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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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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.

About The Author

Michael Sragow

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