphia, these movies occupy the same marginal niche as A&E and Bravo do in broadcasting. (Fox Searchlight's shameless crowd-pleaser The Full Monty seems to be the exception, a breakout hit.) Even with the commercialization of the art house and indie market, financially successful indie films generally penetrate the tiniest portion of the potential American viewership. Apart from the star-laden, heavily promoted Cop Land and the horror movie Mimic, the reigning indie hit of 1997 is Chasing Amy, which grossed all of $12 million. Speed 2, a notorious studio flop, grossed four times as much.

Artistically, the indie world has generated its own tired reflexes. The homey regionalism of Victor Nunez's Ulee's Gold may provide momentary relief from studio blandness, but it rapidly comes to seem a pretty wan end in itself. And I don't know what's worse — the “You'll laugh, you'll cry” come-on of studio films from Ghost to Jerry Maguire or the “You'll fidget, you'll snicker” guarantee of indie hits from Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction to Fargo and Neil Labute's In the Company of Men. Studio filmmakers sell schmaltz and jolts or wisecracks; indie filmmakers sell attitude and jolts or wisecracks. And the very biggest indie hits (The English Patient, The Crying Game) combine poetic ambition with old-fashioned sap.

VII. A Commodity Culture
As we approach the season when the studios start unveiling their “serious” efforts, it's good to remember that back-to-school and winter-holiday films are just the Oscar-decorated frosting on Hollywood's annual Christmas fruitcake. For three-quarters of the year, the pursuit of box office success dignifies everything, whether the making of sequels, or movies derived from TV series, or sequels of movies derived from TV series.

If the studios' emphasis on blockbusters escalates in the summer, it's rife in the media year-round. The industry segments of shows like Entertainment Tonight and CNN's Showbiz Today and magazines like Premiere and Entertainment Weekly try to persuade fans that the manufacturing of blockbusters is good sport, even if the one thing it shares with competitive sports is definable losers and winners. That's why it galvanizes journalists, producers, and editors with no artistic judgment or curiosity. This quantitative approach to movies — according to weekly grosses, and average take by theater, and ratio of rentals to budget, and all the other value-free categories we've grown to assimilate over the last 15 years — appeals to executives who have no other resource to measure worthiness.

It's become fashionable for non-movie pundits to sneer at filmmakers and film critics for decrying Hollywood's treatment of movies as “product.” The latest is Slate columnist James Surowiecki, who blithely trundles out the tired analysis that “the glory days of classic Hollywood cinema were precisely the days when the studios were most run like factories churning out a product.” The original moguls were formidable catalysts because they understood their studios' output both as product and as mass entertainment. Surowiecki uses vintage series like the Andy Hardy pictures and Abbott and Costello comedies as analogies to $100 million Batman sequels. That, of course, is insane. Not only were those old movies unpretentious and inexpensive, they also did their bit to answer the audience's need to see defining images of America, whether small-town or metropolitan. They weren't just promotional films for gift-shop mementos of themselves, and they didn't serve as sleek advertising backdrops for other products from Ray-Ban sunglasses to McDonald's. [page]

Moviemaking has always been a matter of putting twists on formulas. (Critics refer to old formulas as “genres.”) But in better times, moviegoers did get variations instead of recapitulations. At no period has it been less of a deal to guess what an “adventure” or a “comedy” or a “fantasy” will look like. Marketing in the '90s does more than pave the way for movies — it turns them into pieces of a Pavlovian purchasing system.

Unless filmmakers and moviegoers revolt, the image Americans will project to each other and the world will continue to be that of a bloated consumer. The quote at the beginning of this article was actually an answer to a question: It's from an essay called “What Is an American?” With wholehearted optimism, De Crevecoeur dubbed us, “The western pilgrims, who are carrying along with them that great mass of arts, sciences, vigour, and industry which began long since in the east; they will finish the great circle.” In the 21st century “the great circle” may turn out to be Flat City: an endlessly restocked mall stretching all the way to the horizon.

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