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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
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.

About The Author

Michael Sragow


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