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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

Page 6 of 7

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.

About The Author

Michael Sragow


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